IBHOF inductee Graham Houston reviews the boxing action and TV coverage of the Tokyo Olympics so far and highlights the stars who have impressed him in the early rounds.

For many of us, keeping up with the boxing at Tokyo 2020 has been a gruelling exercise. If you live on the West Coast time zone, as I do, the first session starts at 1 a.m. For British/Irish residents, the second session starts at 3 a.m. 

Then there is the matter of individual nations’ broadcasters. In Canada, where I live, the CBC (Canada’s version of the BBC) regularly drops boxing sessions, including two sessions that featured Canadian women. This sort of thing means one has to scramble to try to find a streaming site, which is never ideal

Anyway, it’s what we do. And as weary as we might feel, it’s usually worth the effort. We’ve seen some rousing contests in Tokyo and some talent worth watching for future reference. Pro boxers are taking part, the women now box three three-minute rounds and, of course, there is a stronger female presence at these Games, both in the number of bouts and officials.

I haven’t seen any particularly bad decisions but there have been a lot of bouts where the verdict could have gone either way. As always it’s worth remembering that in Olympic boxing, a knockdown or standing count is supposed to count as just one scoring blow. There’s no automatic extra point for a knockdown as there is in the pros. 

And when the referee issues a public warning for an infringement of the rules, a judge is not required to deduct a point. However, as I understand the Olympic rules, if a boxer gets two public warnings then a point comes off that boxer’s score.

Looking through my notes, here are some of the highlights up to and including the second session on Tuesday July 27.

Best bout? Of the ones I’ve seen, I’d go with the light-heavy war in which Russia’s Imam Khataev outpunched Bekzad Nurdauletov, the world champion from Kazakhstan. I like Khataev. With his rock-like physique and clubbing power he reminds me of Russian pro world champion Artur Beterbiev. The southpaw Nurdauletov landed some big left hands but Khataev seems to have an outstanding chin because he hardly budged. Nurdauletov, too, is one tough customer. Khataev blasted him with left hooks and right hands but the Kazhakstan boxer stood up to the big hits and kept banging back. The 4-1 split in Khataev’s favour was fair but Nurdauletov looked inconsolable.

The light-heavy division is a hot one. We have Khatiev, Cuba’s Rio middleweight gold medallist Arlen Lopez and the flashy, showboating Loren Alfonso, Cuban-born but boxing for his adopted homeland of Azerbaijan. GB’s Ben Whitaker has produced some skilful boxing in Tokyo but Khatiev, Lopez and Alfonso are going to be tough to beat.

Ireland’s Kurt Walker pulled off one of the upsets of the Games when boxing his way to a 4-1 split decision over No. 1 seed Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov, the world champion from Uzbekistan, in the featherweight division. Walker was under heavy pressure from the stronger, heavier-handed Mirzakhalilov in the second and especially the third rounds but he kept moving and kept scoring to nab a 4-1 decision.

Cuba’s Julio Cesar La Cruz, light-heavy gold medallist at Rio, looked good at heavyweight when cruising through three rounds against an outclassed Kenyan. La Cruz’s frame has filled out but he seems just as fast and slick as he ever was. And while La Cruz seems to have been around for ages, he’s still only 31.

Emmanuel Reyes, Cuban-born but representing Spain in the heavyweight division, caught the eye with a stunning second-round knockout over Kazakhstan’s Vassiliy Levit, silver medallist at Rio. Levit’s eyes rolled up in his head when Reyes landed a big right hand in the second round. He went down hard and there was no coming back.

Staying with the heavyweights, tall, athletic Brazilian southpaw Abner Teixeira surprised me with the way he stood up to the aggression and body punching of GB’s shorter, chunkier Cheavon Clarke. At one point, in the heat of battle, Teixeira seemed to give a little smile, as if to say: “You’re a tough guy, but I’ve got this.” 

Clarke was busy but Teixeira landed some solid left hands, and at one point I thought Clarke’s legs buckled a little. Clarke looked disbelieving to have the 4-1 split go against him. One judge gave Clarke every round. It was that sort of bout, aggression and volume from Clarke but the more eye-catching single shots from Teixeira.

GB’s Pat McCormack has been excellent, as expected. US pros Troy Isley, Duke Ragan and Keyshawn Davis all got off to a winning start. Davis looked really classy in his win over Enrico La Cruz, representing the Netherlands, in the lightweight division.

In women’s boxing, GB middleweight Lauren Price looked the part of the gold-medal favourite when she outclassed her game Mongolian opponent. And Karriss Artingstall, who, like Price, boxes in the southpaw stance, has looked solid in two winning appearances in the featherweight division. She was a bit too strong for Australia’s Skye Nicolson in their all-southpaw quarterfinals bout, winning a 3-2 split decision. This was a well-matched bout and one felt for Nicolson, who wore a “Please, please let it be me!” look as the  boxers awaited the announcement of the decision.

France’s pro world champ Maiva Hamadouche gave her usual wholehearted effort but came up just short against Finland’s Mira Potkonen, a veteran of the international amateur boxing circuit, in the round of 32 in the women’s lightweight division. Potkonen, aged 40 and in her last Olympics, might have got a bit of a sentimental decision here (3-1, with one judge scoring the bout even). 

Potkonen showed her veteran’s counter-punching skills in the opening round but Hamadouche was starting to swarm all over her before the end of the second. Potkonen received a public warning for holding and looked almost exhausted in the final round as Hamadouche harried her around the ring. When the decision was announced Hamadouche’s facial expression and arms-outspread body language conveyed her feelings: “What on earth were these judges thinking?”

So there has been much to enjoy from Tokyo and there’s a lot more to come, if we can stand the pace: These 1 a.m. starts are hard on the system. And some of us also have to contend with what seems a clear broadcasters’ bias against boxing.

It it really is galling when broadcasters drop boxing sessions in favour of, say, BMX racing, skateboarding and skeet shooting. 

Boxing has a rich and deep history in the Olympics, with magical names such as Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali), George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Teofilo Stevenson, Oscar De La Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard all having stood atop the winner’s podium. Unfortunately, none of this registers with the (I suspect) 25-year-olds with their degrees in fine arts who make the programming decisions.

Main image: Imam Khataev has been one of the standout Olympic performers in the early action. Photo: Alamy/Reuters.