Years ago, on July 31, 1976, the U.S. Olympic boxing team won seven medals, including five gold, one silver, one bronze and sparked the careers of future heavyweight champion Leon Spinks, undisputed light heavyweight champion, Michael Spinks, WBA Heavyweight Champion John Tate and Five-Time World Champion Sugar Ray Leonard.
Although I'm sure I didn't fully appreciate the magnitude of these fighters and their skills, there is no doubt the impression they made on me. At 11-years-old, inexplicably, I found myself glued to the television. I watched these athletes in awe of their abilities and captivated by their stories. At the conclusion of the games, I went out, found a trainer and started boxing that very next week. That started an amateur career for me that would last nearly ten years and evolved into a career passion I would pursue for the next 35. As I've grown in the sport, now I understand why that team was such an amazing group of athletes.
The 1976 Olympic squad faced the stiffest competition of any team in history. Although the 1984 team won more gold medals, the '76 team did it against fighters from the Eastern Bloc and Cuba, historically the toughest international competitors. Those countries boycotted the 1984 Olympics. Even internal competition was tougher. Case in point, Howard Davis had to beat both Thomas Hearns and Aaron Pryor to qualify. Although Davis didn't go on medal, he was awarded the Val Barker Trophy (presented to the Olympic boxing athlete who embodies the most style and potential during the competition). Beyond their collective success in the games, several of the fighters went on to have historic careers as professionals.
Of course Sugar Ray Leonard was the darling of the games and carried that superstar status with him in a pro career that included titles at 147, 154, 160, 168 and 175. Leo Randolph captured the WBA Super Bantamweight Championship in 1980. Leon Spinks was the first to win a title with an amazing upset of Muhammad Ali in what was only Spinks' eight professional fight. His brother Michael would become one of the most dominant light heavyweights in history - going undefeated in 31 fights and becoming the first light heavyweight champion in history to move up to also win the heavyweight title. He achieved this feat by beating previously unbeaten, linear heavyweight champion, Larry Holmes. Although you could make a case for which Olympic team stands out against all others, there's no denying the collective impact the '76 team had on the sport and on one fan in particular.
From a personal perspective, Ray Leonard's transcendent personae makes him, to this day, one of my all-time favorite fighters. The Olympic Boxing Team, as a whole, left an indelible impression on me when, as a pre-teen, I needed a physical outlet, a way to prove myself. You want to know the near-perfect ending to this story? Forty years after watching this incredible group of fighters represent the USA in an amazing fashion, I recently had the opportunity to join them at a boxing event and tell the remaining members of the team, how much they inspired me, how they changed my life and how their commitment to the sport started a career path that, still to this day, I have the same passion for.
It's hard to believe that much time has passed, but great to look back at how the Olympics, and those games in particular, launched the careers of so many boxing legends.