|Errol Spence initially loses to India's Krishan Vikas but receives better news a few hours later. (US Presswire)|
LONDON -- A few hours after the U.S. men's boxing team thought it was done at the Olympics, amateur boxing's governing body decided Errol Spence deserved to fight on.
AIBA overturned Spence's loss to Indian welterweight Krishan Vikas late Friday night, five hours after the defense-minded Vikas had apparently clutched and grabbed his way to a 13-11 victory.
After the American team protested the result, AIBA's competition jury reviewed the bout and ruled Vikas had committed nine holding fouls in the third round alone. He also intentionally spit out his mouthpiece in the second round, which should have resulted in at least four points of deductions.
Spence advanced into the quarterfinals to face Russia's Andrey Zamkovoy on Tuesday. If he wins, the American men's team will avoid leaving the Olympics with no medals for the first time ever.
"I am obviously thrilled that the competition jury overturned my decision and I can continue chasing the gold medal I came here to win," Spence said late Friday night. "I am going to make the most of this second chance that I've been given. I can't wait to get back in that ring on Tuesday."
Spence felt he had won the bout afterward, expecting his hand to be raised in the ring, but wasn't terribly surprised when Vikas got the nod. The welterweight from Dallas already was the last U.S. man standing after his eight male teammates lost in the previous five days, including three-time Olympian Rau'shee Warren's 19-18 loss to France's Nordine Oubaali an hour earlier.
Spence stopped the eight-fight skid, but must beat Zamkovoy to save the most successful team in Olympic boxing history from its first medal shutout and its worst showing at any games -- although three U.S. women are still alive in their first Olympic tournament, which begins Sunday.
Spence's late reprieve was surreal for a team that appeared headed home with nothing. Spence struggled to penetrate Vikas' technical, plodding style despite showing superior power and entertainment value.
"We did a lot of work, got a lot of coaching, but it's the judges that we feel we're going against most of the time," Warren said.
The 2008 U.S. team won only one bronze medal in Beijing, the worst showing so far - but at least that team won six total fights, one more than the London team. The American men have won only one gold medal in the last three Olympics, by Andre Ward in Athens in 2004.
The vaunted American team has claimed at least one boxing medal in every modern Olympics where boxing was a sport except the boycotted Moscow Games, and many of the men who won them are among the giants of the sweet science.
Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Oscar De La Hoya, Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. all won medals for U.S. teams, leading generations of boxing talent the world couldn't match.
The Americans' 48 gold medals and 108 total medals are easily the most in Olympic boxing history, with 45 more medals than second-place Cuba.
The London team actually won its first four fights last weekend, but then the losses piled up with alarming speed. The Americans' poor performance caps a two-decade struggle to adapt to changes in the amateur sport, with steadily declining medal counts ever since boxing went to a computerized scoring system that rewards a style with stark differences from pro boxing.
The U.S. seemed headed for a better showing last week. The 4-0 start showed its improved team chemistry after the Beijing team squabbled and argued its way to a dismal showing.
The current U.S. team has a strong relationship with coach Basheer Abdullah and his staff, even though Abdullah only had about six weeks to prepare as a late hire by USA Boxing. None of the fighters blamed the coaching-staff turmoil for his performance, but the string of losses was stark: Three fighters lost on Wednesday, followed by two more on Thursday before Warren's defeat.
After Spence's apparent loss, Abdullah came close to suggesting the judges might have been biased against some American fighters, although he also believes U.S. boxers need years of training in the amateur sport to compete at its highest levels. Amateur boxing features five ringside judges who award points only when they believe a punch lands, rather than traditional scoring systems that evaluate skill, style, technique and aggression.
The amateur sport moved to a computerized scoring system after Jones' infamous loss at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, when three judges awarded a decision to South Korea's Park Hi-sun after Jones dominated their fight.
"I don't blame any [scoring] systems," Abdullah said. "I blame the people that operate them. I'm disappointed in some of the things I'm seeing."
Spence knew the feeling after three rounds of trying to break through the passive guard of Vikas, who fights a rigid amateur style emphasizing defense and tactical aggression. India's amateur boxing scene has surged in popularity in the four years since Vijender Singh won his nation's first Olympic medal in Beijing, with thousands of prospective Olympians training in the amateur style with no intention of ever turning pro.
"I thought I won the fight," said Spence, a talented puncher who intends to turn pro this fall, along with most of his teammates. "I thought I threw more punches and landed more shots. I thought I was the more aggressive boxer. It was kind of frustrating, but he's fighting to the computer system."
Warren's loss was particularly heartbreaking. The undersized dynamo nicknamed "Nuke" twice passed on a pro career and a chance to provide financially for his growing family to take another shot at hanging a gold medal around the neck of his mother, Paulette.
He waited well over a decade for this moment, climbing the amateur ranks in his native Cincinnati and avoiding the pitfalls that put two of his three brothers in prison. He got to the top of the amateur sport - and then stumbled at the three biggest moments of his career.
Warren wept in Beijing when he lost his opening bout on a last-minute tactical error. Four years and another one-point loss later, he seemed dulled to the pain of going winless in his unmatched Olympic career.
And he won't be back for Rio: Warren said he'll turn pro, probably along with every member of his team.
"It ain't really no setback for me," Warren said. "I've got big things coming up. This isn't the end for Rau'shee Warren."
Oubaali rallied from a first-round deficit with more aggression and precision than the third-seeded Warren, a former world champion. Warren also lost his contact lenses in the opening round and couldn't size up Oubaali, who mostly controlled the final two rounds.
Warren still thought he might have eked out the decision, but few fans at ExCel seemed surprised when Oubaali got the decision. Abdullah also said he agreed with the decision.
Now 25, Warren says he's still happy he stuck around to become the first three-time U.S. Olympic boxer -- even though he might still turn out to be the biggest disappointment on the least successful American team ever.
"It's always a good experience," he said, "to do something people don't normally do."