SHAME AND GLORYOUR TALE OF OLYMPIC PROPORTIONS: A SLEAZY SPORT, A MIRACULOUS UPSET AND ALESSON IN FRIENDSHIP

SYDNEY, Australia — Time was, if you wanted the thrill of an Olympic fight, you went to boxing. Now you go to Greco-Roman wrestling.

Time was, if you wanted the agony of an Olympic defeat, you also went to boxing. Now you go to taekwondo.

These days, the “secondary” sports have far more drama. Boxing has …tickets. Plenty of them. And empty seats. Plenty of them. And men in leather coats and cowboy hats and beer bellies. Plenty of them.

Remember when the closing days of an Olympics meant all American eyes focused on the boxing ring and its medal rounds — where heroes were born and future heavyweight champions announced themselves?

Not anymore. The sport has fallen like a glass-jawed pug. It is no longer the place that gave us a young Louisville kid named Cassius Clay, or a svelte George Foreman waving a souvenir American flag, or a baby-faced Sugar Ray Leonard bolo punching his opponents and winking at the camera.

It is, instead, a quagmire of confused competition and judging scandals. It is the easiest ticket to get in Sydney because, even Down Under, boxing has sunk under the weight of its own stink, the way it has sunk everywhere else in the world.

This was never more evident than in the last few days. On Tuesday, I made the mistake of swallowing some of the sweaty hype that is all boxing has left. It was the same old sales pitch: Come see a “promising, widely hailed American heavyweight” take down a communist legend.

In this case, the legend was legit: Cuba’s Felix Savon, 33, trying for a third straight Olympic gold medal.

The “promising, widely hailed American heavyweight,” on the other hand, was a 29-year-old named Michael Bennett, who came to the Olympics the hard way.

Seven years in jail for armed robbery.

Only boxing.

“Mama said knock you out!” the music blared as Bennett half-danced, half-ran into the ring. He shadowboxed. He waved at the crowd. He took a series of quick bows, one to each corner of the room. After his final bow, he turned, looked up and blinked. There, towering over him, was the implacable Savon, silent, glaring, waiting for Bennett to finish his little show so he could shake his hand, get the bout started, and embarrass him in front of the world.

The bell sounded.

“BOX!” yelled the official.

Over at wrestling

A better place to be, we now know, was the Greco-Roman wrestling venue. There, an American Man of La Mancha was fighting the unbeatable foe, a Russian who was going for his fourth straight Olympic gold medal. The foe: Alexandre Karelin. His code name: “The Siberian Bear.” His profile: a lone intellectual assassin who reads poetry, listens to classical music, is capable of throwing his opponents across the mat — and I mean literally throwing them — and once carried a refrigerator up seven flights of stairs rather than ask for help.

In the last 13 years, the Siberian Bear had never been touched. Never tarnished. Never lost a match. Heck, nobody had scored a point on him for more than a decade.

And then came Wednesday night in Sydney. A Wyoming dairy farmer’s son named Rulon Gardner — who had never finished higher than fifth place in a world championship — did the impossible. He scored a point on Karelin by maintaining his locked grasp around the Russian’s body while the Russian’s hands slipped apart.

Gardner then held Karelin off the rest of the way, avoiding the giant’s throws, frustrating his holds, escaping his desperate grabs through a tense, tight overtime. Finally, with eight seconds left, the great legend did what great legends do when age and time catch up with them: He acknowledged defeat and dropped his hands. He muttered something in Russian.

“I think he said, ‘I quit,’ ” Gardner would say.

And it was over. The dairy farmer’s kid had stunned the wrestling world with a lighting bolt every bit as electric as the 1980 Olympic U.S. hockey victory. He had the super-heavyweight gold. He had toppled the giant and the beanstalk.

“When did I know I could beat him?” Gardner said. “When it was over.”

And when it was over, the oversized American — who weighed 125 pounds in fourth grade — did a cartwheel. The crowd roared. And then a somersault. The crowd roared. And then he took a flag and ran around the room with it draped over his sweaty, beefy shoulders.

“I kept saying throughout the match, ‘I think I can, I think I can.’ “

Never mind that with the flag draping his corpulent frame, which bulged out of his singlet, he looked a bit like Chris Farley on the fourth of July. Who cares?

This was a moment that was pure in its victory and inspiring in its emotion.

The kind we used to get at boxing.

And don’t anymore.

