Crunch Time: Pro boxers in Olympics is a mismatch

Boxing globes

Note: This is the Crunch Time I wrote for this week’s issue of the Cheney Free Press.

Fight fans who watch the boxing events during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, may see some familiar faces and world champions compete alongside the amateur fighters who hope to capture the gold medal in their weight division.

The International Boxing Association, originally the Association Internationale de Boxe Amateur (AIBA), which sanctions amateur boxing around the world and the Olympics, announced that professional boxers will be eligible for this year’s Olympic Games. Like amateur fighters, professional boxers will have to compete in qualification events for the Olympics

In a March 1 interview with Sky Sports, the associations’ president, Dr. Ching-Kuo Wu said the organization’s reason for allowing professional athletes to be eligible for the Olympics is the International Olympic Committee (IOC) wants to bring the “best boxers to come to the Olympic Games.”

“It is an IOC policy to have the best athletes in the games and of the international federations,” Wu said in the interview. “AIBA is probably the only one without professional athletes in the Olympics.”

While having professional boxers in the Olympics could bring more fans to the event, it’s a complete mismatch to pit them against amateur fighters.

The Olympics were comprised entirely of amateur athletes, until 1986 when the IOC updated its charter to allow professionals to compete. In a Feb. 13, 1986 Associated Press story, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch said the reason for the change was to “give all athletes equal opportunity to compete.”

There have been several professional athletes and teams who have competed in the Olympics over the years. Perhaps the best known example was the 1992 U.S. men’s basketball team comprised of well-known NBA players — dubbed “The Dream Team” — that included greats such as Michael Jordan, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Magic Johnson. “The Dream Team,” who many regard as the greatest sports team ever assembled, won all of their games by at least 40 points, including 127-80 victory over Venezuela in the gold medal game.

While the IOC allowed professional sports stars to compete in the Olympics, governing bodies had the final say of whether or not pro athletes could be eligible for a specific event. Prior to the 2016 Olympics, Boxing was one of only two sports — the other being baseball — that didn’t allow professional athletes to compete in events.

The Olympics is primarily a stepping stone for amateur boxers to help get them ready for the professional level. World champions like Muhammad Ali, George Foreman and Oscar de La Hoya won Olympic medals before they moved into the professional level. Once a fighter turns pro, he was barred from competing in the Olympics — that is until now.

To help prepare amateur and professional boxers for the Olympics, AIBA implemented a new semi-professional league for fighters, removed headgear and switched to a 10-point scoring system that is used in professional boxing. But it’s going to take more than changes to fully prepare an amateur fighter to face a more-experienced opponent.

A professional boxer who has 10 or more years’ experience will have a more advanced technical skillset, game plan and physical development than an amateur fighter who has been in the sport for a few years. In an interview with ESPN, former heavyweight champion David Haye likened it to taking a “college American football team playing a professional NFL team.”

A young fighter who learns they’ll be competing in the same weight class as a former world champion like Amir Khan or Wladimir Klitschko may decide to walk away from competition because they know they haven’t fought that high level of an opponent.

If an amateur fighter loses to a professional boxer in a humiliating fashion — like a knockout or a lopsided decision — the younger athlete may hang up his gloves and decide boxing is not for him. Their dream of becoming a world champion would be over before their first professional fight. They could also sustain a serious injury when they face a more experienced opponent.

Professional fighters who compete in the Olympics also put their career at risk. They could get injured during the qualifying rounds of the Olympics. If they have a big championship bout scheduled after the Olympics and they get hurt, they’ll have to withdraw from the title fight and lose what could be a big purse. Their career would be tarnished because they lost to a younger, less-experienced opponent they should have defeated

The AIBA should focus on finding ways to improve the sport, bringing in more, younger athletes and making it safer for them to compete.

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