Olympic boxing has produced elite, in-ring warriors who have gone on to become successful professional fighters. They traded blows with one another, sweated and bled hard to become world champions, and legends of the ring inspiring others to follow them to glory.
Some even achieved such sublime status that they became the very definition of the sport with one even hailed as the greatest. The International Boxing Hall of Fame echoes the names of world championship legends of the 20th and 21st centuries who were also Olympic Medalists, names like Lennox Lewis, Audley Harrison, Oscar De La Hoya, and Marvin Hagler.
There are those fighters whose exceptional skills in the ring not only elevated them to championship status, but also changed the sport and inspired others to follow in their footsteps.
Whilst the likes of Stoyka Krasteva of Bulgaria, Great Britain’s Galal Yafai, and Cuba’s Roniel Iglesias, who shone in the 2020 Tokyo games this year consider taking the big step, let’s look back at five icons, Olympic fighters who turned professional, and wielded tremendous impact and influence on the sport.
So let’s enter the squared circle in Boxing: 5 Great, Olympic Medalists Who Turned Pro & Became Legends!
5. Evander Holyfield (aka: “The Real Deal”, “The Warrior”)
This legend of the cruiserweight division made his mark at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics as part of the US ‘Dream Team’.
Holyfield started boxing at the age 7, and by age 13, had qualified to compete in his first Junior Olympics. From there, Holyfield went on to win the Southeastern Regional Championship, and by age 20 was competing in the light heavyweight division at the Pan American Games where he won a silver medal beating Cuba’s World Champion, Pablo Romero.
He then went on to become the national Golden Gloves Champion before being picked for the 1984, US Olympic team.
Holyfield was on track to take gold, knocking down one opponent after another until his controversial semi-final match with New Zealand’s Kevin Barry. Holyfield had knocked down Barry for the win but was disqualified by referee Gligorije Novicic for continuing to hit after being called to break.
The decision was upheld but Holyfield took bronze, still a crowning achievement in an amateur career of 160 wins with 76 by knockout and only 14 losses. Later that year Holyfield turned professional starting out as a light heavyweight winning one match after another before levelling up the cruiserweight division.
He then worked to capture the world title from Dwight Muhammad Qawi, their bout being considered one of the greatest in the history of the division.
Holyfield also fought and won championships in the heavyweight division against the likes of George Foreman, Mike Tyson (in the infamous ear-biting incident), and Lennox Lewis.
During his career he suffered his share of defeats, and in 1996 was forced to retire due to medical reasons. Each time however, Holyfield fought back to regain his belts, sealing his nickname: “The Warrior”.
Holyfield finally retired in 2014 with an impressive professional record tally of 44 wins out of 57 matches, 29 by knockout and despite his recent defeat against former UFC fighter Vitor Belfort , remains the undisputed Cruiserweight Champion.
4. Pernell Whitaker (aka: “Sweet Pea”)
The southpaw from North Virginia was another member of the 1984, Los Angeles Games ‘dream team’ with a fight record that began as early as age 9.
Right up to the time of his death in 2019, he was known as the greatest defensive fighter of his generation with world title wins in four weight divisions.
As an amateur, Whitaker had an impressive career by the time he competed in the Olympics winning 201 of his 214 fights, winning 91 of them by knockout.
It was at this time that he was also known for his rivalry with two-time gold medalist, Ángel Herrera Vera. Whitaker lost to the Cuban rival at the 1982 World Championships but, like Holyfield, also competed in the 1983 Pan American Games.
Whitaker knocked out his rival to take gold. The following year at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, Whitaker beat Luis Ortiz of Cuba and took gold before turning professional.
Whitaker fought in the lightweight, light welterweight, welterweight and light middleweight divisions winning world championships in each one against the likes of James ‘Buddy’ McGirt, Julio Cesar Chavez (whom he fought on more than one occasion) and even another younger boxing Olympian, Oscar De La Hoya.
Despite losing to the young De La Hoya in what was viewed as a controversial decision, Pernell kept on fighting until his match in 2001 against Carlos Bojorquez.
It was during this fight that Whitaker suffered a broken clavicle and was forced into retirement, after which he worked as a trainer in his home state of Virginia.
He will always be remembered as a world class defensive fighter and counterpuncher, the undisputed Lightweight Champion, and Boxing Hall of Fame inductee.
3. Sugar Ray Leonard
Before the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the US Olympic line up produced another boxing ‘Dream Team’ in 1976 who overall won five gold medals and produced five future champions.
