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Posted: Tuesday August 12, 2008 11:34AM; Updated: Thursday August 14, 2008 11:56AM
David Epstein David Epstein >
INSIDE OLYMPIC BOXING

Body blow to U.S. boxing (cont.)

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First Arab-American bows out

Sadam Ali, the first Arab-American boxer to compete in the Olympics, began his amateur boxing career with tears, and likely ended it with tears on Monday night, when he lost 20-5 in the opening round to Romania's Georgian Popescu.

Ali, born and raised in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn -- he's the first Olympic boxer from New York City since Riddick Bowe in 1988 -- was 8 years old when he stepped into the ring for the first time. He was fighting a kid who was a little bit older, and more experienced, and he cried the whole way as he took his lumps. He cried through the rounds, and he cried in the corner.

Afterward, an official from USA Boxing approached Sadam's father, David, who immigrated from Yemen in 1978 when he was 11. The official told David Ali that it was the first time he'd seen a kid cry for three straight rounds but continue coming out of the corner. "I think he'll quit," the man told David. "But if he doesn't, if he comes back, he'll be one of the best."

And come back he did. Ali, now 19, beat the same kid six months later in Brooklyn's legendary Gleason's Gym. And last year, at the U.S. Olympic trials, he confirmed that boxing official's premonition and booked his ticket as the U.S. lightweight representative in Beijing.

At the opening bell of his Olympic bout, both Ali and the southpaw Popescu looked a bit nervous, hopping from toe to toe, but they settled into a close first round. In the ensuing rounds, Ali appeared to "fall back into some bad habits we thought we broke," according to Campbell, as he got away from using clever angles, and began moving straight forward and back against a fighter with a longer reach. Popescu took advantage by continuously shoving Ali back into the ropes and scoring while Ali was stuck in front of him.

Before each of the final two rounds, David Ali stood up in his fourth-row seat and implored his son to go after the Georgian, knowing Popescu would begin fighting defensively to protect his big lead. But Popescu was adept at backpedaling for nearly the entire final round, keeping Ali scoreless in the fourth.

After the fight, Ali did his best to hold back the swell of tears, but couldn't entirely quell his emotions. He waged as courageous and classy a battle as any in the ring, as he composed himself to take questions from a gaggle of reporters. He was honest about his performance.

"I was leaning over too much with my punches," he said. And with each personal question, you could see the fight again playing out in his eyes. What if you had won? "I had friends and family who were going to come if I went farther. I'm sorry to everyone back home." And what about your Dad? "I love my dad to death."

Just before the first "Ali" to fight for the United States at the Olympics -- that other guy was Cassius when he won gold in 1960 -- walked off down the long hall, he said, calmly, "This isn't the last of me. I'm going to show everybody who I really am."

Little did he know that he just did.

 
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