LONDON — Just why Muhammad Ali was trotted out to make a cameo appearance at the opening ceremonies remains a mystery that organizers have yet to fully explain. Surely, the sight of the former gold medalist so terribly frozen by Parkinson’s couldn’t have done anything to further the Olympic ideal or help the sport that made him, at one time, perhaps the most famous man on earth.
What could help boxing is an Olympic-sized comeback in the ring. And there’s no better spot than in a country where boxing roots run deep and passions run high.
Sunday night a crowd jammed into the ExCel arena cheered wildly as British lightweight Josh Taylor made his Olympic debut with a first-round win over Robson Conceicao of Brazil. Their enthusiasm wasn’t limited to just the home fighter; they showed appreciation for some surprisingly high-quality first-round bouts.
There’s a sense that boxing has turned the corner, started to dig its way out of the Olympic doghouse and back into respectability. Some rule changes have helped make the fights more entertaining, the decisions less controversial, and the whole process more honest.
A series of scandals that peaked when Roy Jones Jr. was robbed of a gold medal in 1988 – but still somehow was awarded the trophy as best boxer of the Seoul Olympics – nearly got the sport thrown out of the games. It remains under suspicion whenever something seems awry, as evidenced last year when there was a report – quickly dismissed by amateur boxing officials – that Azjerbaijan was promised two gold medals in London in exchange for $9 million.
NBC stopped televising fights for a time, then relegated them to its cable channel. But women are fighting in the Olympics for the first time this year, 79 different countries sent boxers to London, and the capacity crowds at the venue seem to be loving every moment of it.
“When I was elected president of AIBA, I made it very clear: It’s time for change, and we’ve made a lot of reform to make our sport clean, honest, and transparent,” said Wu Ching-Kuo of Taiwan, who has headed the international amateur boxing association since 2006 and recently became a full member of the International Olympic Committee.
That doesn’t mean some of the decisions aren’t still suspect. Judges still tend to favor fighters from countries the judges’ countries have good relations with, the scoring system remains in need of a good fix, and some of the officials remain inept.
Decisions can still surprise, too. One came Sunday night when U.S. lightweight Jose Ramirez appeared to be pulling away in the final round of his fight with Rachid Azzedine of France only to narrowly take a 21-20 first-round win.
His teammate, Errol Spence, followed a few bouts later, making his welterweight Olympic debut with a 16-10 win over Myke Ribeiro de Carvalho of Brazil. That made four wins in four fights for a U.S. team that won just one bronze in Beijing.
A few more nights like this, and NBC may want to get some flag-waving boxers on in prime time.
“I heard my father and mother in the stands yelling for me,” Spence said. “It kept me throwing punches when I got tired.”
Spence’s teammates were also cheering him on from the balcony above, in sharp contrast to the team in Beijing. USA boxing is still so dysfunctional that a new head coach was appointed just a month ago and can’t even be cleared to work the corner. But there’s some promising talent among the 10 male and three female boxers and a feeling they can bring home some medals.
One of those hopefuls is Ramirez, the son of Mexican immigrants who is pursuing a business degree at Fresno State. He’s fought since the age of 8, won his first national tournament at 90 pounds, and now has a handful of sponsors behind him. Lately, Oscar De La Hoya has been pursuing him via Twitter in case he should win a medal and want to turn pro.
Nike is one of his sponsors, and Ramirez fought his first bout in bright yellow shoes that probably glow in the dark.
“Is that the color of medal you want?” asked an apparently color-blind reporter.
“I want gold, but that’s close enough,” the 19-year-old replied.
To return the U.S. to the days when it won boxing gold by the handful, he and his teammates will have to deal with a strong British team, tough Russians and fighters from former Soviet republics, and a Cuban squad that’s rebuilding but always difficult.
It’s early, and a lot could still go wrong in a sport where things always seem to go wrong. But with women fighting for the first time next Sunday, and a sport that seems to finally be getting its act together, this may be boxing’s best run in a long time.
For the excited crowd in London, it wasn’t exactly like watching Ali — known as Cassius Clay when he won the gold in Rome.
But it was a lot better than watching him in the opening ceremonies.