Give credit to the myopic TV programmers, the classless coaches, the hapless judges and the absolutely friendless scoring system. Credit the sharky promoters who cruised the floor of Alexander Memorial Coliseum in Atlanta, and—just so he doesn't feel left out—credit Snipin' Joe Frazier. Credit overhyped American light heavyweight Antonio Tarver, who allowed himself to get fat and, when it mattered most, stupid. Credit all those whose colliding self-interest nearly combined to kill boxing as an Olympic sport.
How close was it? Let's just say they had the knife on the neck. For the first 16 days of the Atlanta Games, the sport that produced magic in Rome, in Mexico City and in Montreal had all the cachet of a Gomer Pyle rerun. NBC shunted boxing highlights into a late-night ghetto, while the Games' power brokers seemed to trot out Muhammad Ali at every venue except the one that needed him most. There was Ali lighting the torch, mixing at the Athletes' Village, meeting Monica Seles; there was Ali the night before the Games ended, receiving a replica of his lost 1960 gold medal—at a Dream Team game. "Why was that done on a basketball court?" asked USA Boxing president Jerry Dusenberry at Alexander Coliseum. "Why wasn't it done here?"
Dusenberry's anger was telling: When your most sought-after athlete hasn't competed in 16 years, something has gone wrong. In Atlanta, Ali served as the sport's perfect symbol—all glorious past and shaky present—and by Sunday's last gold medal bouts, international boxing had endured its most humiliating fortnight. Yes, a Tongan super heavyweight, Paea Wolfgramm, who describes his real job as "clerk, mild-mannered clerk," emerged as a saving grace. But most of the subplots were disheartening: A U.S. judge resigned in protest over the scoring, the Cuban team refused to speak to the press because of recent defections, and U.S. coach Al Mitchell's boxers were just one loss from their worst performance in 48 years. And this time few observers seemed to care. On Sunday, Ali entered the boxing building for the first time and got his thunderous due. But it all seemed too little, too late.
Certainly a first look at the last U.S. fighter didn't offer much hope: There was unheralded light middleweight David Reid, chasing top-ranked Alfredo Duvergel of Cuba around the canvas. Reid's right eye was scraped and swollen from the Cuban's slicing jabs. And there was Duvergel, dancing in and out, cuffing Reid into the ropes, leading 15-5 after two rounds and sailing toward Cuba's fifth gold medal. Reid lunged after Duvergel, trying to draw him into a rumble, and right then U.S. assistant coach Jesse Ravelo, a Cuban expatriate and an expert on his former team, saw something he couldn't believe. Instead of running away and protecting his lead, Duvergel was wading in. And just as Ravelo thought What the hell is he doing? Duvergel opened up his guard like a party invitation, and Reid drove his right fist down into the Cuban's face.
Duvergel dropped like a sack of stones, fiat on his chest. He tried to get to his feet, wobbling as the referee counted eight. "I was going to try and finish him off," Reid said, "but I saw that he was out. Gone." Reid leaped high. Duvergel started weeping. It was, simply, one of the great comebacks in Olympic history. Only 11 times before had an Olympic boxing final ended in a knockout. And only once, with Reid's crushing hook, did boxing seize center stage in these Games. "People can say all they want, but when that big punch lands, this sport is out in front," Mitchell said.
Reid raced to his corner and hugged Mitchell and his assistant, Pat Burns. Mitchell stunned Reid by saying he loved him. For a decade, ever since Reid walked into Mitchell's variety store on the North Side of Philadelphia at age 10, the two had been close—like family, given the absence of Reid's father. But the 49-year-old Mitchell had never told Reid that he loved him.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Mitchell said of Reid's victory. "For a while it looked like our flag wasn't going to go up, and of all the persons to be there [on the medal stand]...my own son. I started crying. It's hard for me to cry, but tears rolled out my eyes. You couldn't have a happier ending. Dave took this Olympics."
The night before, after Mitchell and Reid had done their laundry and Reid had gone to sleep, Mitchell wandered about. "I couldn't sleep," he said. "So I watched tapes for four or five hours, and I thought about Dave when he was a kid, and all the great times we had."
At first, the relationship was one-way: Mitchell bought Reid shirts and shoes, trained him with a pack of other kids in the gym, sat with Reid for hours to watch film of Sugar Ray Leonard and Sugar Ray Robinson and Joe Louis. Reid would often stay at Mitchell's house. "He took me under his wing," Reid said. "There were five of us, and he'd take us out and buy us things, take us to the movies, come and get us every night to go running. We'd say, "Man, why's this guy putting his time into us? Doesn't he have anything better to do?' " Eventually all the other boys dropped out of boxing. And after Mitchell lost his two kids in a custody battle and was injured in a brutal robbery attempt that left him in a coma for five days and with a plate in his head, he found himself attached to Reid.
"He was special to me," Mitchell said. "When I divorced my first wife, he was with me all the time. He picked me up when I was down."