The Universal Language of Boxing | Sports | Chicago Reader

The Universal Language of Boxing 

Russians, Thais, Italians, and Mongolians just practiced it on each other for two great weeks in Chicago

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Consider me an Olympics skeptic. Chicago can't adequately fund public transportation or education, much less the world's premier two-week sports spectacle. Besides, as much as I love this town, I have to think more deserving cities are fighting for the 2016 summer games.

But the campaign continues, and when Moscow had to forfeit this year's World Boxing Championships, Chicago jumped at the chance to show itself off. More than 600 boxers from more than 100 countries attended, along with the International Olympic Committee's chairman, Jacques Rogge. Yet there were nine times as many athletes at this summer's Pan American Games, held as a showcase in Rio de Janeiro, the top contender for the 2016 Olympics. What's more, the Cubans, who have won more WBC titles than any other country, were a no-show, thanks to relations between our country and theirs. So even a Chicagoan's response to the whole thing might well have been, "Big wow."

But setting the Olympics aside, the WBC turned out to be a marvelous event. The tournament was held over two weeks, concluding Saturday, November 3, at the UIC Pavilion, which felt smaller and more intimate with its seating areas dimmed and only a square grid of spotlights hanging over the ring.

WBC boxers are more polished and precise than Golden Gloves competitors, if less impassioned. These, after all, are the best amateur boxers in the world. (The pro fights are so filthy, boxing remains an Olympic sport that allows only amateurs to compete.) In some cases the quality was immediately apparent. Chinese light flyweight Zou Shiming and Kazakh light welterweight Serik Sapiyev both fought skillfully and brashly with their hands down—Zou looking like a cobra with his bobbing head, while Sapiyev displayed Ali-esque footwork—and it was no surprise that both were defending titles from the 2005 championships. The same went for Russia's Matvey Korobov, a much more fundamentally sound boxer, who dissected his larger opponent in the finals to reclaim the middleweight crown. They were the only repeat champions in the 11 weight divisions.

What the fighters might have lacked in surface emotion was more than made up for in the stands. The Chinese, Mongolian, Ukrainian, Kazakh, and Uzbek boxers all were rooted on by fierce pockets of fans, and while I'm sure some were tourists, I got the impression the majority were immigrants eager to cheer their countrymen. It was a glorious sporting reminder of what an international city Chicago is, still welcoming new citizens from around the world. (The quietest bout of the finals was the lightweight fight between boxers from England and Italy.) Ticket prices in the upper deck rose from $10 to $15 for last Friday's semifinals and to $25 for Saturday's finals, yet Friday's evening session found the Pavilion more than half full, and 5,137 spectators packed the place Saturday, with the upper deck jammed.

It helped the international flavor of the WBC that the United States didn't field a strong team. In fact, going into the championships, no U.S. fighter had won a WBC title in eight years. (Our boxers tend to focus on winning Olympic gold and going pro.) Even so, when Turkish fans began shouting and waving their flags to cheer on welterweight Adem Kilicci in the semis against Demetrius Andrade, they were immediately drowned out by chants of "USA!" Andrade, a crouching boxer with a nasty pair of hooks, and flyweight Rau'shee Warren, lightfooted but a big puncher, both draped themselves with the U.S. flag after winning gold. Most of the victors in Saturday's finals were doing the same with the flags of their homelands.

The rooting was quite partisan, but good sportsmanship tended to prevail in spite of the inevitable scoring snafus. (Boxing, like figure skating, is a dirty business and prone to judging bias, though things are slightly better now that scores are posted the moment they're awarded.) In Friday's semis, Chinese welterweight Hanati Silamu took an early lead, but Thailand's Non Boonjumnong came back and took the lead in the fourth and final round. Then Hanati rallied and landed enough blows for the referee to call a standing eight count on the Thai—but somehow the judges registered none of the punches. (Using keypads, three of the five have to agree a punch has landed for it to count.) Boonjumnong held on, and Chinese fans booed the decision but left it at that.

The Ukrainians weren't so charitable about the featherweight final Saturday between Vasyl Lomachenko and Russia's Albert Selimov. The Russian went up 12-8 through three rounds, but even though Lomachenko staged a furious rally in the fourth, few of his punches were counted and he lost 16-11. The Ukrainians booed the decision, and after chanting various Ukrainian phrases throughout the fight began to shout, "Bull shit! Bull shit!" Lomachenko was in tears (oh, there's crying in boxing all right), and his countrymen booed through the medal ceremony and chanted over the Russian national anthem.

When Saturday's best bout began it looked like a dog. Heavyweights Rakhim Chakhkiev of Russia and Clemente Russo of Italy opened tentatively, feeling each other out, and fans booed the inaction. The Russian took a 3-1 lead into the second round, and there was more booing until Russo's strategy became apparent. With an erect and chin-out but elusive style, he nipped and dodged, scoring a punch at a time then staying out of the Russian's range. He tied the fight at three in the third round, but a flurry of punches by the Russian gave him a 6-3 lead to take into the final round. Again Russo dodged and chipped away, tying the fight at six with a minute left and with 35 seconds to go beating the Russian to the punch to take a 7-6 lead. Then he danced the bout out. At the end, his burly Italian coach climbed onto the apron and Russo leapt into his arms, the ropes between them. Winning ugly has never looked more beautiful.

The craftiest ploy was pulled off by English lightweight Frankie Gavin. He fought in the plodding, pawing, awkward British manner, but his reach was long enough to poke Italy's Domenico Valentino every time Valentino came in and he won the gold handily. Gavin didn't drape himself in the British flag; instead, he produced a little flag bearing the Bears logo. The crowd roared, and one Pavlovian fan instantly called out, "Go Bears!" Oh yes, we're ready to show the world what open-minded, all-embracing sports fans we are. v

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