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Bob Ryan

Times have changed for US men’s boxing

LONDON — A couple of Big Guy bouts with the Russians might have been an Olympic show-stopper in Rome, Tokyo, Mexico City, Munich, Montreal, and Seoul.

But both the geopolitics and the status of the United States boxing program have changed. It’s no particular big deal for an American to compete against someone from Russia, and it’s even a lesser deal when the American loses.

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Team USA put up two nice young men against a pair of Russians at the ExCel Arena Wednesday afternoon. They both lost, one in a very close bout and the other in a wire-to-wire rout.

First up was heavyweight (91 kg) Michael Hunter II, who fights, among other reasons, in honor of his professional boxer father, the late Michael “The Bounty Hunter” Hunter Sr. He battled Russian Artur Beterbiev evenly, tying him at 10-10 after three rounds, but lost in a “Count Back” tiebreaker system. Hunter had waited four years to become an Olympian, having failed to make the team in Beijing after being hit with food poisoning.

He was followed into the ring approximately an hour later by 6-foot-7-inch super-heavyweight (91-plus kg) Dominic Breazeale, who was a good enough quarterback at Northern Colorado to get a look-see by the NFL. His inexperience was in full evidence as he was handed a 19-8 thrashing by Magomed Omarov of Russia.

Once, America sent Large People of renown to the Olympics. Rome in 1960 is where Cassius Clay, a light-heavy, entered the American consciousness. He would be followed by such fistic luminaries as Ray Mercer — a WBO champ, lest you forget — Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Leon Spinks, and Evander Holyfield. Now we just hope to win a bout or two. That’s not the official rhetoric emanating from USA Boxing, but that’s the reality. For whatever reason, be it funding or just a general lack of interest, we are barely competitive in the heavier weight classes.

It’s hard to exaggerate just how outclassed Breazeale was against the far more experienced Omarov. The bout was semi-officially over after the first round, in which Omarov emerged with a 5-1 lead. The Moroccan, Vietnamese, and Italian judges each had the Russian pitching a shutout.

Things never got much better for Breazeale, his tough afternoon culminating when Omarov delivered a very big left to the chin with five seconds left, a blow that served as a symbolic conclusion to a one-sided affair.

“Trying to play catch-up in boxing isn’t going to work,” Breazeale said. “I wasn’t able to stick to my game plan, which was to try to stay away from his lead hands. He’s a big, strong guy, and he can definitely punch.”

Breazeale insisted that boxing will remain his life, the implication being that all he needs is to acquire the savvy of his foes, some of whom, by Breazeale’s reckoning, “have been at this for 16 or 17 years.” It would be imprudent not to wish him the best of luck in this endeavor, but it would also be fair to say he’s going to need it. What with all the lunging and flailing about, would it be excessively melodramatic to suggest that it called to mind everything I’ve ever read about Primo Carnera?

Now here’s the deal with Hunter and the “Count Back” defeat. According to the rules, in the event of a tie, [the judges] “delete the lowest and highest total in each of the red and blue corner. Then, the winner is determined by the total scores of its three remaining judges of each red and blue corner.”

Got that?

Whatever the case, Hunter was completely at peace with the outcome. “I think he was the better man today,” Hunter said. “He deserved it. He was able to put his game plan in more than I was. He was better.”

Hunter also said that his legs began to go, to “fatigue,” in the third.

“Don’t want to make any excuses,” he explained, “but in the last couple of days I got a cold.”

He was slightly more the aggressor in the opening round, and he came out leading, 4-3. He was still ahead, 8-7, entering the third round. There didn’t appear to be much separating the two in that final round, not that there was a surfeit of action at any point in this rather dreary bout. There were a lot more clinches than decent exchanges, and, frankly, 10-10 really did seem like a proper outcome.

For someone who has worked seven years to get into that ring, Hunter was remarkably unemotional about the experience. “I wanted gold,” he said. “I haven’t fulfilled my mission. But I’ve got to keep at it. I’m definitely turning professional. I’ve been at this a long time, and I’m ready to move on.”

Will we ever hear much from Hunter in the ensuing years? I truly have no idea. As for Dominic Breazeale, he seems like a really nice guy. I hope he doesn’t get hurt.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.
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