Tokyo Olympics: Ali, Leonard, Joshua and other boxing stars the class of 2021 will look to emulate

By Sports Desk July 19, 2021

While most Olympic sports are about elite athletes reaching the pinnacle, few are more effective in pointing us towards the superstars of tomorrow than boxing.

That is not to say Olympic gold in the ring cannot be a crowning career achievement in its own right, but making a national squad for the Games can often precede a glittering career in the professional ranks.

Ukrainian middleweight Oleksandr Khyzhniak, Russian heavyweight Muslim Gadzhimagomedov, Cuban light-welterweight Andy Cruz and British featherweight Peter McGrail are among those hoping to take the first step on the road to becoming household names.

Here, we look at some of the men and women they will be looking to emulate.

 

Muhammad Ali

Still known as Cassius Clay, 'The Greatest' first showcased his dazzling skills to the world as an 18-year-old at the Rome Games in 1960, carving out an elegant path to gold in the light-heavyweight division. Poland's 1956 bronze medallist and reigning European champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski presented some problems with his southpaw style in the final but Ali would not be denied.

Sugar Ray Leonard

Future rivals Joe Frazier and George Foreman followed in Ali's footsteps with heavyweight gold in 1964 and 1968 respectively, but by the time that celebrated heavyweight era was winding down the United States had another golden generation of talent to get excited about in the form of their 1976 Olympic squad. The cream of the crop was a light-welterweight Leonard, who dazzled on his way to gold – not dropping a single round and then putting Cuban knockout artist Carlos Aldama on the canvas and forcing a standing eight-count in a stunning final victory.

Lennox Lewis

In a fitting precursor to his professional career, Lewis found Olympics glory was something worth waiting for. Representing Canada, he lost to American Tyrell Biggs at the 1984 games before returning four years later to stop Riddick Bowe in the Seoul 88 super-heavyweight final. Lewis avenged the Biggs loss early in his pro-career and a maiden reign as WBC champion came when Bowe refused a mandatory defence against the Briton. Career-defining wins over Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson to stand tall among his peers remained the best part of a decade away.

Oscar de la Hoya

De la Hoya captured the hearts of a nation with his mega-watt smile, making good on his mother's dying wish that he would become Olympic champion. The all-action Mexican-American with a devastating left-hook saw off Germany's Marco Rudolph in the lightweight final at Barcelona 92. The 'Golden Boy' moniker that would dominate the sport in the ring and – more significantly – in a commercial sense for a chunk of the modern era was born and De La Hoya went on to win professional world titles in six weight classes.

Floyd Mayweather Jr.

For those hopefuls who leave Tokyo without gold, there are plenty of examples of elite fighters who went on to incredible success without Olympic glory. None more so than all-time great Mayweather, who had to settle for bronze at Atlanta 96 after a controversial points loss to Serafim Todorov. After 50 professional fights and 26 unblemished world title contests across five weight divisions, the unheralded Bulgarian Todorov – who had a brief 6-1 pro career – remains the last man to beat Mayweather in a boxing ring.

Andre Ward

Another US stylist who went his entire professional career without ever tasting defeat, Ward actually managed to go one better than Mayweather before dominating at super-middleweight and light-heavyweight. At the Athens 2004 Games, the Californian outpointed Magomed Aripgadjiev of Belarus to claim light-heavyweight gold.

Vasyl Lomachenko

Ukrainian master Lomachenko boxed for a world title in his second professional fight and quickly became one of boxing's leading pound-for-pound stars. That unprecedented progress through the paid ranks makes a little more sense when you consider his utterly absurd amateur record of 396 wins and one defeat. It wasn't really as if anyone in either the featherweight division at Beijing 2008 or at lightweight during London 2012 stood too much of a chance as Lomachenko swept to consecutive golds.

Anthony Joshua

Packed crowds roaring Joshua on to glory are a long-established theme of his two reigns as unified heavyweight champion. Joshua first felt the thrilling weight of a nation behind him when he snuck past reigning Olympic champion and two-time super-heavyweight champion Italian Roberto Cammarelle on countback at the ExCel Arena on the closing weekend of London 2012, having trailed by three points going into the final round.

