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BOXING

PEEKING DOWN UNDER

It is, at once, sad and titilating. Outdated, but somehow vital.

In our supposedly enlightened, post-Cold War generation, there is still something about a confrontation between the United States and Cuba that makes for fascinating theater. It will be a storyline in baseball and maybe another sport or two, but nowhere so much as in the boxing ring.

Cuba is the world's greatest amateur boxing nation. The United States would like to think otherwise, but has been unable to convince even itself. In the last two Olympic Games, the Cubans have won 11 of a possible 24 gold medals in boxing. The United States has won two.

Cuban coach Alcides Sagarra has gone so far as to predict medals in all 12 weight classes for his boxers in 2000. Cuba earned six medals in 1996 and seven in '92.

The United States has been in an Olympic boxing funk since the '88 Games that featured future professionals Roy Jones, Ray Mercer and Riddick Bowe.

U.S. coach Tom Mustin said this summer's team is the best in recent years. There are three world champions _ Brian Viloria at 106 pounds, Richardo Juarez at 125 pounds and Michael Bennett at 201 pounds _ and several others with the potential to win gold.

"In the last couple of years, the U.S. team has beaten Cuba in several weights," Mustin said. "They're not invincible. This team is not afraid of Cuba. They kind of get ticked off if you mention Cuba."

NAMES TO REMEMBER

The United States won an impressive four gold medals at the world championships in 1999, the team's best showing in seven years. Three of those champions will try to win Olympic gold. The fourth _ Larry Mosley _ is not in Australia.

On the way to an Olympic berth, Mosley was upset by Dante Craig in the Olympic box-offs. Craig began the year ranked No. 8 in the nation but now is considered a medal contender at 147 pounds.

Craig, 22, had to beat Mosley two straight times at the box-offs and did it by the narrowest of margins. He won the first bout 8-7 and, when they tied 9-9 after four rounds in the second bout, Craig was declared the winner by the number of total punches (49 to 46).

Another surprise entry is Jose Navarro. For three straight years, Navarro came up short in the U.S. Championships, but made the Olympic team by beating Roberto Benitez at the box-offs.

Navarro will attempt to become the first boxer from Los Angeles to win an Olympic gold since Oscar de la Hoya in 1992.

THE HEAT IS ON

A convicted felon is about to enter American living rooms.

In an Olympics supposedly short on star power in the states, Michael Bennett could be the symbol of the American dream and a favorite of NBC's prime-time coverage.

Twenty-six months ago, Bennett was finishing up a seven-year prison term for armed robbery. He was a teenager in Chicago in the early 1990s when convicted of robbing a toy store with friends.

Since then, he earned his associate's degree in prison, became a Christian and turned himself into a world champion amateur boxer.

"It is great to be considered the best at what this country has to offer," Bennett said. "Especially from where I have come from."

One of the defining moments of the Sydney Games could come in the gold medal bout in the heavyweight division. Cuba's Felix Savon is attempting to become just the third boxer to win gold in three straight Olympics.

Bennett, 29, may be the man standing in his way.

Barely a year out of prison, Bennett won the heavyweight title at the world championships last summer. He was supposed to fight Savon in the title match, but the Cuban forfeited in support of his country's protest of a decision in another weight class.

If all goes as planned, they will finally meet in Sydney.

DID YOU KNOW?

Coach Tom Mustin is convinced the United States will perform better this month because the boxers have become computer-friendly.

Scoring in amateur boxing is done by five ring-side judges who hit a button every time they see a competitor land a punch. If three of the judges hit the button within a second of each other, the punch counts.

Mustin said U.S. officials were slow to grasp the idea that fighters need to tailor their strategy so judges can see clean blows.

Mustin spent hours studying tapes from a Goodwill Games competition to determine the type and location of punches that drew the most points.

"From studying tapes and talking to officials, we found out in order for three officials to see a punch, you're better off fighting in the middle of the ring," Mustin said. "If you're boxing off the ropes, it's hard for three officials to see the punches land so we're staying off the ropes."

THE WORLD VIEW

In an effort to reduce the number of boxers at the Games, countries were forced to go through qualifiers before earning a spot in Sydney.

Cuba, as the No. 1 team in the world, was automatically granted spots in all 12 weight divisions. The United States was the only country to actually qualify boxers in all 12 classes. Russia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan and Australia have 10 boxers each. Germany has seven.

One of the more entertaining stories of the Games will be the fate of Somluck Khamsing. He won the first Olympic gold for Thailand in 1996 and will be back to defend his featherweight title this month. Somluck is a soap opera star in Thailand and has a rabid fan base that follows him from competition to competition.

ATLANTA RECAP

The United States was 2{ minutes away from leaving the Olympics without a gold medal. The team had come to Atlanta with expectations of 10 or more medals, but had won just five bronzes going into the final day of boxing.

Light middleweight David Reid was the last hope but was hopelessly behind 16-7 to Cuba's Alfred Duvergel in the final round.

The United States had won at least one boxing gold in every Olympic year since 1948, but it appeared the streak was coming to an end.

That is when Reid landed a right-hand counter to the head and Duvergel pitched forward. The Cuban got up at the eight count, but the referee stopped the bout and Reid _ and the United States _ had the gold.

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