“Dream Team” tends to evoke memories of various dominant sporting teams. The 1992 Olympic Basketball team is usually the team referenced but a strong Barcelona team in the early 90s, the Philadelphia Eagles of 2011 and the ‘95 Puerto Rican baseball team have all been called a dream team. Boxing, as an individual sport has not seen many dream teams. The American Olympic team in 1984 earned that title. They won 11 medals in 12 weight classes, only one man not managing to medal. Nine went on to challenge for world titles. The Olympics was slightly tainted by the Soviet boycott which also meant Cuba missed out on the Olympics but the success the American team went on to enjoy at the professional level shows the amount of sheer talent they had in that team. It also arguably marked a decline in American boxing. Since that Olympics, 30 years ago, they have won less gold medals in total than they managed that year.
The Build Up
The 1984 Olympic Games must be framed in the context of the Soviet boycott. Mainly seen as retaliation for the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics by the United States, the Soviet Union declared it was to avoid the “anti-Soviet hysteria whipped up in the United States.” This meant that the USSR, East Germany and Cuba all missed out on the tournament. These countries had combined for all but six of the finalists in 1980. They chose to concurrently hold the Friendship Games. Cuba dominated that, winning all but one gold medal themselves with East Germany taking the other. It obviously impacted the American medal count positively, although you could still argue the American team was probably good enough to have still broken the boxing gold medal record.
Prior to 1984, the dream team had referred to the 1976 US Olympic team. They won five gold medals against strong Cuban and Soviet teams. The undoubted star was Sugar Ray Leonard and I think the memory of Leonard being part of that team tends to elevate it in the minds of fans. Howard Davis was the boxer of the tournament but would go on to struggle as a professional, never winning a world title. It also had the two Spinks brothers, Leon and Michael who impressed both at the Olympics and then as professionals. The other gold medal winner was Leo Randolph. Argument still rage as to which team deserves to be labelled the dream team. That team laid the path for the ‘84 team. The exposure they received from newspapers and tv had helped, along with Ali, revitalise boxing in America. Going into the Olympics, more of the boxers had become household names. The two ‘Dream Teams’ have long been compared although Howard Davis and Mark Breland both described the two teams as almost even. America has long been that nation that dominates boxing. My top fifty boxers of all time, has 34 Americans. They have 13 more Olympic gold medals than any other nation, despite only winning eight golds in the last eight Olympics. The glamour divisions throughout the 70s up until the Olympics were also dominated by Americans. George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Bob Foster, Michael Spinks, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Aaron Pryor, Ray Mancini and Jeff Chandler were all big names over that period. America had and was dominating boxing.
Given the American boycott of the 1980 Olympics it would seem illogical to begin there. However, for one member of the team, his journey begun with qualification for the 1980 Olympics. Robert Shannon qualified in the 106-pound division as a 17-year-old. Unlike his ten teammates who had all chose to turn professional, Shannon had opted to stay amateur because he was told he was too small and there was no money out there for a Flyweight. He believed everybody begun to forget about him but he was always a tough fighter, with great power in his hands and he would not be forgotten for long. He even claimed to have almost quit boxing, in 1982 he went to work on a fishing boat in Alaska. Shannon claimed the 15 to 20 hours a day of thinking time made him realise he wanted to go back into the ring."
For most, the story begins with the 1982 World Championships. Many of the team were not yet on the team, but for some their ability was obvious. Pernell Whitaker cruised through the tournament as an 18-year-old before coming up against two-time Olympic Gold medallist Ángel Herrera Vera of Cuba. Whitaker would battle the Cuban, losing a split decision. Tyrell Biggs battled his way through the tournament. Whilst doing so, he got lucky as Teófilo Stevenson, the three-time Olympic champion, was shocked by Francesco Darmani. Biggs would go on to beat Darmani to become world champion. Mark Breland would be perhaps the most impressive boxer of the tournament, winning each fight either by unanimous decision or stoppage, dropping the impressive Kazakh, Serik Konakbayev, in the final. America had three other men who medalled. Floyd Favors won gold, Michael Collins took silver, whilst Iran Barkley won bronze.
Breland was seen as the future of boxing and a certainty for the gold medal. SI described it as being as plain as the graffiti on the buildings in Bed-Stuy that he would win gold. For good reason to, he only lost once as an amateur. He won a record five consecutive New York Golden Gloves championships, knocking out 19 of 21 opponents. In 1981 and 1982 he won the national championships, and in 1982 he won the World champioships, dropping and defeating the brilliant Serik Konakbayev of Kazakhstan (then part of the USSR) in the final. Most perceive him to be a busy, because of eventual failings as a professional. What he did do was earn a lot of money. Three months after winning gold he had signed a $3-million dollar ABC deal, was driving a luxury car and lived on Park Avenue. Perhaps his greatest move was putting an annuity in his contract, as advised by Shelly Finkel in 1984. Since turning 30 he has received $100,000 every year and will continue to until his death.
