OLYMPIC WATCH: Boxing medals have always been hard to come by for Australian fighters, writes RON REED.
AS generations of boxers from all countries will testify – Australia’s Jeff Fenech certainly no exception – it’s always a nervous couple of minutes waiting for the judges’ verdict after a close fight at the Olympics.
There have been so many suspect – if not downright corrupt – decisions over the years that I, for one, was fearing the worst for Harry Garside even though I thought he won all three rounds against Kazakhstan’s Zakir Safiullin in their lightweight quarter-final, admittedly by only a whisker in each of them, mainly because I thought he was more aggressive.
It couldn’t have been any closer because the five adjudicators gave it to him by a split vote, three to two, and there would have been no great outcry if it had gone the other way.
It propelled him into a semi-final against highly-rated Cuban Andy Cruz on Friday, the winner challenging for the gold medal and the loser guaranteed a bronze.
Either way, the colourful 24 year old plumber will be Australia’s first medallist in 33 years, since Grahame “Spike” Cheney won silver in Seoul, and only the sixth ever.Embed from Getty Images
It will be a welcome addition because boxing’s contribution to Australia’s proud Olympic history has been underwhelming – but that’s not to say it hasn’t been interesting.
If he goes no further, Garside will at least add to that, given that he removed his gloves to reveal painted fingernails and then claimed he almost wore a dress to the opening ceremony just because “I like to be different” and that he uses ballet dancing to part of his training regime.
It’s probably just as well, then, that he can fight.
The other members of the fairly exclusive club that is Australia’s boxing medallists are Reg “Snowy” Baker (lightweight silver in 1908), Kevin Hogarth (bronze welterweight in1956), Oliver Taylor (bronze bantamweight in 1960), Tony Madigan (bronze light-heavy 1960) and Cheney.
Baker wasn’t just a boxer, far from it – he was one of the most versatile athletes Australia has ever produced, reportedly proficient in as many as 26 sports. He also competed in swimming and diving at the Games and later became a rugby international.
The boxing competition at the first of London’s three Olympics was conducted in a single day, meaning he had to win three fights in quick succession on his way to the final, where he was narrowly – and wrongly, in some opinions – on the wrong side of a points decision against Great Britain’s J. W. H. T. Douglas.
Douglas was another fine all-round sportsman who later captained England on a cricket tour of Australia, where his stonewalling style led to his initials being hijacked to form the mocking nickname Johnny Won’t Hit Today, which was ironic because in the ring he was a heavy puncher.
Although he floored Baker in the second round, the decision was controversial, more so when it was later revealed that Douglas’s father, who was president of the home country’s Amateur Boxing Association had been the referee. Baker, though, always maintained he had no quarrel with the verdict.
Madigan, who died four years ago aged 87, fought at three Olympics but is best-known not for his prowess – which was considerable, with two fifth placings as well as his medal – but that his semi-final opponent in Rome was the young Cassius Clay, whose gold medal propelled him as Muhammad Ali to the most famous boxing career in history.
Cheney was a good fighter who ran into a more experienced and capable Russian named Vyacheslav Yanovsky, whose 5-0 decision was uncontroversial – in itself a rarity at those Games, where the American Roy Jones Jr was the victim of an outrageous home town robbery in favour of his South Korean opponent Park Si-hun.
I was there that day and even the Korean fans in the stadium jeered the obvious rort, the winner spent the rest of his life wishing he had a silver medal instead of such a tainted gold, and the loser went to enjoy a hugely successful professional career.
Amateur boxing itself, not for the first or last time, hung its head in shame.
Four Australians who went on to become professional world champions – Fenech, Jeff Horn, Danny Green and Daniel Geale – all failed to bring home any heavy metal from the Olympics.
I was also ringside in Los Angeles in 1984 to watch Fenech, the captain of the Australian boxing team, become the victim of more daylight robbery when the judges initially called him the winner of his flyweight quarter-final against Yugoslavia’s Redzep Redzepovski, only for a now long-defunct jury system to overturn the decision.
It cost Fenech at least the bronze he would have got for making the semis while Redzepovski went on to contest – and lose – the gold medal bout against American Steve McGrory. Redzepovski complained: “As long as an American is standing on his feet for three rounds it is hard to get a decision against him.”
I found Fenech in tears outside the stadium afterwards, vowing he would turn professional immediately and prove the world wrong – which of course he did, winning world titles in three weight divisions in a career as distinguished as any Australian boxer has ever put together.
Along the way, he fought McGrory in Melbourne and demolished him, more evidence that his Olympic experience was a dud. McGrory later pawned the gold medal to support his drug addiction and died in poverty in his mid-thirties.
The judging rules changed again for the Rio Olympics five years ago, so that it is no longer just a matter of how many clean hits are recorded, but other factors such as aggression, technique, tactics and rule infringements.
Also, boxers with a certain amount of professional experience can now qualify, which highly promising Sydney heavyweight Justis Huni was intending to take advantage of until he broke his hand while fighting footballer Paul Gallen several weeks ago.
Huni was going to be Australia’s best hope of breaking the medal drought – but Garside has well and truly usurped that status. Here’s hoping he can go one better and fight for gold – without having to worry about diverse opinions from the five men who matter most.
RON REED has spent more than 50 years as a sportswriter or sports editor, mainly at The Herald and Herald Sun. He has covered just about every sport at local, national and international level, including multiple assignments at the Olympic and Commonwealth games, cricket tours, the Tour de France, America’s Cup yachting, tennis and golf majors and world title fights.