SYDNEY, Australia - The two best heavyweights in the Olympic boxing competition entered the ring for back-to-back bouts at the end of a long card of fights yesterday afternoon at the Sydney Exhibition Hall.
First, Cuban legend Felix Savon took apart an outclassed Nigerian. Then, Michael Bennett of the United States, the reigning world amateur champion, easily handled a game but aging fighter from Poland.
The next time Savon and Bennett enter the ring, they will enter it together.
A twist of the scheduling fates has dumped the most anticipated fight of the entire Olympic tournament into the second round of the heavyweight draw next Tuesday.
"The fantasy fight would have had us meeting in the finals, but this will have to do," said Bennett, who has never fought Savon. "The road [to the gold medal] was going to go through him at some point, anyway, so we might as well get it on."
Bennett, 27, is the Chicago ex-convict who held up a toy store, learned to fight in prison and won the world amateur title within a year of his release. He is the leader of a U.S. team that has won 13 of 14 fights in Sydney so far, with Dante Craig the only loser at 147 pounds. (David Jackson, a lightweight boxer from Seattle, was eliminated today when he failed to make the 132-pound weight limit.)
"If I can keep these guys focused, we have a chance to do some really good things here," said U.S. boxing coach Tom Mustin.
Savon, 33, is a tall (6 feet 3), loose-limbed, two-time Olympic gold medalist and six-time world champion who has dominated the amateur heavyweight world for more than a decade.
"He's got a good right hand, long arms, the whole package," Mustin said. "It's a great matchup [with Bennett]. I wish it was coming in the later rounds, but we do what we have to do."
The two were scheduled to fight at the most recent world championships in Houston, Tex., in 1999, but the Cubans pulled out of the tournament just before the fight. Bennett was already in the ring and waiting for Savon, in fact, when the Cubans paraded out of the building to protest a judging decision in a prior fight.
Some believe that the timing of the pullout was not coincidental, that the Cubans didn't want Savon to have to face America's rising heavyweight star.
"I guess age has caught up with him a little, as it catches up with all us," Bennett said. "Hopefully, I can capitalize on that."
Savon, as usual, was shielded from the U.S. media by his managers and support staff, and didn't comment.
The strong U.S. showing continued last night with bantamweight Clarence Vinson of Washington, D.C., becoming the first American to win his second bout and advance to the quarterfinals. The U.S. team was still unbeaten at that point, but then Craig was out-pointed by Turkey's Bulent Ulusoy.
"It hurts to be the first one out," Craig said.
But there are still 10 Americans boxing, including strong medal hopefuls such as light-flyweight Brian Viloria, featherweight Rocky Juarez and middleweight Jeff Lacy.
"It's a good team, a strong team, and we have a lot of momentum going," said Bennett, one of a trio of team captains. "Hopefully, we can keep it up, although it won't be easy."
Wojciech Bartnik, Bennett's opponent yesterday, was a sturdy brawler who won the bronze medal at the 1992 Summer Olympics and seemed unafraid of his well-regarded opponent as yesterday's fight began. But he absorbed some early hits and spent the rest of the bout running and clinching.
"I think he got a feel for Michael's power early on, and after that he didn't want to fight," Mustin said.
Bartnik's handlers filed a protest after the match, claiming that Bennett had generated extra power with illegally thick hand wraps inside his gloves. The protest was dismissed in the ring after Bennett's wraps were examined and found to be normal.
What's a boxing competition without some finger-pointing and controversy?
But actually, there has been little controversy so far. Just a solid showing from the Americans.
But now it starts to get tougher and more interesting, with Bennett's fight against Savon leading the way.