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Lackluster bouts won't lead to gold

When the sound began, a rumble in the distance, Gwen Tarver looked puzzled. As the sound graduated into displeasure, she began to scowl. How could this happen? How could they boo her son?

After all, they had come to cheer Antonio Tarver, had they not? Even Evander Holyfield, sitting there at ringside, had come to honor the Golden Boy. By now, everyone acknowledges Tarver is the best boxer, with the best future, with the best story, on the U.S. Olympic team.

Yet, as he walked away from the ring, seconds after his first Olympic victory, the noise began. They were booing Antonio Tarver.

Already, it had been a tough day. Tarver had been slung onto his rump by his opponent, scolded by his coach and awakened from a prefight slumber that somehow lasted through the first two rounds.

One more time: Are you sure Oscar De La Hoya did it this way?

If Tarver is going to win the gold medal, and the gold beyond it, let it be written that his first steps toward the platform will be remembered less for the fury than the sound. Tarver, fighting as if he were personally responsible for bringing ballroom dancing to the Olympics, had to hold on to beat unknown Russian Dmitri Vybornov 5-2.

"His performance was lousy," is the way coach Al Mitchell summed it up. "Thank God he won."

That about covers it. Tarver, a light heavyweight, led the clumsy Russian only 3-2 after two periods. He was not the crisp, efficient boxer acknowledged to be the best bet for a United States medal. He was not flash and fire. What he was, as Mitchell said, was lucky.

"I wasn't pleased," said Tarver, his 8-year-old son Tony squirming in his lap. "I wasn't focused. I really can't say why I wasn't ready. Everyone has a bad night, and this was mine. I assure you I'll be better next time."

All of the ingredients seemed to be there for Tarver to make his Olympic entrance in grand style. He has been in a cranky mood since he arrived and learned that the closest Olympic boxing would get to prime time was Muhammad Ali and Holyfield in the Opening Ceremonies. He has bristled at the questions of his teammates' run-ins with the law. And he had waited until Wednesday before stepping into the ring.

But Tarver seemed to have trouble with Vybornov's style, which frankly had a lot in common with wrestler Alexander Karelin. Vybornov was cautioned for grabbing Tarver in a headlock, for slinging him to the mat, for punching behind his head. And still, it didn't seem to wake up Tarver.

Between the second and third periods, Mitchell yelled at Tarver "mamma-jamma, you've got to throw punches."

Finally, Tarver did. He scored a point with a minute and a half left and another with 40 seconds left to make the final score sound safe. And he promptly declared this as his wake-up call for the rest of the Games.

Perhaps. If nothing else, Tarver's life has been that of a slow starter. Of someone who struggled, who occasionally found himself rump down on the mat, of someone who survived to go on to better things.

Go back nine years. Tarver was just another guy on an Orlando street, more concerned with getting high than getting by. He didn't get the football or basketball scholarship he wanted, and he had a son out of wedlock, and he was working in a cafeteria for minimal wages.

Then came the crack cocaine. For two years, he abused drugs.

"That wasn't me," he said. "We've all made mistakes. I know I hurt a lot of people with the things I did. That motivates me to go on."

For Tarver, the slide started to slow when he saw boxer Roy Jones Jr. fight in the Olympics. Tarver had boxed as a youngster, although he had left the sport for five years when his family moved. Watching Jones, he thought about giving it another try. He thought about getting help, too.

So Tarver entered a drug rehab center, and one of the speakers one day was former boxer Pinklon Thomas. Soon, Thomas began to train Tarver. Eventually, Tarver went to work under trainer Lou Harris, who convinced him to remain an amateur, that the Olympics was his route to a big payday.

The next big step was stability. Tarver had trouble keeping a job while training until the Olympic Job Opportunity Program helped him out. He went to work at Home Depot, first in the garden department, then behind a cash register. And his boxing prowess grew. He won a world championship and the gold at the Pan Am Games.

Now, he is the designated boxing star here. At least, that was the script. If Wednesday didn't take the gold from his hands, it did dull the gleam somewhat.

"There is so much pressure on him," Mitchell said. "When 50-million people are telling you you're going to win, you tend to believe them. You tend to try to live up to it."

Was that the problem Wednesday? Perhaps. Was it simply a bad night, as Tarver would have you believe? Perhaps. Or is the golden story of Tarver destined to have a tarnished ending?

"People want something spectacular," he said. "They're going to have to stay tuned."

Cuba's Vinent cruises

Cuban boxers remained unbeaten in 10 bouts when Hector Vinent, a 1992 Olympic champion, knocked down Han Hyung-Min and stopped him with two minutes remaining in the second round.

After taking the first round 4-3, Vinent forced a standing 8-count on the Korean after just 28 seconds of the second round, then stopped him for good with a right-left combination for a 57th-second knockdown.

Vinent's victory ensured that 11 of the 12 Cuban boxers will advance to the second round.

David Diaz's victory at 139 pounds gave the United States a 9-1 record going into the second round. Heavyweight Nate Jones and super-heavyweight Lawrence Clay-Bey drew first-round byes.

Diaz, 20, battered Jacobo Garcia of the Virgin Islands and stopped him at 2:27 of the third round after forcing him to take three standing 8-counts and knocking him down with a shot to the head. Diaz led 25-2 when the fight was stopped.

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