Katie Taylor

The only fight on the same level as Joshua's gold medal bout – and arguably a level above – in terms of noise at London 2012 was Taylor's opening clash against Great Britain's Natasha Jonas, a rivalry they reprised in the pro ranks earlier this year. Both times, Taylor in all her whirring majesty was successful and the Irish icon secured lightweight gold in the English capital. She was a five-time world champion in the amateurs and, even though she could not go back-to-back in Rio, she then turned over and set about redefining women's boxing all over again as a two-weight world champion.

Claressa Shields

Taylor has indisputably blazed a trail for female boxers and it is one the classy and cocky Shields has ebulliently followed. Victories over Russia's Nadezda Torlopova at London 2012 and Nouchka Fontijn of the Netherlands at Rio 2016 gave the American back-to-back middleweight golds. She became an undisputed middleweight champion in the pros with a unanimous decision win over the great Christina Hammer in April 2019, before dropping down to do likewise at super-welterweight versus Marie Eve Dicaire earlier this year.

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    Any concerns Chelsea fans might have about Aubameyang will likely revolve around his attitude and professionalism – few will have forgotten the circumstances that led to his Arsenal exit.

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    Last March he was dropped ahead of the north London derby due to a disciplinary issue, perhaps something you wouldn't expect of the club captain – although he was "reminded of his responsibilities" a month earlier after reportedly flouting COVID-19 restrictions to get a tattoo.

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    A point to prove

    He is back in London, however. Aubameyang's stay in Barcelona was little more than a sojourn.

    After joining them officially in February, he must've been aware there was always a chance Barca could look to cash in on him quite quickly if the opportunity arose.

    President Joan Laporta was desperately trying to raise cash in order to register their swathe of pre-season signings, and the combination of Aubameyang retaining decent market value and being on high wages made him a very sellable option on their part, they just needed someone to come calling.

    Given his rather scattergun approach to being an interim sporting director, new Chelsea co-owner Todd Boehly probably should've been the obvious candidate, though Aubameyang's links to Tuchel helped the deal make sense.

    What made slightly less sense was the fact Boehly sacked Tuchel only a week after Aubameyang signed. Granted, the German isn't the only coach who'd be able to get a tune out of the forward, but you have to wonder what the player was thinking.

    Tuchel's familiarity with Aubameyang from their time together at Borussia Dortmund was evident in how he spoke of the 33-year-old shortly after the signing was confirmed.

    He said: "Auba, from my point of view, has always been happy to fight for something and to accept the challenge, so the more challenges he has the better it is.

    "I know him as [being] very focused and in general a person with a very open heart and very happy to be on the pitch every day. This is what we wanted, he's a very positive influence on the training group.

    "He's up for any challenge, he's happy to be on the pitch to score goals and this is what we want."

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    A striker out of left field

    One of the first things Aubameyang highlighted after joining Barcelona was how Xavi said he'd been earmarked to play specifically as a number nine.

    Let's not forget, he spent a great deal of his time at Arsenal operating from the left, and for the most part he was effective there. Yet, you could argue his finishing abilities weren't maximised in that position.

    Between the 2015-16 and 2020-21 seasons, Aubameyang averaged at least 0.7 goals per 90 minutes every campaign for Dortmund and then Arsenal, bettering or matching his expected goals (xG, per 90 mins.) in all but one season. Even then, the one term he fell short, he was still scoring at a rate of 0.8 every 90 minutes. Over the short term, one might suggest outperforming xG is a sign of luck, but over a prolonged period it is surely a product of quality.

    Aubameyang certainly cannot be accused of being ineffective as a central striker for Barca. His average of 0.8 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes was his best record since 2016-17 (0.8), and he helped Barca enjoy a fine second half of the season to eventually finish runners-up in LaLiga.

    His form for Arsenal had been less convincing before his departure. He'd scored only four league goals from 6.6 xG – a comparison of his shot maps last term does show much greater localisation to the centre of the area while at Barca, perhaps understandable given his use as a number nine, though that doesn't completely explain why he underperformed in relation to xG while still at Arsenal.

    Aubameyang will hope that spell with Barcelona was something of a palate cleanser. He said himself he has unfinished business in the Premier League.

    Uncertainty and intrigue definitely surround his move to Chelsea given Tuchel is no longer there, but if Aubameyang does return to silence his critics then there's every reason to suggest Potter will hit the ground running as well.

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