Over at taekwondo

And then, to contrast that victory, there was the majestic defeat. A better place than boxing to see that was the taekwondo competition, where an American teenager named Kay Poe took a lead into the third round of her first match.

Watching Poe from the stands, and cheering her on, was her dear friend and training partner, Esther Kim. It was only thanks to Kim that Poe was out there at all. In the Olympic trials, Poe had been favored to win. She was the No. 1-ranked flyweight in the world. But she suffered a knee injury and was unable to compete in the final bout, where she was to face Kim.

Since the rules stated that whoever won the trials match would make the Olympic team, Kim had the door wide open for her. Sydney beckoned.

But she didn’t feel right about it. She felt that Poe was the better contender, and if not for injury would have made it. She also knew that if her friend, in desperation to make the team, decided to fight anyhow, she might do permanent damage to her knee.

So Kim did something you would never expect hungry Olympians to do: She forfeited her trials match, thereby making Poe the winner and ensuring her a spot on the team.

It is as selfless an act as has been witnessed in recent Olympics.

And on Wednesday night, there was Kim, in the stands, rooting her friend to win a gold medal with her golden opportunity.

It should have ended that way. It did not.

Instead, Poe’s opponent, a Danish woman, scored four quick points in the final frame and won the bout. The story was over.

Still, Kim did not regret her decision for a moment.

“I’m proud of Kay, win or lose,” Kim said. “She shouldn’t feel she let anyone down.

“She’s already a winner. She made the Olympics. How many people get to say that?”

Ironically, not the person saying it.

It is the kind of story that makes a battle human.

The kind boxing used to give us.

And doesn’t anymore.

Back to boxing

Instead, back at the boxing ring, Bennett, the ex-con who learned to box behind bars, heard the bell, ran across the canvas and went smack into the long arms of Savon. Maybe he believed his own hype as the world champion at his weight, but that title only came once the Cubans — including Savon — pulled out of the competition in protest of (guess what?) the judging. So here was Bennett, all but sticking his face into Savon’s punches. And before you could say, “Can we start over?” the American was behind on points, 3-1, then 5-2, then 7-2.

It was not the kind of scoring we are used to — blows that do some damage — but rather the number of times a certain part of Savon’s glove made contact with a certain part of Bennett’s face. The Cubans know how to fight this way. Americans prefer, well, like the song goes, Mama said knock you out. Mama didn’t say “peck the guy to death.”

Which is one reason American boxing fans have turned away from Olympic boxing: They don’t understand it. They are too used to WWF wrestling. They don’t get how you can win a bout easily without even throwing a guy off-balance.

Bennett, for all the hype, didn’t seem to understand it either. He kept making the same mistake over and over, allowing Savon to score at will from the outside. A jab. Another jab. A right cross. Another jab.

When the score reached Cuban 23, American 8, the referee called the bout, the way a Little League ump calls a game under the “mercy” rule.

In Olympic boxing, they say the loser was “outclassed.”

You can say that again.

“I gave him too many straight shots,” Bennett later said, surprisingly upbeat for a guy who had his hat handed to him. “I just stood there and I was a target for him.

“But we’re all still happy because we came out here and did our best and that’s all we can ask, give 110 percent, hang on, don’t quit, don’t give up, only the strong survive.”

Well. At least his cliches got a workout.

As for the drama, the emotion, the tense battles that used to mark U.S. Olympic boxing?

Nobody even cares to look. The Cubans — with no pro fights as an option — take the Olympics super-seriously. Americans, who only really get excited if there’s money on the line, take it the way they take boxing in general. Meaning, they leave it.

Everything in between is a series of disputes, failed drug tests, filed protests and hyperbole. Like “come see the widely hailed American heavyweight topple the evil communist.”

Forget it, America has won only two gold medals in boxing over the last two Olympics. The Cubans dominate, the Koreans and Russians are in there, and no matter how far away you go these days, you enter a boxing arena and you start seeing Don Kings everywhere.

It ain’t the way it used to be. And it’s time for a change. Let’s face it. When wrestlers give you more drama and taekwondo athletes give you more pathos, it may be time to get the ring out of the five rings and back into the circus. It seems to be heading there anyhow.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). And catch Mitch’s Olympic TV reports on “The Early Show,” 7-9 a.m. weekdays on CBS (Channel 62 in Detroit).

MEDAL COUNT

Leaders through 209 events

G S B Tot

United States 29 15 25 69 Russia 18 17 21 56 China 25 14 15 54 Australia 13 21 14 48 Germany 8 11 17 36

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