TOKYO — He sensed the vibe as soon as he disposed of an overmatched Algerian in his first bout.
“This is destiny,” superheavyweight boxer Richard Torrez Jr. declared Wednesday after he’d slugged his way into the Olympic final. “There’s something here about it that I feel like I’m supposed to be here. I feel like it’s meant to be.”
It’s been 33 years since the US male boxers have had that feeling of gilded inevitability, that they’re meant to stand atop the podium at the Games because their predecessors always had. For the first time since the 1988 Seoul Games, where the Americans produced three champions and three silver medalists in 11 events, they’ll have as many as three men fighting for gold.
Torrez and featherweight Duke Ragan already have earned their places in the championship bouts, and lightweight Keyshawn Davis will join them if he beats Armenia’s Hovhannes Bachkov Friday.
What’s been going on for the past dozen days at Kokugikan Arena is a resurrection that’s been five years in the making. After the US program hit rock bottom in London in 2012, with only one man reaching the quarterfinals, Billy Walsh, who’d directed the Irish men and women to seven medals in Beijing and London, crossed the pond to provide a bit of salvation for the floundering Americans.
“It’s amazing how far they’ve fallen from grace,” Walsh told the Irish Times.
Walsh was no miracle worker, but he knew what had to be done. Get the Americans to stop training like amateurs. “Amateur is gone,” he said. Get the boxers’ personal coaches (often their fathers) to start trusting the national team’s coaches. And convince them that an Olympic gold medal still was the best springboard to a pro career.
Walsh didn’t have much time to prepare the Rio squad, but the men picked up two medals there, their most since 2004.
“The real work will be done after the Games,” he said. “This is a Tokyo 2020 project, really.”
Since the hemispheric qualifying tournament hadn’t yet been held when the Games were postponed last year, there’s no way of knowing who would have made this team then. When the qualifier was scrubbed this year, only Torrez and welterweight Delante Johnson from the original roster earned spots based on rankings from 2019 and earlier.
But when the process was opened up this spring to include those who hadn’t been on the roster, the Americans suddenly went from two fighters to five, adding Ragan, Davis, and middleweight Troy Isley, all pros and former world medalists.
“If the Olympics wasn’t delayed, then I wouldn’t be fighting here,” said Ragan, who’ll be the first US featherweight champion since Meldrick Taylor in 1984 if he beats Russia’s Albert Batyrgaziev Thursday.
Davis, the 2019 global silver medalist, was irked when he drew France’s Sofiane Oumiha, the Rio runner-up, as his second opponent.
“I feel kind of disrespected,” he said. “Like they’re trying to get me out of the tournament.”
Davis stopped Oumiha in the second round, then pummeled Russia’s Gabil Mamedov, and now faces Bachkov, whom he dominated at the last world tournament.
“The gold medal is the one and only thing that I need to put on my résumé as of right now,” said the 22-year-old Davis, who’d be the youngest lightweight champ since 19-year-old Oscar de la Hoya in 1992.
Gold used to be the only standard that the Americans recognized. The storied 1976 team, which included Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers, collected five golds, a silver, and a bronze in 11 events. The 1984 squad amassed nine golds, albeit in a boycott-depleted field that was missing eight Cuban and Soviet world champions.
There hasn’t been an anthem played for a US male since light heavy Andre Ward in 2004. Now there’s a good chance for a trio.
The most intriguing possibility is Torrez, who’s already the first American medalist at his weight since Riddick Bowe in 1988 and would be the first champion since Tyrell Biggs in 1984.
“I think this is something the US needs, and I’m just proud that I could be the person for that,” said Torrez, whose father reached the 1984 trials quarterfinals.
To get here, Torrez had to get past the customary Cuban (Danier Pero) and Kamshybek Kunkabayev, the Kazakh world silver medalist. To set the medal-round mood, he walked into the arena to classical music.
“That was the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ by Beethoven, the first movement,” said Torrez, who was a California high school valedictorian. “I’d listen to that before tests and playing chess. So I transitioned it to boxing.”
Torrez soon had Kunkabayev seeing stars with his left hand. He knocked him down twice, then opened up the Kazakh’s nose, prompting Romanian referee Ramona Cobzac to stop the fight in the third round.
Now he has a chance to join the Clays (later Ali) and Fraziers and Foremans. All Torrez has to do is beat Uzbekistan’s Bakhodir Jalolov, the man who knocked him out at the global tournament.
“I have this existential feeling that it’s destiny,” Torrez said. “There’s nothing else to it. I don’t know where to put it, I don’t know how to say it. What is love, you know? It’s kind of that same thing. I’m meant to be here and all I know is that.”