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John Powers

US boxing team will medal in Rio, but they’re building for 2020

Billy Walsh’s men’s team is guaranteed two medals in Rio, a far cry from 2012, when they were shut out.
Billy Walsh’s men’s team is guaranteed two medals in Rio, a far cry from 2012, when they were shut out. Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

RIO DE JANEIRO — Things couldn’t have gotten much lower than they were four years ago when USA Boxing sent nine men to London and none of them made the medal stand in America’s worst showing ever at Olympus. The former planetary powerhouse that had produced the likes of Patterson, Clay, Foreman, Frazier, Leonard, and De La Hoya had been reduced to providing preliminary fodder for Uzbeks, Kazakhs, and Indians.

“It’s amazing how far they’ve fallen from grace,” coach Billy Walsh told the Irish Times after he took over the flagging US program earlier this year. Not only had the Yanks failed to win medals at the two world championships since the last Games, they qualified only six men for this tournament, the smallest squad since 1908, when only five weight classes were contested.

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That’s why Walsh, who’d directed Ireland’s men’s and women’s teams to seven medals at the last two Olympics, was brought in to salvage whatever was possible for Rio and to build for next time.

“The real work will be done after the Games,” says Walsh, whose six-figure salary reportedly is being paid by the USOC. “This is a Tokyo 2020 project, really.”

By recent measures what the men, none older than 20, already have accomplished in Rio is significant, with two medals guaranteed. Light flyweight Nico Hernandez earned a bronze, the first US medal since 2008 and the first in the event since 1988. And bantamweight Shakur Stevenson, who faces Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin in Thursday’s semifinals, has a chance to win the first gold medal since light heavyweight Andre Ward in 2004.

“I came here for gold,” declared the 19-year-old Newark native, who considers Ward to be his role model. “I didn’t come here for silver. I didn’t come here for bronze. I came here for gold.”

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For decades, the Americans were on the gold standard. The 1976 squad, up against the Cubans who then were in their heyday, won five with Sugar Ray Leonard, the Spinks brothers, Leo Randolph, and Howard Davis. As recently as 1988 they claimed three and were deprived of another when light middleweight Roy Jones was jobbed. But years of federation turmoil, defections of promising contenders to the pro ranks and a haphazard old-school approach to training made the US all but invisible at the global level.

“They haven’t been training like world-class athletes, they’ve been training like amateurs,” said Walsh, who operates out of the team’s Colorado Springs headquarters as the head women’s and de facto men’s coach. “And amateur is gone.”

The changes in Olympic boxing since the last Games have been profound. Pros now are eligible, the 10-point-must scoring system has been adopted, protective headgear for men has been banished and “ring girls” now announce the upcoming round. The Americans had to adapt or go extinct.

Not that there wasn’t resistance to Walsh taking over a program that traditionally had homegrown leadership. For a while the boxers, who couldn’t decipher his Wexford brogue, resorted to lip-reading. But when Walsh’s technical and tactical acumen began producing results and his charges came around.

“We met eye-to-eye; he leveled with me and I leveled with him,” said light welterweight Gary Russell. “He is a great coach. He is going to sit there and study you and try to make you better.”

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The women’s program, which collected a gold and a bronze in three classes in 2012, already was competitive. Claressa Shields, who dominated Russia’s Iaroslava Iakushina on Wednesday, is favored to win consecutive middleweight golds and lightweight Mikaela Mayer missed the medal round on a split decision. If the women’s tournament had the same number of classes as does the men (10), the US might have collected five medals here since they won that many at this year’s world championships.

“We’re just starting to get some recognition,” Shields said. “I think the best female boxers deserve to be on that platform where we get the chance to do something in professional boxing and get the same treatment as men.”

If the US males can match what the women have been doing at the global level, they’ll be more than competitive at the next Games. “I’m absolutely thrilled,” said Walsh. “Having two men’s medals coming has been fantastic and we could have had a few more.”

Lightweight Carlos Balderas lost to Cuban three-time world titlist Lazaro Alvarez in the quarterfinals. And Russell dropped a controversial split decision in the quarterfinals to Uzbek rival Fazliddin Gaibnazarov, whom he clearly outboxed. Two men on the podium, though, is an undeniable upgrade.

“It feels good, knowing that we didn’t get a medal at the last Olympics,” said Hernandez. “That gave me and my team a lot of motivation. It means a lot to me that we are coming in here and getting the job done.”

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John Powers can be reached at john.powers@globe.com.