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August 29, 2004 7:39 pm

Boxer ends drought, earns gold for USA

By TOM WEIR

USA TODAY

ATHENS, Greece - Given the way he professed his faith while smiting all his boxing opponents, the story of Andre Ward's gold medal in boxing should begin with a Bible scripture, Matthew 20:16, that says, ``and the first shall be last.''

Ward was first and last Sunday while claiming the light heavyweight gold with a dominating comeback against Magomed Aripgadjiev of Belarus.

Ward was the first U.S. boxer to win a gold at the Athens Olympics, ending two weeks of frustration for the team that once dominated in the ring.

And he was the last U.S. gold medalist, putting a dramatic cap on America's total of 35 golds.

But at the end of the second round, Ward appeared headed for a different outcome.

A shot to his face left him with a puffed, reddened eye and double vision he said lasted about 90 seconds. And with that blow the U.S. boxing team appeared headed for a double goose egg, destined to suffer a second consecutive gold medal shutout.

Ward, the one U.S. boxer that the coaching staff trusted to map out strategy himself, took stock of his plight. Down 9-7 on the scoreboard and squinting, he focused on how to come back. ``I wasn't having fun the first two rounds,'' Ward said. ``I was kind of tight.''

But his instant analysis of his opponent was: ``I saw he had a great jab, and he had a sneaky right hand. It took two rounds to find my range, and I realized I was a little faster than him.''

That speed took over in the remaining two rounds. Ward outpointed his opponent 7-2 in the third round and also decked him to take a 14-11 lead. In the final round, Ward's speed dominated again for a 6-2 advantage, a 20-13 victory and a gold medal in the light heavyweight division.

Looking back on the fight's pivotal moment - that one-minute break between the second and third rounds - Ward explained what put him back in the fight.

``That's what we call `dog,' when you dig down and bite something off,'' Ward said. ``I got that from my dad.''

During the medals ceremony, Ward gave his father something back, blowing a kiss skyward to Frank Ward, who taught Andre to box at the age of 9. Frank died suddenly and unexpectedly in August 2002, at the age of 45, from a heart attack.

``It was to my father, because I believe he's here,'' Ward said of the kiss. ``I just know he's looking down on me.''

In a totally different way, the boxing world has been looking down on the USA for several Olympics. The Americans didn't win a single gold medal at Sydney in 2000.

And though the USA's 48 golds in boxing are easily the top Olympic total, their only recent victories at the Games were David Reid's in 1996 and Oscar De La Hoya's in 1992.

``I think it definitely lifts the spirits,'' said Ward, 20, of the gold medal that kept his unbeaten record since the age of 14 intact. ``I hope starting in 2008 we start being respected again.''

Aripgadjiev was the third consecutive formidable opponent for Ward. In the quarterfinal, Ward beat the winner of the last two world titles, Russian Evgeny Makarenko. In the semifinal, Ward outpointed the 2003 world middleweight titlist, Uzbekistan's Utkirbek Haydarov.

``Somehow, I'm coming out victorious,'' said Ward, who has never fought at a world championship. ``I'm chopping down trees.''

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MIKE LOPRESTI | Gannett News Service

Olympics 2004 were games of education, enlightenment

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IAN O'CONNOR | The (Westchester, N.Y.) Journal News

Biggest winner of 2004 Olympics: Greece

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CHRISTINE BRENNAN | USA TODAY

Athens scores satisfying win

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DAN BICKLEY | The Arizona Republic

Some U.S. women's teams put on best show in Athens

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LYNN HENNING | The Detroit News

U.S. basketball team has gone from stars to targets

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It was Black Friday for U.S.

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