With no headgear, U.S. Olympic boxing hopefuls struggle with cuts

Cam Awesome
AP
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RENO, Nev. (AP) — Antonio Vargas never had a cut in his boxing life until blood trickled down his forehead Wednesday during his most important bout.

The touted flyweight fought through the surprise and pain, but his Olympic dreams were imperiled when he lost a split decision at the U.S. team trials.

“It happened so fast,” Vargas said. “It was just a clash of heads. I had that fight, man.”

Vargas didn’t blame his loss on the blood, but facial cuts are a growing problem worldwide for Olympic-style boxers fighting for places in Rio de Janeiro at the first Olympics since the International Boxing Association (AIBA) decided male boxers will no longer wear protective headgear.

Seven fighters developed significant cuts during the first three days of the U.S. Olympic trials in Reno this week, including heavyweight favorite Cam F. Awesome and Vargas, the Pan Am Games champion who might be the Americans’ best chance to end their 12-year gold medal drought. They both fought on, but three other boxers were cut badly enough to force them out of the tournament.

Mark Dawson was done after he needed 18 stitches in his forehead to seal a grotesque cut, also the first of his career. Even Chris Ousley‘s Olympic dream died because his opponent, Carlos Monroe, was cut down to the skull and couldn’t continue, yet still won their bout on the scorecards.

The problems aren’t confined to the U.S., with serious cuts reported from tournaments around the world since the 2013 rule change. AIBA reportedly reassessed its headgear decision during the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow when Australian boxer Daniel Lewis was cut too badly to continue, but quickly confirmed the plan would move forward to Rio.

Even AIBA’s detractors realize the absence of headgear has made Olympic boxing more television-friendly. While AIBA acknowledges the danger of cuts, it claims the change was made because concussions will decrease without the heavy protective padding, although many American coaches and fighters chuckle at the science used to justify the decision.

“I don’t like it, and I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Virgil Hunter, the respected veteran trainer behind Olympic gold medalist Andre Ward‘s career. “Because what does it really say about the sport? You’re subjecting a kid to trauma for nothing. It’s one thing to get cut, and you get a million-dollar check when you get out of there. It’s another thing to get cut, and you get a trophy or a handshake.”

Boxers have worn headgear in every Olympics since the 1984 Los Angeles Games, and women still wear it. The proliferation of cuts is fueling complaints throughout the sport from athletes and trainers who believe head guards are the only practical way to compete in an Olympic-style, multi-fight tournament.

WBO 140-pound champion Terence Crawford was an accomplished amateur boxer, but the unbeaten pro star wouldn’t be interested in the current version of the sport.

“These kids are getting cut up and not getting paid for it, and it’s potentially coming back to haunt them in their pro career,” said Crawford, who traveled to Reno to support friends from Nebraska. “I’ve already seen four cuts in one day, and then you ask them to get stitched up and go fight tomorrow.”

In a sport long dominated by tedious complaints about judging, AIBA’s move from computer scoring to a traditional 10-point judging system has drawn widespread praise.

Instead, American fighters won’t be surprised if cuts are the biggest story out of Rio.

Cuts usually result from two heads banging together. That’s a frequent occurrence in pro boxing, but Olympic-style fighters don’t have the luxury of months off to heal. They usually must fight the next day or be disqualified.

“If they’re going to make us fight without headgear, there should be some kind of payment,” said Ousley, who plans to turn pro. “They’re making us take drug tests, do all this other stuff, and we’re basically fighting for charity. We’re volunteering. I can’t stay in amateur boxing.”

AIBA has encouraged fighters to wear cut-reducing creams, and it has started an initiative called HeadsUp! to encourage fighters to compete with fewer inadvertent head-butts.

USA Boxing officials hold a precarious position between their amateur fighters and AIBA, which has eliminated the word “amateur” from even its name while creating several professional ventures for its fighters. USA Boxing doesn’t want fighters sabotaged by cuts, but also wants to support the international governing body in a notoriously political sport.

Headgear decisions in domestic tournaments could be taken out of the hands of USA Boxing soon. Various state athletic commissions already have expressed concern about headgear-free boxing by amateurs, with some refusing to allow it.

“I think AIBA wants to work with us as well,” said Mike Martino, USA Boxing’s executive director. “They realize this could be a public relations nightmare if it continues.”

Headgear-free fighting also has American supporters.

Awesome, a veteran amateur and national champion, was cut along his left eyebrow in his opening bout in Reno. He strung together three straight wins to reach the brink of an Olympic team berth.

“It’s making boxing more exciting,” Awesome said. “If I tell people I box before, they say, `Oh, you wear the helmet? That’s not real boxing.’ Now, people are more excited about the sport. … It’s risk for reward. Our sport is not very exciting to Americans. We’re sacrificing our safety for the good of the sport.

“It hurts sometimes, but I want boxing to thrive.”

