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Red Erring

Nicholas Spanakos wearing his team jacket from the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Courtesy of Nicholas Spanakos

Driving his Buick Regal around Aventura, Nicholas Spanakos might seem just another seventysomething snowbird. But look closely. The nose gives him away. It bulges to the right — beaten that way by a few dozen jabs or maybe snapped suddenly by a single hook that caught him flush.

Spanakos's arms are lean and sinewy. His chest and shoulders are broad for a man who weighs but 126 pounds. It's the same weight he carried 50 years ago as a kid from Red Hook, Brooklyn — a kid who got the shot of a lifetime.

On August 26, 1960, not long before his roommate, Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., was to enter the ring in Rome's newly built Palazzetto dello Sport, Spanakos squared off against Soviet pugilist Boris Nikanorov in a preliminary round of the Olympics.

Not much can be found about the fight in the historical record. A 100-word blurb in the next day's New York Times explains little beyond its cryptic headline, "Decision Is Booed."

But Spanakos remembers why the chorus of jeers echoed off the arena's concrete walls that day. The crowd knew, as he did, that the fix was in. And as he left the ring, Spanakos took with him a lesson that has lasted a lifetime: Reds don't fight fair.

This summer, the 2008 U.S. Olympic Boxing Team heads to Beijing in the People's Republic of China, a nation that has never won gold in boxing and is eager to prove itself against the world's superpowers. If Spanakos's experience is any indication, American fighters should aim to put their Communist opponents on the canvas — lest they risk landing on the short side of a crooked scorecard.

"I expected, as everyone did, that the judges would be impartial," Spanakos says. "I didn't think Communism would interject itself as it did.... I would think [the Chinese] would think twice before pulling a stunt like that."

Politics was far from the mind of 22-year-old Spanakos that day in 1960. After slugging his way through the Golden Gloves championships and into a featherweight slot, he arrived early in the locker room of the Palazzetto dello Sport. He recalls bounding back and forth, pummeling the air with his taped fists. A white silk robe flared around his legs. Beads of sweat slipped down his face.

Alone with his thoughts, he tried to focus, but his imagination wouldn't allow it. The Soviet Union was massive, so maybe it could forge a tougher fighter. He had 200 bouts over his career — many more than the Soviet, but featherweights didn't come much taller than the five-foot-nine Nikanorov, whose build was the antithesis of Spanakos's compact, five-foot-three frame.

When the bell rang, Spanakos charged Nikanorov. At first, "his punches were totally ineffective," Spanakos says of his opponent. In the second round, the American launched a daring strategy: He dropped his hands, leaving his head unprotected.

He'd seen Clay use this tactic. To Spanakos, it had always seemed like hot-dogging, and he knew he didn't have reflexes like his soon-to-be-gold-medalist teammate. But Spanakos wanted the knockout rather than a win by points. He would entice the Russian and then launch a haymaker. "In doing that, you expose yourself to a knockout," says Spanakos. "But damn it, I didn't want to lose."

Nikanorov moved into range. Spanakos punished his opponent's torso. The referee penalized him a point for hitting too low, but considering the size difference, it was nearly unavoidable.

The deduction concerned him. Under Olympic rules, points were awarded for blows landed — not for the power behind them. Even the sloppy jabs fired by Nikanorov were being tallied on the judges' scorecards.

Spanakos switched from orthodox to southpaw, anything to confuse the Russian into opening up. But after Spanakos landed a few blows inside, the two would fall into a clinch, butting heads.

Tactically it was a frustrating fight, but the Greek from Red Hook was inflicting all the pain, landing flurries of punches to the Russian's body. In the moments after the final bell, the crowd chanted, "Nich-o-las! Nich-o-las! Nich-o-las!"

The officials handed the referee their cards. They had not counted many of Spanakos's jolting body shots. "They should have given me credit," Spanakos says. "Headhunters are a dime a dozen."

The ref thrust Nikanorov's fist into the air. A stunned Spanakos congratulated his opponent, but the once-jubilant crowd howled while manager Ben Becker and coach Jules Menendez rushed their bewildered fighter out of the ring and into the locker room. "They booed throughout the announcement and several minutes — it wasn't for 10 or 20 seconds," Spanakos recalls. "It was something I remember."

He also remembers the silence afterward. Becker and Menendez uttered not a word as they removed his gloves and untaped his fists. "The unanimous decision for the Soviet athlete came as a surprise," said the UPI report on the fight. Olympic officials were so "surprised" by the ruling and subsequent decisions that they fired some of the judges on grounds of "incompetence," part of a purge of 15 from mostly Eastern Bloc countries.

Though Clay won gold in the 178-pound class — as did 156-pounder Wilbert McClure and 165-pounder Eddy Crook in their classes — other members on the team worried about getting a fair shake from Olympic judges. "When my teammates found out what happened, they realized we better go out all the way or they're going to screw us like they did Nick," he recalls.

Spanakos would not be the last boxer to get railroaded at the Olympics. A thoroughly pummeled South Korean won a decision over Roy Jones Jr. at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Jones outpunched his opponent 86-32 — and went on to professional stardom, winning championship belts in multiple weight classes.

Spanakos later fought under the tutelage of Cus D'Amato, who would include Mike Tyson in his stable of fighters. D'Amato was picky about the bouts his fighters took, and often kept them in the amateurs longer than they'd like. Spanakos fought only one professional fight and won by decision. By the end of his boxing career, he had won Golden Gloves competitions, was the All-Army champion in 1964, and had fought at Madison Square Garden and Seattle Auditorium.

But the inexplicable decision in Rome has haunted him. "People ask me: 'How did you do in the Olympics?'" says Spanakos, who couldn't watch the games for a few years after the fight. "It's a source of embarrassment, and it's also a source of pride."

For the Chinese, boxing has been an almost complete bust. They have never even fielded a serious gold medal contender in the sport — though 110-pound flyweight Zou Shiming has a chance.

Spanakos says it would be stupid for the Chinese to cheat. But John Grasso, cofounder of the International Boxing Research Organization, expects controversy of the type that clouded the 1960 games. In the modern Olympic age, it's harder to skew results, if only because officials vet their judges more rigorously. "Olympic boxing has always been extremely controversial," Grasso says. "I don't expect the 2008 Beijing Games boxing events to be any less controversial."


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