By Cliff Rold
Including the loss of legitimate Bantamweight medal hopeful Gary Russell Jr. to the scales before the first fist flew, America’s Olympic Boxing slate stands with three advancing, three eliminated, and three still to go in only the first round of Beijing competition. The second official elimination happened in the second 132 lb. session on day three as 19-year old Lightweight Sadam Ali of Brooklyn, New York lost a lopsided 20-5 decision to Romania’s Georgian Popescu.
It didn’t start out as bad as the score, but by the end it looked even worse.
Coming into the Games, Ali wasn’t considered one of America’s strongest entrants but did have enough experience to provide some hope. At only 17, he was the National Golden Gloves champion at Featherweight and again in 2007 at Lightweight. He also captured a Bronze Medal at the 2006 World Junior Championships.
That base of ring experience showed in a solid first round. Ali boxed smart, using his left jab to create openings for his right hand. Just thirty seconds into the first, the right landed flush to the face of Popescu…and was not scored by the officials. It would be nice to call it a sign of things to come, but there were clearly landed blows that went without being scored for both men in the first. Had scoring been more, well, correct, who knows how it would have affected Ali. With just a tie at the end of round one, Ali might have stayed with the disciplined game plan of the first two minutes.
Instead, Ali dissolved into disastrous traps. Down 3-2 at the start of the second, Ali came out winging the right without setting it up and fifteen seconds in found himself down by two instead of one. Perhaps due to age, perhaps due to a lack of significant international experience above the Junior level, Ali needed to take a step back, collect himself and start over. Two points in the second round need not be insurmountable after all.
Except, in this case, it was. Ali kept lunging with wild haymakers, doing nothing to set his offense up, and Popescu wisely employed a typical European style of movement, range finding jabs and quick, straight counters from his southpaw stance. By the end of round two, Ali had been dropped by a lead left and was behind 9-3.
Ali had a good moment to start the third with a right-left combination that knocked the headgear off of Popescu. The left landed clean but again went unscored. Desperate after the intermission to replace Popescu’s headgear, he again lunged with the right and ate a counter. That’s the way it went over and over again, with only the prayer of game changing knockout to bail him out.
Popescu was too good, too controlled, to allow that opportunity.
Following the bout, Ali was honest in his interview, noting that his plan had been to get a lead in the first and then hold onto it. He was convinced he couldn’t come from behind and lived the notion as self-fulfilling prophecy. Being behind in the scoring after the opening frame got into his head and was still there as he made his way to the tunnel, the Olympic dream extinguished. At the highest levels of the sport, professional or amateur, fighters without a Plan B are in trouble against those who do. Ali learned that the hard way.
Round One Grade: D+
As bad as Ali’s showing in Beijing might have been there were still some positives to point to as he begins the next round of his fistic life. He was the first Arab-American to make an Olympic Boxing team, something that should make all Americans proud for and of him given the rocky world around us. His skill set also wasn’t bad. Before he fell apart, Ali showed strong fundamental ability and decent speed. His reliance on the right hand to bail him out suggests a faith in his own power that the world just doesn’t fully know about yet.
While there is always the chance Ali could elect to nurture his game for another Olympic run in 2012, the likelihood is that the next time he’s seen in a ring he’ll be paid for it. His ‘first time’ status in the Games and his New York roots should be bankable commodities. Ali leaves the 2008 Games in a position similar to 2004 Olympians Vanes Martirosyan and Vicente Escobedo, a project professional suited for a long and educated development period with a positive professional upside if moved intelligently.
Now the U.S. turns to its most accomplished competitor as 21-year old Flyweight, and second time Olympian, Rau’shee Warren steps in for his opening bout. He’ll be featured in the second match of the second session tomorrow, which means he’ll be on early in the evening American broadcast starting at 5 PM EST.
Set the TIVO’s or other recorders just in case traffic gets heavy on the way back from the office.
More on Team USA and “The Quest for Gold”
Day One Results
Middleweight Report Card – Shawn Estrada http://www.boxingscene.com/?m=show&id=15332
Day Two Results
Light Welterweight Report Card – Javier Molina
Welterweight Report Card – Demetrius Andrade
Day Three Results
Featherweight Report Card – Raynell Williams
Day Four Results
Rau’shee Warren (Lightweight)
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Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org