Luke G. Williams looks ahead to the boxing action at the Tokyo Olympic Games with the mighty Uzbeks appearing the men to beat and Team USA’s 3-0 pro Keyshawn Davis adding star quality. Team GB will also be represented by one of their strongest-ever squads and hope to feature prominently on the medal podium.
The Olympic Boxing tournaments begin this Saturday, with 13 gold medals at stake across eight men’s and five women’s weight classes.
Pugilism has been a part of every modern Olympics since the 1904 games in St Louis, save for 1912 in Stockholm, when a law banning boxing on Swedish soil prevented their inclusion.
The route to Tokyo has – of course – been paved with jeopardy for all the 11,000 or so athletes who are expected to compete across 33 sporting disciplines.
The organisational chaos engendered by the Covid-19 pandemic not only necessitated the Games being delayed by a year but also wrought havoc on qualification events, with many competitors and would-be competitors forced into isolation in their homes while gyms and other training facilities locked their doors.
For those boxers who have reached Tokyo, however, the Coronavirus has been but one forbidding obstacle among many on the rocky path to potential Olympic glory in Japan.
For long spells since the 2016 Olympics in Rio, it seemed as though political squabbles between AIBA, international amateur boxing’s governing body, and the IOC might prevent boxing from being one of the sports present in Tokyo altogether.
However, a solution was finally found which prevented what would have been a catastrophe for the sport when, in June 2019, AIBA had its IOC recognition suspended and an Olympic Boxing Task Force was established in its place to organise and oversee qualification events, thus allowing boxing to take its place in Tokyo.
This ad-hoc task force has been overseen by respected Japanese businessman Morinari Watanabe, who has served as the President of the International Gymnastics Federation since 2017, and has done an excellent job of ensuring as fair a qualification process as possible amid the chaos of a worldwide pandemic.
With the spectre of boxing’s potential removal from the Games avoided and with our collective fingers firmly crossed that positive Coronavirus tests do not further imperil proceedings once the Olympics get under way, it is with relief that we are finally able to turn our attention to sporting matters.
Boxing has – of course – provided some iconic moments in the long history of the Olympics – some glorious, such as the United States’ five gold medals in Montreal in 1976 and nine in Los Angeles in 1984; some disgraceful, namely the judging robbery which deprived Roy Jones of gold on Seoul in 1988; and some irredeemably bittersweet, such as Amir Khan’s silver medal winning heroics aged 17 in Athens in 2004, an achievement that seemed set to augur a professional greatness that never quite arrived.
This time around, the men’s boxing events have been reduced by two weight classes from ten to eight, with the light-flyweight and light-welterweight categories removed, allowing for the introduction of featherweight and welterweight classes for female boxers.
In Rio in 2016, Uzbekistan topped the boxing medals table, with three gold, two silver and two bronze medals, one medal ahead of traditional powerhouse Cuba, while France were the only other nation to secure more than one gold.
The Uzbeks once again looked nailed on to be among the strongest nations, with eleven participants across the 13 categories, among them brilliant flyweight Shakhobidin Zoirov who is seeking to successfully defend the title he won in Rio in 2016.
Like several other competitors in these Games, Zoirov has already dipped his toes into professional waters, accumulating a 3-0 (2 KOs) pro ledger thus far, although all three of those contests took place in 2019.
In common with many Olympians, the Uzbek icon has admitted that he draws much inspiration from the greatest boxing Olympian of them all – the incomparable, much loved and much missed Muhammad Ali, who won gold at light-heavyweight in the 1960 Rome Games and memorably lit the Olympic flame at the opening ceremony in Atlanta in 1996.
“It’s nice to try and be like him and box like him,” Zoirov told the official Olympics website in the build up to the Games. “I can’t say for sure how long people will remember me for. There may be athletes better than me but I’d like to remembered as one remembers Ali.”
Among the rest of the Uzbek team current amateur world champions Mirazizbek Mirzakhalilov (featherweight), Bobo-Usmon Baturov (welterweight) and Bakhodir Jalolov (super-heavyweight) should also figure strongly and will fancy their chances of clinching Olympic gold.
The only nations to have matched the Uzbeks’ impressive tally of qualifiers are Great Britain and Russia, with the latter nation’s boxers competing under the banner of the ‘Russian Olympic Committee’ after their official national team was banned from competing at these Games – and the next FIFA World Cup to boot – for failing to comply with international anti-doping rules.
Although Britain has arguably its strongest ever boxing team, Rob McCracken’s well-drilled squad may find gold medals tough to come by. Male welter Pat McCormack and female middleweight Lauren Price are probably Team GB’s best bets for gold. McCormack will certainly benefit from the experience he accrued in reaching the last 16 at light-welter in 2016, while Price is a short-priced favourite to add Olympic gold to a ledger that has also seen her crowned Commonwealth and world champion.
Among the other British competitors it will be fascinating to see how world bronze medalist Peter McGrail fares at featherweight. The 25-year-old has won European and Commonwealth golds in a stellar career and among major championships only lacks an Olympic medal.
At the other end of the experience spectrum, the precocious Caroline Dubois, still only 20, must contend with tough competitors in the form of Beatriz Ferreira of Brazil, Kellie Harrington of Ireland and Mira Potkonen of Finland in a challenging female lightweight tournament. Dubois beat Potkonen in the European qualifiers, but given her relative inexperience it would be an immense achievement if she was to medal in Tokyo.
Elsewhere, amid political turmoil back home and ever present rumours of potential defections, Cuba – the second most successful nation in Olympic boxing history – field seven fighters, all of them men, with heavyweight Julio Cesar La Cruz and light-heavy Arlen Lopez (who won light-heavy and middleweight golds respectively in Rio) aiming to become two-time Olympic champions.
India’s team will be worth keeping an eye on, with five male competitors and four female, including seven-time world amateur champion Mary Kom. The 38-year-old would be a popular winner at flyweight as she chases the Olympic gold medal that has thus far eluded her. With Indian women having won seven golds from seven finals at the Youth World Championships earlier this year, Kom’s legacy in future Olympics may prove even more remarkable than her own career.
As for the United States, despite a grim run that has not seen them able to claim a single male Olympic boxing champion since Andre Ward in 2004, they will look to build on the gradual improvements made in Rio, when they won three medals, including a second gold for Claressa Shields.
In Tokyo, the USA will field five male and five female competitors. Lightweight Keyshawn Davis, richly talented and already 3-0 in the pros, would be an apt winner, and a sentimental one, too, given that he hails from Norfolk, Virginia, also the birthplace of one of the USA’s greatest ever Olympic boxers, the masterful Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker, who was one of nine Americna boxers to strike gold in Los Angeles in 1984 and who died in tragic circumstances just over two years ago.
“He will go down as one of the greatest,” Davis once said of the man who is one of his heroes.
The world could do with a fairytale finish right now, and if the 22-year-old Davis can emulate Sweet Pea then that might prove the sweetest Olympics moment of them all in 2021.
Main image: Keyshawn Davis. Photo: Michelle Farsi/Matchroom Boxing USA.