LONDON -- Errol Spence thought he was out of the Olympics, one last U.S. boxer done in by the vagaries of the amateur scoring system. The welterweight thought he had taken the final defeat in the worst Olympic performance ever by the American team that once reigned atop the sport.
About five hours after Spence trudged out of ExCel arena with fellow loser Rau'shee Warren and their deflated teammates, amateur boxing's governing body decided Spence deserved to fight on.
AIBA overturned Spence's loss to Krishan Vikas late Friday night, throwing out the Indian welterweight's 13-11 victory for an array of misdeeds that went unpunished during the bout.
After the American team protested the result, AIBA's competition jury reviewed the fight and ruled Vikas had committed nine holding fouls in the third round alone, yet received only one caution from the referee. Vikas also intentionally spit out his mouthpiece in the second round, an obvious stalling tactic that wasn't spotted by the screened referee.
The mistakes should have resulted in at least four points of deductions from Vikas' score, AIBA ruled in sending Spence into the quarterfinals to face Russia's Andrey Zamkovoy on Tuesday. If he wins, the American men's team will avoid leaving the Olympics with no medals for the first time ever.
"I am obviously thrilled that the competition jury overturned my decision and I can continue chasing the gold medal I came here to win," Spence said in an email. "I am going to make the most of this second chance that I've been given. I can't wait to get back in that ring on Tuesday."
The decision was AIBA's second overturned result of the games, following its reversal of a victory by an Azerbaijani bantamweight who fell to the canvas six times in the final round against Japan's Satoshi Shimizu. AIBA also expelled the Turkmen referee who allowed that bout to continue.
Spence and his coaches all felt he had won his bout afterward, but weren't terribly surprised when Vikas got the nod. He was already the last U.S. man standing after his eight teammates lost in the previous five days, including three-time Olympian Warren's agonizing 19-18 loss to France's Nordine Oubaali an hour earlier.
Spence stopped the Americans' eight-fight skid, but must beat Zamkovoy to save the most successful team in Olympic boxing history from its first medal shutout – although three U.S. women are still alive in their first Olympic tournament, which begins Sunday.
Spence's late reprieve was surreal for a team that appeared headed home with nothing. Spence struggled to penetrate Vikas' technical, plodding style despite showing superior power and entertainment value.
"I thought I won the fight," said Spence, a talented puncher who intends to turn pro this fall, along with most of his teammates. "I thought I threw more punches and landed more shots. I thought I was the more aggressive boxer. It was kind of frustrating, but he's fighting to the computer system."
The 2008 U.S. team won only one bronze medal in Beijing, the worst showing so far – but at least that team won six total fights, one more than the London team. The American men have won only one gold medal in the last three Olympics, by Andre Ward in Athens in 2004.
The vaunted American team has claimed at least one boxing medal in every modern Olympics where boxing was a sport except the boycotted Moscow Games, and many of the men who won them are among the giants of the sweet science.
Cassius Clay, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Floyd Patterson, Oscar De La Hoya, Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones Jr. and Floyd Mayweather Jr. all won medals for U.S. teams, leading generations of boxing talent the world couldn't match.
The Americans' 48 gold medals and 108 total medals are easily the most in Olympic boxing history, with 45 more medals than second-place Cuba.
The London team actually won its first four fights last weekend, but then the losses piled up with alarming speed. The Americans' poor performance caps a two-decade struggle to adapt to changes in the amateur sport, with steadily declining medal counts ever since boxing went to a computerized scoring system that rewards a style with stark differences from pro boxing.
"We did a lot of work, got a lot of coaching, but it's the judges that we feel we're going against most of the time," Warren said.
Spence knew the feeling after three rounds of trying to break through the passive guard of Vikas, who fights a rigid amateur style emphasizing defense and tactical aggression. India's amateur boxing scene has surged in popularity in the four years since Vijender Singh won his nation's first Olympic medal in Beijing, with thousands of prospective Olympians training in the amateur style with no intention of ever turning pro.
The U.S. seemed headed for a better showing last week. The 4-0 start showed its improved team chemistry after the Beijing team squabbled and argued its way to a dismal showing.
The current U.S. team has a strong relationship with coach Basheer Abdullah and his staff, even though Abdullah only had about six weeks to prepare as a late hire by USA Boxing. None of the fighters blamed the coaching-staff turmoil for his performance, but the string of losses was stark: Three fighters lost on Wednesday, followed by two more on Thursday before Warren's defeat.
After Spence's apparent loss, Abdullah came close to suggesting the judges might have been biased against some American fighters, although he also believes U.S. boxers need years of training in the amateur sport to compete at its highest levels. Amateur boxing features five ringside judges who award points only when they believe a punch lands, rather than traditional scoring systems that evaluate skill, style, technique and aggression.
The amateur sport moved to a computerized scoring system after Jones' infamous loss at the Seoul Olympics in 1988, when three judges awarded a decision to South Korea's Park Hi-sun after Jones dominated their fight.
"I don't blame any (scoring) systems," Abdullah said. "I blame the people that operate them. I'm disappointed in some of the things I'm seeing."