Nicholson fought with heart, but what about his soles?

Ken Rosenthal

August 04, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

BARCELONA, Spain -- In the Olympics run by shoe companies, leave it to a member of the U.S. boxing team to show up barefooted for his fight.

All right, it wasn't that bad, but what on Planet Reebok was Danell Nicholson doing in sneakers instead of boxing shoes against the three-time world amateur champion last night?

Some thought it a mystery.

Coach Joe Byrd called it strategy.

The weird part is, Nicholson nearly won the fight, leading Cuba's Felix Savon for two rounds before taking a standing eight-countin the third and losing a 13-11 decision.

So much for Byrd's attempt at genius.

Afterward, he found himself reaching into a gym bag to produce two pairs of Nicholson's boxing shoes for skeptical reporters.

Can't imagine why at the boxing venue, but a rumor circulated that Nicholson only wore sneakers because he forgot his shoes.

In 1988, U.S. boxing coaches failed to get Andrew Hembrick to the ring on time. This time they produced not only the body, but the soles.

Of course, that doesn't mean the shoes arrived in time for the fight. The usual confusion reigned afterward, and then Byrd offered his simple, if preposterous, explanation.

Strategy.

"Boxing shoes make you real light on your feet, they make you drop back," Byrd said. "I didn't want him to drop back. I wanted him to stand there and fight."

Tennis shoes, Joe?

"They slow a heavyweight down."

Well, Nicholson indeed fought the way Byrd wanted, slugging it out with Savon, even after tiring in the third round. But let's not embrace The Great Sneaker Theory just yet.

Nicholson wore low-tops. Under Byrd's logic, he would have been even more fearsome in high-tops, and downright lethal in Army boots.

Why, serious as Byrd sounded about his remarkable innovation, even Nicholson admitted he thought it a rather bizarre idea.

Your initial reaction, Danell?

"I just looked at him," Nicholson said.

But Nicholson went along. In fact, he said the change had been discussed for some time, and who was he to question Byrd?

"You're supposed to listen to the coach," Nicholson said. "I trust Coach Byrd. He's taught me a lot. He's been like a father to me."

So, sneakers it was, against a fighter who is 140-9, a fighter who hasn't lost since 1988, a fighter who yes, actually wears boxing shoes.

Savon has fought 100 more times than Nicholson, but for most of last night they were even. Under the new Olympic scoring system, Nicholson led 4-1 after the first round, 8-6 after the second.

Because of boycotts, it was the first U.S.-Cuba Olympic bout since 1976, and the atmosphere grew electric with the threat of major upset.

Three-time heavyweight gold medalist Teofilo Stevenson wore a red "Cuba" cap, positioned himself in the front row and stood cheering the final two rounds.

World heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield remained in his seat, but clapped and yelled for Nicholson from the opening bell.

Savon, 24, once knocked out a Korean fighter in 13 seconds -- 10 of which were used on the count. He jumped over the ropes to enter the ring, but Nicholson showed no fear from the start.

In fact, Nicholson thought he won the fight, claiming "I had him in the second round" and arguing that Savon was "no Muhammad Ali, no Sugar Ray Leonard, no Teofilo Stevenson."

Holyfield said, "He's average. You saw the fight. He's got a lot of confidence. But as far as his ability, he's just fair. He's the world amateur champ, but is he great? No, he's just good."

Whatever, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Savon kept charging, pounding Nicholson relentlessly, winning the final round, 7-3. jTC Nicholson couldn't get away, not with the sneakers weighing him down.

"I was just trying to move and get my head back together," Nicholson said. "With this type of scoring system, it's like the final two minutes in basketball. If there's two minutes to go and you're up by three, you've got to be patient."

The guy wears sneakers, and now he thinks he's Michael Jordan. Then again, maybe Joe Byrd is on to something. Can't wait to see Holyfield make like an amateur, and fight in Chuck Taylors.

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