Gold medal earns redemption for Chagaev

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The Independent Online

Ruslan Chagaev was stripped of the world amateur title in 1997 because he entered a professional ring in Chicago for $200, but last night he won the super-heavyweight title in the final bout at the 11th World Amateur Championships at the Odyssey Arena here.

Chagaev left Tashkent in Uzbekistan to train in Las Vegas in March to work with the former American Olympic coach Kenny Adams and in yesterday's final he relentlessly pursued the Ukrainian Oleg Mazikin and forced him to quit on his stool after two rounds.

It was perfect redemption for Chagaev, who beat Felix Savon in Budapest in 1997 but had his title taken away a few months later when it was discovered that he boxed as a professional during a trip to America.

"I was young and I had no idea it was a professional fight," said Chagaev.

"I have wanted to win this title since the last one was taken away. This is a great day for me and for Uzbekistan." Chagaev, 22, has stopped his last eight opponents and is now likely to join his fellow Uzbek hero and the current Olympic light-welterweight champion Mohammed Abdullaev and turn professional. First he has to return to Tashkent and a reception in his honour from the president, Islam Karimov. At the Olympics all Uzbek boxers were promised $100,000 (£70,000) for a gold, $50,000 for a silver and $25,000 for a bronze. Chagaev missed out then but will receive a cheque on his return.

In addition to the success in the ring, boxing in Uzbekistan has been under international scrutiny since the World Championships in 1997 when the president of their federation, Gafur Rakhimov, arrived on the scene. He has since been at the centre of several court cases in attempts to clear his name against allegations of links to organised crime. Last Friday his lawyers represented him in London in a case against publishers Simon and Schuster that was adjourned to allow the publishers more time to prepare their evidence. It was Rakhimov and the government who made the funding for Chageav's journey, which ended at the Odyssey, available.

The recent success of the Uzbek team ­ they also had a losing finalist at middleweight in Belfast ­ is due to the new money, but sport's origin in the mountainous country is more like a tale from Russian fantasy literature at the end of the nineteenth century.

It all started when American boxer Sidney Jackson was stranded in Tashkent in 1914 during the Russian Revolution. Jackson stayed in Tashkent, he had no option, and started a boxing gym, which is now the Sidney Jackson School and that is where Chagaev first went to box. The Uzbek system has taken care of him ever since but it was the isolated Jackson, who was a dreamer and adventurer, who first got the gloves out.

As expected the Cuban team dominated the championships and won seven of the 12 titles during two days of finals. It is hard, probably impossible, to select just one of the Cuban team because they each possess special talents but the bantamweight Guillermo Rigondeaux is one of the finest in their history. The Cuban authorities expect him to become the first boxer to win four Olympic titles.

As the finals passed and the Cuban flag was raised again and again above the heads of the medal winners, it was obvious just how far the rest of the world has to go to get near enough to threaten their dominance.

In Belfast, the Russians went home with two gold medals even if their middleweight winner, Andrei Gogolev, appeared fortunate to beat the current world champion, Utkirbek Haydarov of Uzbekistan, in Saturday's final. The fight was scored 36-29 in Gogolev's favour but the boos from the knowledgeable crowd lasted for several minutes. It was the only controversial decision of the entire week.

The main story on Saturday was the presence of England's David Haye, who became the first boxer from the British Isles to reach the final at a world championship, but after three wins in three days he entered the ring bruised and exhausted.

Haye, 20, had to try and beat Cuba's Odlanier Fontes to win gold and midway through the opening round he moved to within a punch of winning when he was denied a follow-up left hook after a right uppercut forced the referee to give the Cuban a standing eight count.

"I know that if that second shot had gone in I would have won," Haye said. "I never got the chance and when the right landed my hand went numb and that was it for that hand for then rest of the fight. I could have done it, I know I could have done it with one more punch."

In the second Haye's body started to close down and after one eight count he wandered back to the corner at the end of the round but looked unresponsive during the minute's break as Ian Irwin, the coach, worked furiously to salvage something from a fighter who had nothing left to offer.

In the third the referee intervened, with Haye using the last of his energy to complain that he could continue. He could not, and when he watched it later on television he realised his state. "I had nothing left but I couldn't believe how gone Fontes was from that shot. He was gone, he nearly dropped, I don't know how he stayed up," he added.

Now Haye has another problem and one that Fontes and the other 11 Cuban masters do not. He has to decide who to listen to from the professional boxing business. Saturday's final, even the last few seconds, could be easy by comparison.