MORE BOXING: Marlen Esparza posts tearful videos after missing Olympic team

Kenenisa Bekele still eyes Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon world record, but a duel must wait

Kenenisa Bekele
Getty
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LONDON — Kenenisa Bekele made headlines last week by declaring “of course I am the best” long distance runner ever. But the Ethiopian was fifth-best at Sunday’s London Marathon, finishing 74 seconds behind Kenya’s Amos Kipruto.

Bekele, 40, clocked 2:05:53, the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. He was with the lead pack until being dropped in the 21st mile.

But Bekele estimated he could have run 90 to 120 seconds faster had he not missed parts of six weeks of training with hip and joint injuries.

“I expect better even if the preparation is short,” he said. “I know my talent and I know my capacity, but really I couldn’t achieve what I expect.”

Bekele is the second-fastest marathoner in history behind Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge, who broke his own world record by clocking 2:01:09 at the Berlin Marathon last week.

“I am happy when I see Eliud Kipchoge run that time,” Bekele said. “It motivates all athletes who really expect to do the same thing.”

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Bekele’s best time was within two seconds of Kipchoge’s previous world record (2:01:39). He described breaking Kipchoge’s new mark as the “main goal” for the rest of his career.

“Yes, I hope, one day it will happen, of course,” Bekele said. “With good preparation, I don’t know when, but we will see one more time.”

Nobody has won more London Marathons than Kipchoge, a four-time champion who set the course record (2:02:37) in 2019. But the two-time Olympic marathon champion did not run this year in London, as elite marathoners typically choose to enter one race each spring and fall.

Bekele does not know which race he will enter in the spring. But it will not be against Kipchoge.

“I need to show something first,” Bekele said. “I need to run a fast time. I have to check myself. This is not enough.”

Kipchoge will try to become the first runner to win three Olympic marathon titles at the Paris Games. Bekele, who will be 42 in 2024, has not committed to trying to qualify for the Ethiopian team.

“There’s a long time to go before Paris,” Bekele said. “At this moment I am not decided. I have to show something.”

So who is the greatest long distance runner ever?

Bekele can make a strong case on the track:

Bekele
Four Olympic medals (three gold)
Six World Championship medals (five gold)
Former 5000m and 10,000m world-record holder

Kipchoge
Two Olympic medals
Two World Championship medals (one gold)

But Kipchoge can make a strong case on the pavement:

Bekele
Second-fastest marathoner in history
Two World Marathon Major victories

Kipchoge
Four of the five best marathon times in history
Two-time Olympic marathon champion
12 World Marathon Major victories

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Yalemzerf Yehualaw, Amos Kipruto win London Marathon

Yalemzerf Yehualaw
Getty
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Ethiopian Yalemzerf Yehualaw became the youngest female runner to win the London Marathon, while Kenyan Amos Kipruto earned the biggest victory of his career in the men’s race.

Yehualaw, 23, clocked 2:17:26, prevailing by 41 seconds over 2021 London champ Joyciline Jepkosgei of Kenya.

Yehualaw tripped and fell over a speed bump around the 20-mile mark. She quickly rejoined the lead pack, then pulled away from Jepkosgei by running the 24th mile in a reported 4:43, which converts to 2:03:30 marathon pace; the women’s world record is 2:14:04.

Yehualaw and Jepkosgei were pre-race favorites after world record holder Brigid Kosgei of Kenya withdrew Monday with a right hamstring injury.

On April 24, Yehualaw ran the fastest women’s debut marathon in history, a 2:17:23 to win in Hamburg, Germany.

She has joined the elite tier of female marathoners, a group led by Kenyan Peres Jepchirchir, the reigning Olympic, New York City and Boston champion. Another Ethiopian staked a claim last week when Tigist Assefa won Berlin in 2:15:37, shattering Yehualaw’s national record.

Joan Benoit Samuelson, the first Olympic women’s marathon champion in 1984, finished Sunday’s race in 3:20:20 at age 65.

LONDON MARATHON: Results

Kipruto, 30, won the men’s race in 2:04:39. He broke free from the leading group in the 25th mile and crossed the finish line 33 seconds ahead of Ethiopian Leul Gebresilase, who said he had hamstring problems.

Kipruto, one of the pre-race favorites, had never won a major marathon but did finish second behind world record holder Eliud Kipchoge in Tokyo (2022) and Berlin (2018) and third at the world championships (2019) and Tokyo (2018).

Ethiopian Kenenisa Bekele, the second-fastest marathoner in history, was fifth after being dropped in the 21st mile. His 2:05:53 was the fastest-ever marathon by a runner 40 years or older. Bekele ran his personal best at the 2019 Berlin Marathon — 2:01:41 — and has not run within four minutes of that time since.

The major marathon season continues next Sunday with the Chicago Marathon, headlined by a women’s field that includes Kenyan Ruth Chepngetich and American Emily Sisson.

London returns next year to its traditional April place after being pushed to October the last three years due to the pandemic.

MORE: Bekele looks ahead to Kipchoge chase after London Marathon

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