LAS VEGAS - Emanuel Steward is about ready to begin training the heavyweight champion of the world for his fight with Mike Tyson. First, though, he's going to spend a week trying to find America some new Olympic champions.
The new national coach for U.S. amateur boxers and also the trainer for Lennox Lewis, Steward will be scouting for talent this week as the U.S. national amateur boxing championships take place at Caesars Palace.
If the recent state of the U.S. boxing program is any indication, it may be easier figuring out a way to beat Tyson than grooming Olympic gold medalists.
"I know what I'm up against," Steward said. "There are some real problems here."
Two years after coming home from Sydney with no gold medals, USA Boxing is reaching out to Steward for help in rebuilding America's amateur boxing fortunes.
It's part of a restructuring that includes new leadership in the boxing federation and a renewed commitment to return to the glory days when U.S. boxers dominated in the Olympics.
"The ultimate purpose is to get more medals and be more competitive in the international arena," said Robert Voy, a Las Vegas doctor who is president of USA boxing.
Among the boxers Steward will be watching will be Augusta's Ray Whitfield, the No. 1 ranked amateur in the 106-pound class.
Whitfield, a 20-year-old member of the Augusta Boxing Club, is representing the National Golden Gloves team in the nationals.
More than 250 regional and Armed Forces champions will compete in 12 weight divisions. Preliminary bouts begin today with the finals on Saturday.
Voy, who has been associated with the U.S. program for years, became president after the Sydney Olympics and immediately made his presence felt.
He warned international boxing officials that last year's world championships had to be fair, replaced the association's executive director and spearheaded the hiring of Steward as the first national coach since 1984.
He also moved the national championships from Colorado Springs, Colo., to Las Vegas, where they will get some visibility at Caesars Palace and on national television this week.
"All the other sports have their championships outside Colorado Springs," Voy said. "It's time we get more visibility. People need to see the sport and get to understand it better."
Voy has watched the U.S. program decline for years, with U.S. boxers winning only two gold medals out of 36 available in the last three Olympics. The last time U.S. boxers really had success was in 1988 in Seoul when they won three golds, three silvers and two bronzes.
A decision that went against Roy Jones Jr. in his gold medal match, though, may have been a preview of future international competitions where Americans feel they have not been treated fairly by judges.
Steward says he will help solve that by getting U.S. boxers to fight more in international matches, and to have them spar often with pros to build up their toughness. He took the same approach in 1984 when he handled several amateur fighters who sparred with members of his Kronk professional boxing team in Detroit.
"We've got to have punching power," Steward said. "No more shoeshining, that's what hurts us. In 1984 we had guys boxing and punching."
Steward said the team that goes to the 2004 Olympics in Athens likely will include only one or two boxers from this week's national championships. He said the core of that team could be some of the 16-year-olds now boxing on the junior national team.
"We've got a big bunch of juniors who are going to be very strong. These guys you will see here are not necessarily going to be on the team."
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