Most of the men who were part of the Dream Team had long amateur careers, often beginning as juniors. In 1982 though, one man had never even had an amateur bout before. That was Henry Tillman. He was sentenced to two years in prison for armed robbery in 1981. The 20-year-old had grown up just four miles from the Los Angeles Sport Arena, but in a rough neighbourhood in South-Central had found himself getting into increasingly escalating trouble. Throughout his teens he had served short stints in jail for drug sales, grand theft and battery. That prison sentence, at the California Youth Authority, would change his life. He would sign up to the boxing program run by Mercer Smith, having never put on gloves in his life.
As 1983 came other boxers were beginning to represent America. A 1983 duel with the Soviet Union would see three boxers represent America at every weight. In addition to Whitaker, Jerry Page, Frank Tate, Virgil Hill, Henry Tillman, Paul Gonzales and Robert Shannon were also called up. A month later and the US would take on Cuba. Only Hill and Tillman represented the US in what was a whitewash for the Cuban team, while Holyfield fought for the B team. The eventual Dream Team would begin to take more of a shape when it came to the Pan American Games later that year. Six of the twelve team members qualified for that tournament, with two more losing in box offs. Robert Shannon was one who missed out, losing to Favors in the semi-final, something which made the Washington man begin to regret his decision to put off professional boxing.
The team that went to the Pan American Games would pick up two gold medals, five silvers and four bronze medals. Middleweight Michael Grogan missed the Games with a freak back injury meaning every American medalled. When McCrory lost a split decision to the Dominican Republic’s Laureano Ramirez in the Semi Final, McCrory said he was going home to restructure his thinking. The star of the games was undoubtedly Pernell Whitaker, overturning his previous defeat to Angel Herrera by almost stopping the legendary Cuban. America were also subjected to two overturned decisions. Bernard Gray was originally awarded the win over Santos Cardona in the semi-finals only for it to be overturned whilst Paul Gonzales was also given the decision in the ring, this time in the final.
Gonzales, known for his short temper, surely erupted when the changed was announced. The classic boxer, grew up in a rough East Los Angeles neighbourhood. Product of a broken home after his Father left the eight children when Paul was seven. At nine, he joined one of the thirteen gangs in the area. At twelve, a Chevrolet Impala he was in was shot up by a rival gang and a bullet caught him in the side of the head. At fifteen a murder charge was filed against him. He got off, a policeman who noticed his potential in a street fight, helped him escape the charges. Surgery in his hand cost him a year as a seventeen-year-old, but a returning victory over Olympic champion, Shamil Sabirov, showed his class.
The end of 1983 saw the North American Games. Only two of the eventual Olympic team would fight at the tournament. Virgil Hill was the gold medallist, he defeated Bernardo Comas, the Cuban who was World and Pan American Games Champion. Frank Tate was the silver medallist, losing a split decision to Shawn O’Sullivan. The end of year US National Championships helped to continue to determine which Americans were primed for the games. Steve McCrory was arguably the most impressive, winning both his fights by stoppage. Paul Gonzalez, Mark Breland, Frank Tate and Tyrell Biggs also won gold. Robert Shannon and Evander Holyfield both went out at the semi-final stage.
The American begun 1984 with team matches against Yugoslavia and Soviet Union with Paul Gonzales, Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, Frank Tate, Virgil Hill, Evander Holyfield and Tyrell Biggs featuring. The team that would take on Cuba in Reno was closer to the team that would go to the Olympics. Steve McCrory and Evander Holyfield both lost unanimous decisions. Pernell Whitaker beat Angel Herrera for the third time by a split decision. Tyrell Biggs lost to Stevenson again, however it was the closest he would come, losing a 3-2 split decision after a third-round knockdown which Biggs claimed was a foul. The best performance came from Meldrick Taylor who defeated two-time World Champion Adolfo Horta.
Taylor was only 17 when the Games came around. He was a prodigy, blazing a trail through Philadelphia gyms. He was the 1982 National Golden Gloves and AAU Champion. He reached the final of the 1983 AIBA World Junior championships, only to be knocked out in the third round by the brilliant Cuban Angel Espinosa. But that was at light welterweight, and as Taylor matured he dropped down to featherweight. He still struggled with weight. On the night before his bout with Horta, during bed checks Nappi found Taylor tucked in bed with a large pizza. Incensed Nappi threw the pizza away and Taylor just about made weight. He put in a strong performance with his lightning hands stating, “I had to show everybody that my potential is as good as Horta's potential.” The timing of Horta did give him serious trouble though and he managed to drop Taylor in the second. It was an exciting fight and fans were robbed of another contest between the pair.
The AIBA Challenge matches in 1984 would be the final time prior to the Olympics that some of the American team would take on international level opponents. Six American winners were Floyd Favors, Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, Frank Tate, Rick Womack and Tyrell Biggs. Three silver medallists were Henry Tillman, Bernard Gray and Steve McCrory. McCrory was best known for being the little brother of world champion Milton McCrory. Allured by the fame his brother had received, his head had been turned by the professional game and it was clear in the ring. His worse moment, arguably came on his 20th birthday as he was stopped in two rounds by Cuba's Pedro Reyes. Once seen as a lock to be part of the Olympic team, he was in danger of missing out due to his bad form.
