By Kieran Mulvaney
NEW YORK -- Olympic boxing differs from many sports in that it is a springboard, not a pinnacle. Win the 1,500 meters at track, and then what? You can shoot for world records, maybe make a run at retaining your crown four years hence. But for a middle-distance runner, Olympic gold is as good as it gets.
For a boxer, competing at the Olympics -- even winning a medal, gold or otherwise -- is merely the beginning. It can open doors, but only to an uncertain future. The route from Olympic glory to professional success -- while sometimes a straight and short line -- is often a meandering road, and one that does not always end up anywhere near the desired destination.
Wladimir Klitschko, super heavyweight gold medalist in 1996, wound up with a Hall-of-Fame-worthy career and one of the longest reigns in heavyweight history, but only after navigating what had threatened to be terminal pitfalls in the form of Ross Puritty, Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster. In 2012, Anthony Joshua took a closely contested gold in front of his home crowd in London, and within five years was clambering off the canvas to defeat Klitschko in front of 90,000 at Wembley Stadium in one of the greatest fights in recent heavyweight history.
But Tyrell Biggs, who took super heavyweight gold in 1984, was broken in half as a professional by Mike Tyson. Tyson did not make that Olympic team, and after stopping Biggs in the seventh round of their 1987 bout, insulted him in truly Tysonesque fashion by claiming that Biggs “was crying in there, making woman gestures.” The light welterweight final at the 2000 Olympics was contested by Ricardo Williams Jr. and winner Muhammad Abdullaev; however, Williams’ much-hyped pro career was already skidding off the rails before it was interrupted for several years by a jail stint, and while Abudallaev’s career was sound enough, it was massively overshadowed by that of the man he defeated in the first round at Sydney: Miguel Cotto.
It helps, of course, if a boxer leaves the Olympics with just the right combination of skill, talent, drive, natural charm and charisma -- and a team with management and promotional acumen. Oscar De La Hoya was the Golden Boy not just because of the color of the medal he won in Barcelona in 1992, but also because of his million-dollar smile, his work ethic and his willingness to take on all comers. Which in theory augurs well for Shakur Stevenson, who had to settle for silver in Rio last year, but who took his time when it came to turning pro, mulling over an assortment of offers before settling on a management deal with Andre Ward -- another Olympic gold medalist-turned-outstanding professional champion -– and signing with Top Rank, the same promotional company that guided the career of De La Hoya, among many others.
Stevenson has an easy, outgoing charm, and a confidence mixed with humility: He professed to Melissa Stark on HBO’s The Fight Game with Jim Lampley that he wants to be “the future of boxing,” but he shows up on time for appointments and willingly entertains all interview requests with a ready smile. At a media event this week, the slogan on his T-shirt -- “Just a Kid from Newark” -- seemed designed to accentuate his adherence to his roots and the firmness to which his feet remain attached to the ground. On Saturday, he will box for just the second time as a professional, at Madison Square Garden, the self-styled Mecca of Boxing. What happens from here is up to Stevenson; but there is no denying that everything is being set up to make him a success out of the gate.
By way of contrast, though, consider a man who will be in the headline bout at The Garden on Saturday. Felix Diaz won gold in 2008 and turned pro in 2009; eight years later, he has contested a grand total of 20 professional bouts, compiling a record of 19-1, and, at age 33, is challenging for a world title for the first time. It is not that Diaz can’t fight -- he is fully expected to be a tough outing for champion Terence Crawford. But winning gold for the Dominican Republic does not have the same built-in promotional advantages as doing so for the United States or Great Britain; and without a compelling story, an overpowering personality or a spectacularly eye-catching fighting style, it is easy for even an Olympic champion to get lost in the shuffle.
For Diaz, that led to inactivity, a willingness to compete outside his ideal weight division in order to secure fights, a perception that he was a B-side fighter and a controversial loss to a more celebrated boxer (Lamont Peterson). It is to Diaz's credit, and that of his promotional team, that he persistently demanded a Crawford fight; and it is testament to his undoubted ability that boxing writers joined the chorus and deemed the Dominican one of the few worthy challengers to the man from Nebraska.
It has been a long road to this fight for Diaz, likely a longer one than he imagined it would be when he stood on the podium in Beijing nine years ago. But if, on Saturday night, he joins the ranks of Olympians who have gone on to professional glory, he will have done so by overturning one of the most highly regarded boxers in the world today, and that will be the result, not of gold medals and gilded paths, but of grit, graft and a talent that will have finally gained its full and just reward.