Cubans leave U.S. boxers on the ropes Reeling team to settle for only three medals


BARCELONA, Spain -- So much for the U.S. boxing team as an Olympic dynasty. Things changed dramatically at these Games, thanks to the return of Cuba.

With the two nations meeting in the Olympics for the first time since 1976, the medal count already reflects a shift in the balance of power.

Boxing awards two bronzes, so the completion of the quarterfinals yesterday determined the medal winners in all 12 weight classes.

Cuba will finish with nine medals.

The United States, just three.

It is the worst Olympic performance by an American boxing team since 1956. That group also earned only three medals -- two golds and a silver.

Meanwhile, only three Cuban fighters have been eliminated, and yesterday super-heavyweight Roberto Belardo became the second to outpoint an American, defeating Larry Donald, 10-4.

The day was an intense disappointment for the U.S. team, with only flyweight Tim Austin joining lightweight Oscar de la Hoya and middleweight Chris Byrd as definite bronze medalists.

Donald, light-middleweight Raul Marquez and light-heavyweight Montell Griffin were defeated in their quarterfinal bouts. Marquez lost to the Netherlands' Orhan Delibas, 16-12, after taking a 5-2 lead in the first round. And Griffin lost on a referee's controversial head-ducking call that cost him three points in a 6-4 defeat.

The 5-foot-7 Griffin raced out of the ring in disbelief, shocked that he was called for ducking against an opponent nine inches taller -- world champion Torsten May of Germany.

Argentine referee Osvaldo Bisbal assessed the penalty with 1 minute, 7 seconds left in the third and final round. Griffin had opened a one-inch cut over May's right eye one minute earlier, but after a doctor's examination, Bisbal refused to stop the fight.

The bout was the last of the day for the United States, and it reflected the frustration the team has encountered at these Games. Medal favorite Eric Griffin lost a controversial decision earlier under the new computerized Olympic scoring system.

U.S. coach Joe Byrd said he expected the team to win nine medals at the start of the competition. But that goal proved unrealistic against a field including not only Cuba, but the Unified Team and most of the former Eastern bloc.

"The Cubans didn't hurt us, the other countries did," Byrd said. "I was hoping the other countries would help us against Cuba, but that didn't happen. It's going to be the world against Cuba."

Look out, world.

The Cubans are 30-3 overall entering the boxing semifinals tomorrow and Friday. They've outscored their opponents, 318-120, with nine fights ending by referee's decision and one by knockout.

The Cubans don't turn professional, so competition for spots on the national team is fierce. Six of their 12 boxers here didn't even fight in the 1991 Pan Am Games.

The U.S. team, meanwhile, is considered less talented than the 1988 group that won eight medals and the '84 squad that won 11. Of course, Cuba boycotted both those Olympics, and none of the Eastern-bloc nations competed in '84.

"The Cubans come here to box, the USA team most of all," said Austin, who next faces Cuba's Raul Gonzalez, a 24-7 winner yesterday over David Serradas of Venezuela. "We're ready to box them, too.

"I told Larry Donald, 'You've got to want to box the Cubans because they're going to be there. You've got to be ready. When you get in there, you can't be, like, 'This guy is going to beat me.' "

But Donald, a flamboyant 220-pounder who writes poetry and fancies himself the new Muhammad Ali, didn't follow his teammate's advice. Instead, he lost to a fighter he edged, 16-14, in a five-round bout in Tampa four months ago.

Donald trailed, 8-3, after two rounds, but claimed he didn't know the score entering the third. He also fought with an injured right hand, and the quicker Belardo darted in and out, scoring almost at will.

Undaunted, Donald said, "I predict I'll be the heavyweight champion in '94, and a whole lot more. If they think they're slick, and try to hold me off to '96, they're in a tremendous fix."

Austin didn't rhyme as well as Donald, but he fought better, routing Tanzania's Benjamin Mwangata, 19-8. He now must beat Gonzales and probably defending world champion Istvan Kovacs of Hungary, but he sounds utterly confident.

"I can feel the gold around my neck," he said.

As for the rest of the U.S. team's performance, "It's a big disappointment," Byrd said. "If we come out with two golds and one silver, I'd still be happy. But we've still got a tough road."

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