As fascinating as the prospect of Mike Tyson set loose in the athletes' village may be, there will, in all likelihood, never be an American boxing Dream Team. Million-dollar basketball players, million-dollar track stars and million-dollar tennis players were here in Sydney. The world's best gymnasts, swimmers and wrestlers were here, and though we cannot easily identify them, so were the titans of badminton, sailing, table tennis and mountain biking. But with some exceptions, the world's best boxers were not—certainly not the best American boxers—because, despite the growing number of professional athletes competing in the Olympics, the IOC still doesn't allow pros to fight in the Games.
That partly explains why on Day 12, U.S. heavyweight Michael Bennett, 29, who only two years ago was finishing a seven-year stint in prison for armed robbery, was taught a big lesson by Cuba's 33-year-old Felix Savon in the most-heralded boxing showdown of these Olympics. "I dug deep and did my professional best," said Bennett after the four-round bout was stopped in the third by the 15-point rule (he was trailing 23-8). "Did my amateur best too."
Funny, isn't it? The sport that would generally be adjudged the one most foul with corruption is the one that still adheres most strongly to the Olympics' amateur premise. Not that there is lofty principle to be found. Boxing maintains its amateur status for reasons other than satisfying the ancient ideals of Greece and Avery Brundage. The IOC doesn't want Olympic boxing tainted by the antics of the pro fight game. Sure, there were better American heavies back home, professional fighters who could've done more credible battle with Savon; but Bennett was—and this is no slam on him—the best amateur that the U.S. team could muster under the rules. But even in the unlikely event that those rules were changed, there are numerous reasons why Team USA would still be an amateur outfit.
Let's first assume that the best U.S. pros could be persuaded to give several weeks of their lives for zero compensation. Sounds absurd, though Venus Williams and Kevin Garnett, among others, have done it. But playing tennis or basketball on alternate days (roughly the Olympic format) is a lot different from boxing on alternate days, even in headgear and pillowy 10-ounce gloves; that grueling format would give pause to any pro thriving in the pay-for-play world. Second, the Olympic draw is a blind one, surely an off-putting prospect for the promising pro boxer, whose career is built upon carefully arranged, ease-up-the-ladder matchups. Bennett may well have been the second-best heavyweight in Sydney—he came in as the world amateur champ, although Cuba had pulled out of the 1999 world championships because of a protest—but his match with Savon came, by (bad) luck of the draw, in the quarterfinals, so he didn't even get to sniff a medal.
Then there's the Olympic scoring system, which most assuredly would scare any big-name pro, especially a knockout artist with a big-punch philosophy. Each scoring punch (be it a quick jab or a chin-jarring uppercut) is assigned one point, which sounds delightfully objective except that scoring punches are themselves subjective. Body punches, which were mostly what Bennett landed on Savon, are frequently overlooked, and there's no reward for effort or the "look" of a round. Bennett, while outclassed, came out hard against Savon and had a good, aggressive first round that, on a pro card, could have left him behind only 10-9. Yet he trailed 7-2 when the horn sounded, putting him one third of the way to the mercy rule.
Finally, unless there's a pro with a publicity death wish, someone with an established record is not going to show up knowing that somebody like Savon is waiting for him. At 6'6", Savon is taller than the other legendary Cuban heavyweight, three-time gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson, so tall that he first intimidates by stepping over the ropes to enter the ring.
Would a more experienced American have fared better against a fighter of Savon's talent? Probably. Will we ever get an answer to that question in Olympic bouts against the mighty Cubans? Probably not.