It was an afternoon of bloody, medal-laden, largely glorious defeat for Great Britain’s Olympic boxers at the Kokugikan Arena. In the light-heavyweight gold medal bout Ben Whittaker was beaten over three rounds by the Cuban Arlen López, a 28-year-old of great pedigree who is now a double Olympic champion.
A silver medal is a considerable achievement for Whittaker, aged 24 and at his first Games, but he was matched against a seriously classy fighter here and lacked the attacking intensity to make any real mark on the fight.
In an odd turn the occasion was marred a little by an unfortunate show of immaturity when Whittaker refused to wear his medal on the podium, stood with his hands in his pockets, and behaved as gracelessly as any medallist has at these Games. He was, though, suitably contrite afterwards.
“I was doing it for everybody at home and I felt like a failure,” he said. “At the time, I should have put this beautiful silver medal round my neck and smiled because this is not just for me, it’s for the country.
“When I look back in a few years, it will probably feel like a great achievement, but I was so upset that I couldn’t enjoy it.” Whittaker was at least wearing his medal by then. There was no disgrace in defeat here, but a degree of dishonour in his immediate response.
Earlier Frazer Clarke had lost after a referee’s stoppage in the third round of his super-heavyweight semi-final, unable to continue as blood poured from cuts above both eyes. Those wounds had opened up in his quarter-final and were gouged back open here by the pounding fists of the fearsome Uzbek Bakhodir Jalolov, a gifted heavyweight and the No 1 seed in the draw.
Clarke fought with real heart and no little skill. It was fitting that he got to enjoy his moment at the end, the sometime security guard, 29 now and at his first and last Games, celebrating in the middle of the ring, bathed in blood, as the reality of Olympic bronze sunk in.
Whittaker’s gold medal bout, however, was the main action of the day. A flamboyant character, with charm and a winning way out of the ring, he entered it here dancing for the TV cameras and took a moment to pose a little more at the edge of the ring before finally making it through the ropes. López was all business, jogging in, grim-faced, to a Cuban rumba.
From there, he simply took the fight away. Whittaker made no impression on the first round, weaving while López picked him off, the Cuban switching stance and giving a taste of his superior power. López took it by a sweep on the judges’ cards.
The second round was closer as Whittaker threw more punches, but he already looked like a man fighting at the edge of his own capacities. “I didn’t have the right gameplan and he was a lot better than I thought,” he said. It was more of the same in the third. Whittaker did try to raise his tempo to come forward a little more, but seemed wary of the surgical combinations López threw his way whenever he did try to step into his space.
Then came that unusual end as Whittaker left the ring in tears after the decision, then returned for the ceremony shaking his head, before, in a startlingly ill-advised move, choosing to keep his medal in his pocket on the podium.
In the earlier fight Clarke was always up against it. Jalolov is a freakishly gifted boxer, a 6ft 8in super-heavyweight with quick feet and a rare lateral agility. He had stomped though everyone in his path en route to this point. The quarter-final had seen India’s Satish Kumar beaten so badly his damaged chin and eye became an object of grim fascination on social media – and this in a three-round fight. Jalolov has not lost a fight for four years and has boxed eight times (eight knockouts) as a pro, a recent loophole in the rules that both dilutes and adds to this spectacle.
He loomed over Clarke, who is himself enormous, and was soon picking away at those eyes from his smooth southpaw stance. “I’m not daft, Jalolov is a great fighter,” Clarke said. “I couldn’t quite get my shots off, I felt like I spent the whole time worrying about what was coming at me.”
Clarke had his moment in round two, catching Jalolov with the best punch of the fight, and forcing a standing count. He lost the round, narrowly, and was still throwing punches when the referee stepped in for the second and final time.
At the end Clarke paid tribute to British boxing’s hard-honed preparation and a coaching setup that has now enjoyed a fine Games, with four GB medals safely banked so far. “Six months ago we went to the US at Christmas for a training camp. I put seven kilo on. How does that work? It doesn’t work. I was in America and I thought I’d try every fast-food restaurant going. To come back after that – I had the wake-up call from Robert McCracken [the head coach] and it was just what I needed at the right time.”