The Americans chose to have a rather convoluted system in order to get on the Olympic team. Olympic trials were held at Fort Worth with each weight having eight fighters who have qualified through regional qualifiers. Instead of the trials winner qualifying for the Olympics, they would go into a box off against the twelve “most noteworthy opponents” as labelled by the Amateur Boxing Federation. The trials winner would only have to win one bout, whilst if the opponent won on the Friday night, it would go on to a winner takes all bout on Saturday. Nine trial winners would advance, three opponents overturning their disadvantage to qualify for the Olympics and another three winning the first bout only to lose in the second bout.
The six men who found qualification the easiest, winning the trial and then in the first box off were Paul Gonzales, Steve McCrory, Robert Shannon, Mark Breland, Frank Tate and Henry Tilman. Gonzales was comfortable; he beat Jose Rosario by a unanimous decision in the trials final and then Israel Acosta in the box off final, who he had already defeated in the trials semi-final. Gonzales was in control the whole time, despite Acosta trying to needle him with elbows and stepping on his feet. McCrory, having a tough time of it mentally and in the ring, was also relatively comfortable, opting for a solid rather than flashy defence defeating Bernard Price. Robert Shannon qualified as easily as any other man, despite his division maybe being the best in America. He won a wide decision over the North American Champion, Jesse Benavides in the trials final. The tougher test came in the box off, against the World Champion Floyd Favors. Shannon stopped him, dropping him in the second before the referee called it at the end of the third, the only stoppage in the box-offs. Mark Breland, despite a stomach virus, overcame stubborn Louis Howard of St. Louis in the box offs after cruising through the trials. Frank Tate was also quite comfortable, easing to wins over Ron Essett. Henry Tilman was the man who kept Mike Tyson from making the Olympics, defeating the protégé of Cus D’Amato twice. He used a long jab to keep Tyson off, winning a unanimous decision at the trials and then 4-1 at the box off.
The three men who would win the trials, lose in the first bout, only to go on and win in the second were Pernell Whitaker, Virgil Hill and Tyrell Biggs. Whitaker was the big shock. He was the number one ranked fighter in the world in his division and seen as a shoo in to be the American representative. He beat Joe Belinc in the trials but that was avenged on the Friday. He pledged “to be more flashy and really cut loose,” in the decider. The story goes that Lou Duva shadow sparred with him for 45 minutes after the bout, working on moving off to the side. Whittaker went on the backfoot, against the hooking, come forward Belinc. The decision was booed by the Caesers Palace crowd as Whitaker was given the 3-2 victory. He blamed a lacklustre performance on blisters which led to Belinc suggesting “maybe you should try out for the 100-yard dash." His trainer Troy Summer suggested the decision was potentially a political one. Whitaker suggested “I just outboxed me, he didn’t even hit me with clean shots.” Virgil Hill had a bit of needle with the main who he fought three times to qualify, Michael Nunn. He believed Nunn thought he was an easy touch, moving up to his weight because “he couldn’t beat anyone at 156.” Hill took the split decision victory at the trials, before they both had a unanimous victory, giving Hill the spot at the Olympics. Tyrell Biggs fought his way through the trials, winning every bout by decision, perhaps due to his lack of power. The man he defeated in the final was Craig Payne. Payne, a brawler who he had defeated five times, got the win on the Friday night with Biggs complaining of sore ribs. Biggs said he reminded himself before the decider to box and not slug. Still not looking at his best, he boxed behind his jab and kept it moving, winning a split decision 3-2 over Payne.
There were two major surprises at the Olympic trials. Jerry Page was an American representative after Iran Barkley turned professional following the 1982 World Championships. Unfortunately, though he had “had two knee operations, taking out the cartilage,” which arguably led to his defeat to Timmy Rabon in the semi-finals of the trial. When it came to the box off though, he pitched back to back 5-0 shutouts against the Los Angeles fighter. Meldrick Taylor was an even greater shock, despite being described as ‘a surprise package’ by long time team U.S.A coach Pat Nappi, as he went down to Andrew Minsker, the National Golden Gloves champion, in the Quarter Finals. Taylor revealed that Minsker had told him after that bout that he was hurt to the body. Taylor knew he would qualify then as he had given up his secret. Taylor kept banging to the body, listening to him grunt. Classy Taylor won the first fight by a split decision and was even more dominant on Saturday, becoming the youngest American boxer to qualify. Evander Holyfield caused the greatest shock at the box off. He had lost 3-2 at the trials to Ricky Womack, who was seen as a lock for the Olympic team, in the quarter finals. Womack had strong international experience and was a hard hitter. Holyfield was not seen as being on his level, but would go on to win split decisions in both box off bouts. Womack would go on to spend a long stretch in prison for armed robbery. The Olympians; Paul Gonzales, Steve McCrory, Robert Shannon, Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, Jerry Page, Mark Breland, Frank Tate, Virgil Hill, Evander Holyfield, Henry Tillman and Tyrell Biggs.