top of page

The Perfect Transition: Outstanding Olympians who became Phenomenal Professionals

This Saturday night, July 15, one of the greatest amateur stars this century, Cuban maestro Andy Cruz, will make his professional bow against Juan Carlos Burgos in a lightweight affair at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, Michigan.

Cruz is transitioning to the paid ranks following a breathtaking amateur career that saw him win an Olympic gold medal at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, and three World Championship gold medals.

Similar levels of success are expected of Cruz as he now enters an already red hot lightweight scene, and an impressive maiden pro outing against Burgos will only further intensify these expectations.

In this article, we will take a look at four Olympic gold medalists who turned out to find tremendous success in the professional ranks, and the same men who Cruz will look to emulate in the promising years to come.

Muhammad Ali

It is only fitting that we begin with the man who many people, including himself, perhaps rightfully proclaim as ‘The Greatest’.

Muhammad Ali’s Olympic legacy is one of both triumph, and a touch of sadness.

The charismatic Kentucky native who would massively change the course of both boxing and pop culture, claimed gold in the light heavyweight division at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, defeating Polish fighter Zbigniew Pietrzykowski in the final.

The medal wasn’t long in his possession, however, as he famously launched it into the Ohio River shortly after it, due to apparently being refused service in a local restaurant due to his race.

It was in the professional ranks where Ali would have his most monumental impact, as embarked on a journey that saw him win the world heavyweight crown three times, defeating the likes of Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ken Norton.

Ali retired in 1981, leaving a reputation as the greatest talker in the history of the sport, the

most naturally gifted heavyweight of all time and also a hugely influential figure in pop culture history due to his stance on the Vietnam War and other major political and social issues.

The Olympic story of Ali then came full circle in 1996, as he was given a second gold medal for the one he lost to the bed of the Ohio River 36 years previously, at the Atlanta games.

Sugar Ray Leonard

Now for a man who carved a legacy for himself as a professional under the tutelage of Muhammad Ali’s legendary trainer Angelo Dundee.

Sugar Ray Leonard claimed a light welterweight gold medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, and instantly became a national superstar in the public eye due to his magnetic charisma, blinding handspeed, and excellent boxing skills.

Turning professional the year after standing tall on the podium in Montreal, Leonard was an instant headline act, and proved to the world that he was fully capable of fulfilling the promise that lay on his shoulders as an amateur.

The first of many incredible victories of Leonards professional career came when he defeated another young, unbeaten phenom by the name of Wilfred Benitez to win the WBC and Ring Magazine welterweight straps.

He would then go on to defeat three of the other ‘Four Kings’ of his era in Roberto Duran, Tommy Hearns and most notably Marvin Hagler, where he returned from a lengthy, injury-forced retirement to dethrone the long reigning middleweight kingpin.

Following a couple of underwhelming comeback outings, Leonard retired from the ring for the final time in 1997, with his legacy secured as a five weight world champion and truly one of the greatest fighters in the history of boxing.

Wladimir Klitschko

The first European entry on this list is the man who would break the American monopoly on boxings glamour division.

The physically imposing Wladimir Klitschko, representing Ukraine, won a gold medal in the super-heavyweight division at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, and both he and his brother Vitali quickly set their sights on holding every heavyweight title at the same time in as professionals.

It looked like that dream was never going to come to fruition, however, as Wladimir suffered three significant defeats, and pretty much everyone thought the career of the gold medalist had gone up in smoke.

It was not until Klitschko partnered up with legendary trainer Emmanuel Steward, and developed a conservative, but brilliantly effective mechanical style to go with his bone crunching knockout power, that he finally forged his legacy as one of the greatest heavyweights of the modern era.

The younger Klitschko brother, incredibly, would remain undefeated for over a decade, stretching from October 2004 to November of 2015, winning every heavyweight title bar the green and gold WBC version, which was held by his brother Vitali for a long period, as the brothers finally achieved their goal of complete heavyweight dominance.

A loss to the polarising Tyson Fury finally brought the curtain down on the iconic Klitschko era, however he will forever be remembered as one of the best heavyweights to ever lace up a pair of gloves, and the man who, along with his brother, made Europe a boxing powerhouse once again.

Pernell Whitaker

To round off the list, we have arguably the greatest defensive fighter to ever step into the ring, Pernell ‘Sweet Pea’ Whitaker.

Virginia native Whitaker won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, as part of a star studded Team USA that also included the likes of Evander Holyfield, Meldrick Taylor and Mark Breland.

His professional career would bring tremendous success, and sometimes dreadfully unlucky moments.

Whitaker began his career as a lightweight, and a first dubious defeat against Jose Luis Ramirez in 1988 in Paris would signal what was to come for the enthrallingly elusive American.

He would go on to avenge that defeat to Ramirez, and become the Undisputed lightweight champion, still holding the record to this day for the amount of unified lightweight title defences at six.

Sweet Pea then ventured north, winning world honours at light welterweight, welterweight and light middleweight with his dazzling skills.

The most defining moments of Whitakers career however, very unfairly, are likely the bouts in which he didn’t come away victorious. As well as the contentious Ramirez defeat early in his career, Whitaker also found himself on the wrong end of quite frankly horrendous judging in 1993, when he soundly outboxed the then 87-0 Mexican star Julio Cesar Chavez in Texas only for the contest to be called a draw. Then another hotly debated decision loss followed against Oscar De La Hoya in 1997, and Whitaker would never reach the mountain top at world level again.

Retiring from the ring in 2001, Whitaker fell into plenty of personal and legal trouble, before tragically passing away after being hit by a car at the premature age of 55 in 2019.

bottom of page