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Finally, sport with a little punch to it


SYDNEY, Australia - The doors close, the house lights go down and another fight card revs up at the Sydney Convention Centre. You're at boxing, the last refuge for guys at the Summer Olympics.

Not guys as in the entire male species. Just, you know, guys.

The kind who don't want to watch gymnastics or women's soccer and would rather eat a bad hamburger than watch men's field hockey or women's weightlifting.

The kind who used to follow the Summer Games until they got all mushy on TV.

The Olympics aren't for them anymore. They're the most unfortunate of creatures in the media age, a dated demographic.

And the feeling is mutual, frankly. You can hear the guys grumbling: "Synchronized this, rhythmic that, beach volleyball, uneven bars, softball, sailing, women's judo - to the moon with it all, Alice!"

But then you step into the boxing venue, smell the sweat, listen to the pounding, and you're back in the old days, suddenly. Back where the guys are.

Back where there's no appreciation for "the diminutive genius on the balance beam," and no tolerance for that "up close and personal" malarkey.

The stands are two-thirds full with a lot of guys in sweat suits who would call women "dames" if they weren't from Turkey or Kazakhstan or wherever. It's a good crowd to avoid issues with, if you get the idea. They just want to see heads roll. Rap and rock music blares on the PA system. Boxers enter the ring in pairs, pound on each other and leave.

The place should be thick with cigar and cigarette smoke, but it's a non-smoking facility, which says it all about what's happened to Olympic boxing, so everyone is just a little testy. Including the fighters.

U.S. flyweight Jose Navarro rallies in the final round to win on points, and his opponent from Morocco is stunned and devastated when the referee raises Navarro's hand. The Moroccan drops to the floor and begins wailing and pounding the canvas, as if he were a soap opera star in a death scene. His coach rushes over to a battery of Moroccan TV crews and begins gesturing wildly. Obviously feeling robbed.

"Whatever," shrugs Navarro, a 19-year-old from Los Angeles. "I won the fight fair."

Such judging controversies are one reason boxing fell off the Olympic radar after peaking in the '60s and '70s. Too many viewers saw too much uncleanliness, the wrong fighter winning too often. Evander Holyfield knocked a guy out and lost in 1984. In the worst example, a South Korean somehow stole a gold medal after getting battered by Roy Jones in 1988 in Seoul, South Korea.

After a while, you lose trust and stop watching.

It also hurt that pro boxing became an off-putting cartoon with Don King and Mike Tyson running around, and that the Olympics were opened up to high-profile pros in other sports, such as basketball and tennis, and that Olympic TV producers decided to target female viewers, and that the International Olympic Committee started adding made-for-TV semi-sports, such as beach volleyball, to fill 17 days of programming.

What's a guy to do?

"They hardly showed any of the boxing on TV from the Atlanta Games in 1996," U.S. boxing coach Tom Mustin said yesterday. "I couldn't begin to tell you why. But it's going to turn around this year, or so I'm told."

Maybe, maybe not. American viewers love winners, and the U.S. team is faring well in Sydney with a 17-5 record and boxers advancing to the quarterfinals in seven weight classes.

The U.S. team started so well, with nine straight wins, that the fight fans started booing the Americans - and haven't stopped.

"Maybe that will get us on TV back home," Mustin says. "That should stir some old-fashioned American passion."

But know this: If NBC has to choose between showing a few minutes of a welterweight quarterfinal or a few minutes of sun and skin from beach volleyball, what do you think it is going to show?

But NBC is wrong and the guys are right on this one. Nothing against beach volleyball, but boxing is the real deal at the Olympics, as opposed to some of the other sports. No ribbons, no fluff, just straight-ahead competition with a lot of passion and theater and excellence. There are no promoters around, and the boxers wear headgear to keep from getting hurt, and it's all good except for the occasional judging fiasco, which is just a given, like a deductible on an insurance policy.

Otherwise, it's consistently good viewing.

When U.S. light-welterweight Ricardo Williams takes on a Nigerian who lacks the requisite skill to make the fight close, the Nigerian inexplicably spends the first two rounds dancing and preening and mocking Williams, as if he were Muhammad Ali.

When the referee finally stops the fight with Williams ahead on points 20-1, the Nigerian opens his mouth in wonderment and lifts his arms, as if to say, "How could life be so unfair?" The crowd cheers him and boos Williams leaving the ring.

"That guy was trying to mess me up in the head," Williams says.

Next up, a South Korean and a Russian. Later on, light heavyweights from Ukraine and Ghana, then Indonesia and South Africa.

Rumbles up.

The guys are loving it.

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