U.S. boxers successful, but not pretty De la Hoya, Byrd gain gold-medal bouts


BARCELONA, Spain -- Joe Byrd can't get a break.

Yesterday amounted to a re- sounding success for his beleaguered U.S. boxing team, but the coach spent most of it fearing for Oscar de la Hoya's neck and his son Chris' body.

Both fighters survived to advance to gold-medal bouts, but not in ways relaxing to Byrd, who is still reeling from the controversial eliminations of two U.S. fighters.

De la Hoya edged a South Korean whose skills appeared better suited for professional wrestling. Chris Byrd dominated a

Canadian, but distressed his father by keeping his hands down the entire fight.

"If they had one of the physicians come out and check my blood pressure, they would have disqualified me," Joe Byrd said after Chris routed Chris Johnson, 17-3.

That fight, however, was nothing compared with de la Hoya's 11-10 lightweight victory over Hong Sung Sik. The South Korean led 4-2 after one round, then spent the rest of the bout trying to put de la Hoya in half-nelsons.

Yugoslav referee Sreten Yabucanin assessed both fighters three-point penalties for holding, but de la Hoya only mirrored his opponent's tactics after tiring late in the third round.

"I didn't get tired of boxing or punching, I got tired of wrestling," de la Hoya said. "It's the first time I've ever wrestled in the ring."

De la Hoya blamed Hong for his "terrible" showing, but knows he must regain his sharpness in tomorrow's final against Germany's Marco Rudolph, who beat him, 17-13, at the 1991 world championships.

Byrd, meanwhile, will face Cuba's Ariel Hernandez, a showdown that should prove equally compelling. In four fights, Hernandez's combined margin of victory is 47-9. Byrd's is 75-15.

RF Indeed, of all the U.S. fighters, Byrd might be the only one whose

style gets rewarded under the new computerized Olympic scoring system. He's the most polished boxer on the team, and perhaps in the entire tournament.

With judges awarding points only for blows that land in designated scoring areas, Byrd overmatches opponents with his quick hands, and is so agile and elusive he slips nearly every blow.

Thus, he can protect himself without raising his hands in the classic boxing style. Yesterday, he taunted Johnson, whispering, You can't hit, Chris." Of course, Joe Byrd kept screaming, "Get your hands up!"

"This is his style," Joe said, sighing. "He's had it ever since he was a little kid. He's just got a rubber waistline that he can stretch in all different types of angles. That's what helps him.

"A lot of people said the same things about Muhammad Ali. He had that foot motion -- you could see his knee slide out -- and Chris has got that waist. I don't know how in the world he can twist so many different ways and keep them missing."

Maybe Byrd should teach a few of his tricks to de la Hoya, in the odd event his teammate meets Hong again. De la Hoya is lucky he fought the South Korean in Barcelona and not Seoul. Otherwise, he might have lost.

Hong, an unorthodox left-hander, baffled de la Hoya in the first round, then started "running and tackling" -- Joe Byrd's words -- in the second. Including the penalty, de la Hoya won that round 6-0. But he still looked uncomfortable.

The third round was more of the same, and when de la Hoya got his own penalty with just nine seconds left, the decision appeared to be in serious question.

"I'm way better than that," de la Hoya said. "I feel bad. I like to feel good about my performance, impress people. After that performance, I was a little shaky for a moment.

"The way he was moving, with his awkward style, his ugly style, I couldn't throw nothing," he said. "I can't explain his style. He has no style."

Not to worry: De la Hoya and Byrd are in the finals, and flyweight Tim Austin can join them today with a victory over Cuba's Raul Sanchez.

Joe Byrd's boxers will finish with the lowest number of Olympic medals by a U.S. team since 1956, but Chris said after the victories yesterday, "You could see the joy in his face."

* The joy, and the wrinkles.

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