Rau’shee Warren pulled his shirt up out of his boxing trunks, buried his head in it and sobbed.
He had to say something. Six or eight reporters who had been following his Olympic Dream were waiting to hear exactly how it had died in the Worker’s Gymnasium. They wanted to know why he danced around the ring for the final half-minute of the final round, not even trying to throw a punch when he was down a point to his Korean opponent, why he threw his glove in one direction and his headgear in another.
A USA Boxing press aide took him in her arms and whispered something in his ear. She tried to tell him that it would be all right. But it wasn’t. It was all wrong.
Four years ago, Warren had come out of Cincinnati to make the U.S. Olympic team at the age of 17. He had lost in the first round, a victim of youth, inexperience and eventual bronze medalist Zou Shiming of China. And then he had done something no American Olympic boxer had done for 32 years. He decided to remain an amateur, stay with the Olympic team, fight for a chance to win the gold medal that’s filled his dreams since he gave his age in single digits.
He became world champion at 112 pounds last year, punched his ticket to Beijing, and was favored to win a medal. Tuesday night, he stepped into the ring for his first match.
And now it was over, and he didn’t know why.
He tried to talk again, broke down again, his audience of seasoned boxing writers trying not to break down with him. He walked a few feet away, put his head against a wall and was enveloped in another hug by the press aide. Finally, he faced the music he himself had composed.
“Right now it doesn’t seem real to me,” Warren said when he’d gotten himself together enough to talk. He words were clear and spoken aloud, not whispered, but his chin was on his chest, his eyes pointed at the floor but focused on nothing.
“I didn’t know I was down. I thought I was ahead,” he said.
That was it. He thought he was leading Lee Oksung on points, thought he was winning the fight, thought he’d outclassed and outboxed the Korean, thought he was moving on when he was only moving out.
How Warren came to his belief wasn’t clear. The score at Olympic boxing matches is displayed on a scoreboard above the ring. The fighters can’t see it, but their coaches and teammates in the stands can. For the final 50 seconds of the fight, it was 9 points for Lee and 8 for Warren. During that entire time, his coaches and teammates were screaming at him to attack.
“There was so much going on in the crowd, everybody was yelling and screaming,” he said. “I was looking at my teammates, and it sounded like they were saying move, and it also sounded like they were saying fight. I just thought I was up because I was scoring.”
He had been the aggressor in the fight, his opponent hanging back and scoring his points by countering Warren’s big punches. Like many American fighters, Warren does a lot of styling in the ring, carrying his hands low and dancing like a miniature Muhammad Ali. He’ll be able to do that as a pro, but in amateur bouts, if you don’t keep your guard up, you get hit. It doesn’t matter if the punch is hard or just a love-tap. If it’s clean, it’s a point. Warren threw scores — probably a couple hundred — of punches and landed a lot of them. But not enough of them were clean hits.
He did land the one punch that would have tied the bout, but it arrived at its destination a fraction of a second after the bell ended the fight. Even then, as Lee raised his arms in triumph, Warren still thought he’d won. He walked to his corner, where the team’s head coach, Dan Campbell, told him otherwise.
“My coach said that I lost by one point,” Warren said. That’s when he ripped off a glove and tossed it aside, then followed by flinging his headgear out of the ring.
“I started showing bad sportsmanship,” Warren said, another bit of psychic wreckage he’d have to live with.
The impulse to throw things was understandable. Warren said when he learned he’d lost, “it was hard. I was thinking about every day, every week, every month; four years I worked to get back for this.”
This was the Olympics. This was a shot at a gold medal. This was a ticket out of the hard life he wanted to leave behind. He’ll still turn pro, but it won’t be with the contract and money that comes with a gold medal. The road to riches for Rau’shee Warren had just gotten a lot harder and less certain than it might have been — if only he’d known the score.
Both Warren and Campbell questioned the scoring and said Warren should have been in the lead. They felt it was curious that every time Warren went a point ahead, the Korean almost immediately scored a point to tie it again. But Lee was countering when Warren was stylin’. The Korean’s strategy worked. Warren’s didn’t.
Olympic fighters are taught from Day 1 not to ever assume they are winning. Scoring is sometimes mystifying to observers — and the fighters themselves. “The thing guys got to know is they have to try to keep it out of the hands of the judges,” Campbell said. He called the loss “stunning.”
“It was just weird, weird scoring,” Campbell said later.
Still, the coach said he was mystified why his fighter stopped fighting in the final half-minute. “We were screaming at him to throw punches. We were screaming at him.”
It’s not been a good tournament for the U.S. Boxing Team. One of its best fighters, bantamweight Gary Russell Jr., was disqualified when he passed out from dehydration while trying to make weight. And now the team’s only other strong medal contender has danced his way out of the Games.
“It didn’t feel real,” Warren said before literally staggering away, the burden of loss too heavy for his legs to support. “I didn’t feel I lost in there.”