De la Hoya controls Bulgarian, beats computer Byrd also advances, but Nicholson falls


BARCELONA, Spain -- Oscar de la Hoya thought his first-round lead would be 20-1.

It was 2-1.

"I guess," he said, "the little zero kind of faded away."

You never know with the new Olympic boxing scoring system, but de la Hoya rallied to clinch at least a bronze medal in the 132-pound division last night, defeating Bulgaria's Dimitrov Tontchev, 16-7.

Chris Byrd, the United States' 165-pound hope, also won his quarterfinal fight, but 201-pound Danell Nicholson found the desperate offense of three-time world champion Felix Savon of Cuba too much and lost, 13-11.

Nicholson wore low-top sneakers in his bout, leading to speculation that he forgot his boxing shoes. U.S. coach Joe Byrd produced the shoes after the fight, and said the sneakers were part of Nicholson's strategy.

As Byrd explained it, sneakers are heavier than boxing shoes. The idea, he said, was to discourage Nicholson from backing away from Savon, and thus force him to fight more aggressively.

Say what?

Only in boxing.

De la Hoya controlled his entire bout, but the five judges operating the computerized scoring system had him leading only 7-6 after two rounds.

The U.S. corner immediately grew suspicious, for its other gold-medal favorite, 106-pounder Eric Griffin, was eliminated in a controversial scoring decision last week.

"After two rounds, I thought they wanted to get me, too," de la Hoya said. "I was worried for a minute. I scored maybe 15 jabs alone in the first round. They were solid. They snapped his head back.

"Seeing just two points, that got me frustrated and mad. The judges don't know what they're doing. I don't know what happened. But I guess in the Olympics, they really don't like the USA."

De la Hoya, however, stuck to his strategy, becoming the "matador" to Tontchev's "little bull." He outpointed Tontchev 9-1 in the third round. It wasn't that lopsided: Apparently the judges were making up for the previous two.

Whatever, de la Hoya will now face Korea's Sun Hong in the semifinals. Byrd, a 21-2 winner over Algeria's Ahmed Dine, will meet Canada's Chris Johnson.

Nicholson, 24, moved and countered well in the first round, making Savon miss often, and built a 4-1 lead. The American led 8-6 after the second round, and U.S. fans were going wild.

Savon, 24, is a champion, however, and he rose to the occasion. He landed several crunching punches, including a right that forced Nicholson to take a standing eight count with 35 seconds left.

Nicholson's gum shield was knocked out of his mouth by the force of Savon's fists.

"No excuses," said Nicholson. "I thought I fought him good. I came up a little short. But I showed people I'm a man."

Nicholson's courageous effort, Byrd said, rallied the U.S. team, which has six boxers still alive in the tournament. The controversy over the Eric Griffin loss Saturday is old news, he said.

"Danell showed us what heart is tonight," Byrd said. "He brought us back together."

Savon improved his career record to 140-9. He has not lost since 1988, but watching from the stands, world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield was not impressed.

"You saw the fight -- he's average," Holyfield said. "He's got a lot of confidence. But as far as his ability, he's just fair. He's the amateur world champion, which is great. But is he great? No. He's just good."

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