by Cain Bradley

The phrase 'dream team' tends to evoke memories of various dominant sporting teams. The 1992 Olympic Basketball team is usually the main reference, but a strong Barcelona team in the early 90s, the Philadelphia Eagles of 2011 and the ‘95 Puerto Rican baseball team have all been bestowed the title.

Boxing - as an individual sport - has not seen many dream teams. The American Olympic team in 1984 earned that title. They won 11 medals in 12 weight-classes, with only one man not managing to medal and nine going on to challenge for world titles.

The 1984 Olympics were slightly tainted by the Soviet boycott which also meant Cuba missed out on the Olympics, but the success the American team went on to enjoy at the professional level shows the amount of sheer talent they had in that team.

The 1984 Olympic Games must be framed in the context of the Soviet boycott. Mainly seen as retaliation for the 1980 boycott of the Moscow Olympics by the United States, the Soviet Union declared it was to avoid the “anti-Soviet hysteria whipped up in the United States.” This meant that the USSR, East Germany and Cuba all missed out on the tournament. These countries had combined for all but six of the finalists in 1980. They chose to concurrently hold the Friendship Games. Cuba dominated that, winning all but one gold medal themselves with East Germany taking the other. It impacted the American medal count positively, although you could argue the American team was good enough to have still broken the boxing gold medal record.

Prior to 1984, the dream team referenced the 1976 US Olympic team. They won five gold medals against strong Cuban and Soviet teams. The undoubted star was Sugar Ray Leonard. Howard Davis was the boxer of the tournament, but would go on to struggle as a professional never winning a world title. It also had the two Spinks brothers, Leon and Michael who both impressed at the Olympics and then as professionals.

The other gold medal winner was Leo Randolph.

Arguments still rage as to which team deserves to be labelled the dream team. That team laid the path for the ‘84 team. The exposure they received from newspapers and TV had helped, along with Muhammad Ali revitalising boxing in America.

Going into the Olympics, more of the boxers had become household names. The two dream teams have long been compared although Howard Davis and Mark Breland both described the two teams as almost even. America has long been that nation that dominates boxing. They have 13 more Olympic gold medals than any other nation, despite only winning eight golds in the last eight Olympics. The glamour divisions throughout the 70's up until the Olympics were also dominated by Americans. George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, Bob Foster, Michael Spinks, Marvin Hagler, Thomas Hearns, Aaron Pryor, Ray Mancini and Jeff Chandler were all big names over that period. America had and was continuing to dominate boxing.

Given the American boycott of the 1980 Olympics it would seem illogical to begin there. However, for one member of the team, his journey begun with qualification for the 1980 Olympics. Robert Shannon qualified in the 106-pound division as a 17-year-old. Unlike his ten team mates who had all chose to turn professional, Shannon had opted to stay amateur because he was told he was too small and there was no money out there for a flyweight. He believed everybody begun to forget about him, but he was always a tough fighter, with great power in his hands and he would not be forgotten for long. He even claimed to have almost quit boxing, in 1982 he went to work on a fishing boat in Alaska. Shannon claimed the 15-to-20 hours a day of thinking time made him realise he wanted to go back into the ring.

For most, the story begins with the 1982 World Championships. Many of the team were not yet on the team, but for some their ability was obvious. Pernell Whitaker cruised through the tournament as an 18-year-old before coming up against two-time Olympic Gold medallist Ángel Herrera Vera of Cuba. Whitaker would battle the Cuban, losing a split decision. Tyrell Biggs battled his way through the tournament. and whilst doing so he got lucky as Teófilo Stevenson, the three-time Olympic champion, was shocked by Francesco Darmani.

Biggs would go on to beat Darmani to become world champion. Mark Breland would be perhaps the most impressive boxer of the tournament, winning each fight either by unanimous decision or stoppage, dropping the impressive Kazakh, Serik Konakbayev, in the final. America had three other men who medalled. Floyd Favors won gold, Michael Collins took silver, whilst Iran Barkley won bronze.

