In recent years, Iron Curtain countries had dominated amateur boxing. Since 1952, when the Communists first became seriously involved in the Olympics, their fighters had won 98 medals, including 30 gold. In that span the Russians won 34. Since 1968 the Russian-taught Cubans had taken seven.
Elected national AAU boxing chairman four years ago, Schwartz, the team manager, began setting up an ambush. Historically, American fighters had never fought more than two international matches a year. More often they fought none. What the U.S. fighters were going to get, Schwartz ruled, was a dose of tough experience. Last year he scheduled 33 international matches against the hardiest foes he could find. Nine matches, for example, were with the Russians; four each with Poland and West Germany; three with Hungary.
"To beat that Eastern European bloc we had to fight them often," said Schwartz, an ex-Army major and the first U.S. referee to qualify for international boxing. "We had to learn their styles and how to cope."
As a stratagem to hide the U.S. strength, Schwartz under-gunned his teams, giving them no more than four or five quality boxers at any one time. The rest were less talented fighters gaining experience from their defeats.
"It was the old shell game," Schwartz said. "We let them stay cocky."
From there, Nappi and Johnson, both ex-career Army men, took over. The coach of the Army boxing team since 1953, Nappi, a short-lived amateur fighter, has been teaching soldiers to box since 1940. He retired in 1962 as a master sergeant, but has been going back to coach the always strong Army team every year. A retired first sergeant, Johnson is now a boxing coach in the Job Corps at Indianapolis. As a ring technician, Nappi says, Johnson has no peer.
"We knew what we were up against—maturity and experience," said Nappi. "Our kids would be outexperienced 10 to one. When a man becomes a champion in an Iron Curtain country you can bet he's good. Look at Russia. The last time I was there, in 1971, they had 480,000 amateur fighters. We had 10,000. We knew how to beat that advantage. And we knew how to beat their styles."
Nappi knew, for instance, that European-style boxers—and that includes the Cubans—cannot fight going backward. Retreat turns them helpless.
"What they do best," said Nappi, "is drive straight ahead, pressing our kids into a corner or against the ropes and then using their vast maturity against them. Our kids simply aren't experienced enough to stay in very long against that. That's why we've never done well."
The Eastern European fighters also move with one foot far in advance and most of the weight on the rear foot, gaining power but reducing mobility almost to nil. And when they punch, it is often to the temple area. Unlike the Cubans, who hook with gusto, Iron Curtain fighters seldom stray from jabs, uppercuts and straight right hands.