Breland was seen as the future of boxing and a certainty for the gold medal. Sports Illustrated described it as as plain as the graffiti on the buildings in Bed-Stuy that he would win gold. For good reason to, he only lost once as an amateur. He won a record five consecutive New York Golden Gloves championships, knocking out 19 of 21 opponents. In 1981 and 1982 he won the national championships, and in 1982 he won the World championships, dropping and defeating the brilliant Serik Konakbayev of Kazakhstan (then part of the USSR) in the final. Most perceive him to be a busy, because of eventual failings as a professional. What he did do was earn a lot of money. Three months after winning gold he had signed a $3-million dollar ABC deal, was driving a luxury car and lived on Park Avenue. Perhaps his greatest move was putting an annuity in his contract, as advised by Shelly Finkel in 1984. Since turning 30 he has received $100,000 every year and will continue to until his death.

Most of the men who were part of the Dream Team had long amateur careers, often beginning as juniors. In 1982 though, one man had never even had an amateur bout before. That was Henry Tillman. He was sentenced to two years in prison for armed robbery in 1981. The 20-year-old had grown up just four miles from the Los Angeles Sport Arena, but in a rough neighbourhood of South-Central he had found himself getting into increasingly escalating trouble. Throughout his teens he had served short stints in jail for drug sales, grand theft and battery. That prison sentence, at the California Youth Authority, would change his life. He would sign up to the boxing program run by Mercer Smith, having never put on gloves in his life.

As 1983 came other promising boxers were beginning to represent America. A 1983 duel with the Soviet Union would see three boxers represent America at every weight. In addition to Whitaker, Jerry Page, Frank Tate, Virgil Hill, Henry Tillman, Paul Gonzales and Robert Shannon were also called up. A month later and the US would take on Cuba. Only Hill and Tillman represented the US in what was a whitewash for the Cuban team, while Holyfield fought for the B team. The eventual Dream Team would begin to take more of a shape when it came to the Pan American Games later that year. Six of the twelve team members qualified for that tournament, with two more losing in box offs. Robert Shannon was one who missed out, losing to Favors in the semi-final, something which made the Washington man begin to regret his decision to put off professional boxing.

The team that went to the Pan American Games would pick up two gold medals, five silvers and four bronze medals. Middleweight Michael Grogan missed the Games with a freak back injury meaning every American medalled. When McCrory lost a split decision to the Dominican Republic’s Laureano Ramirez in the Semi Final, McCrory said he was going home to restructure his thinking. The star of the games was undoubtedly Pernell Whitaker, overturning his previous defeat to Angel Herrera by almost stopping the legendary Cuban. America were also subjected to two overturned decisions. Bernard Gray was originally awarded the win over Santos Cardona in the semi-finals only for it to be overturned whilst Paul Gonzales was also given the decision in the ring, this time in the final.

Gonzales, known for his short temper, surely erupted when the changed was announced. The classic boxer, grew up in a rough East Los Angeles neighbourhood. A product of a broken home after his father left the when Paul was seven. At nine, he joined one of the thirteen gangs in the area. At twelve, Gonzales was shot whilst in a Chevrolet Impala by a rival gang member. At fifteen a murder charge was filed against him. He got off, a policeman who noticed his potential in a street fight, helped him escape the charges. Surgery in his hand cost him a year as a seventeen-year-old, but a returning victorious over Olympic champion, Shamil Sabirov, showed his class.

The end of 1983 saw the North American Games. Only two of the eventual Olympic team would fight at the tournament. Virgil Hill was the gold medallist, he defeated Bernardo Comas, a Cuban who was World and Pan American Games Champion. Frank Tate was the silver medallist, losing a split decision to Shawn O’Sullivan. The end of year US National Championships helped to continue to determine which Americans were primed for the games. Steve McCrory was arguably the most impressive, winning both his fights by stoppage. Paul Gonzales, Mark Breland, Frank Tate and Tyrell Biggs also won gold. Robert Shannon and Evander Holyfield both went out at the semi-final stage.