Amongst this powerhouse line up was North Carolina’s Ray Leonard who took the namesake of another in-ring legend, ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson, and went on to virtually fight wars in the ring notching up an incredible amateur, and professional fight record.
‘Sugar’ Ray Leonard started boxing at age 13, and by the time he turned 16, was competing at Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) bouts. Since the minimum age for AAU fighters was 17, Leonard had lied about his age to compete in the lightweight division making it all the way to the semi-finals.
Despite incurring some losses, Leonard battled his way to become the AAU Champion, winner of the National Golden Gloves, and Light Welterweight Championship at the Pan American Games.
In 1976 he joined the US Olympic team, considered to be the sport’s greatest squad. Leonard won each of his bouts with a score of 5-0 by decisions. His opponent in the final was the Cuban, Andrés Aldama who had, by contrast won all his bouts by knockout. Leonard took gold beating Aldama 5-0, by decision.
Leonard had initially intended to fight professionally, however a change in his family circumstances persuaded him to earn his living in the ring. He made his welterweight debut in February 1977 against Luis ‘The Bull’ Vega whom he defeated after 6 rounds.
Leonard went on to fight and defeat Floyd Mayweather senior, Randy Shields, and Pete Ranzany winning the NABF welterweight championship. In November 1979 Leonard went on to win the WBC welterweight championship against Wilfred Benítez, a fight which, in true ‘Rocky’ fashion, lasted all the way to round 15 with victory being declared by decision.
From here on in, Leonard made history with legendary fights such as the “Brawl in Montreal” against the “Hands of Stone” himself, Roberto Duran, and again in New Orleans, wearing down Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns at Caesars Palace, unifying the world welterweight championship. And who can forget his most legendary bout against former Olympic teammate ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler in 1982’s “The SuperFight”!
Leonard retired in 1998 with a professional record of 40 fights, 36 wins, 25 of which were by knockout. He was described by sports writer, George Kimball, as one of the ‘Four Kings’ of boxing alongside Tommy “The Hitman” Hearns, Roberto Duran, and Marvin Hagler, and remains the undisputed Welterweight Champion.
2. Nicola Adams OBE (aka: The Lioness)
If during the London 2012 Olympic Games you heard a smashing sound, that was the proverbial glass ceiling being shattered by flyweight boxer, Nicola Adams.
Hailing from the city of Leeds in the UK, Adams became the first female boxer to win Olympic gold and the first double Olympic Champion at the 2016 Rio Games.
It seems she was destined to pave the way for women’s boxing in her amateur years before London 2012. She won her first bout at the age of 13, going on to become the first ever woman boxer to represent England in 2001, and win a medal in a major tournament in Denmark in 2007.
Outside the ring, Adams battled injury and low income taking bit part roles in English soap operas to make ends meet. By 2011 she was listed as one of 6 promising Britons to watch at the Olympics.
In 2017 Adams turned professional but her career was cut short two years later due to a torn pupil which would have risked her going blind if she continued to fight.
She still racked up wins in 4 out of 5 fights and 1 draw, 2 of the wins were by knockout. Adams went on to become an ambassador for women’s boxing and her work in the community, not to mention Olympic wins, saw an over 50% increase in women taking up boxing.
1. Muhammad Ali (aka: “The Greatest”)
Really needing no introduction anywhere in the world, Cassius Clay, aka Muhammad Ali was nicknamed ‘The Greatest’, a name that was certainly no mere empty boast.
Perhaps it should have been evident that this young man from Kentucky would take the boxing world by storm when he won his first bout in 1954. He went on to win championship after championship including 6 Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, 2 National Golden Gloves, and an AAU National title.
In 1960, aged 18, Ali made the cut for the US Olympic boxing team, winning all four of his fights with ease, and then defeating three-time European Champion Zbigniew Pietrzykowski to take gold.
His career was colourful to say the least, for not only did he devastate his opponents in the ring, but he also waxed lyrical at press conferences with his tongue-twisting poetic soliloquies.
The man who floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, who was so virulent he made medicine sick, won championship after championship in the heavyweight division earning his reputation as the greatest fighter ever.
His boxing however grew alongside his activism as he battled the US government against the Vietnam draft, a move which saw him stripped of his title. It was a fight that he won, and soon after, he went on to battle heavyweights such as Sonny Liston, George Foreman (in which he employed the famous ‘rope-a-dope’ technique), UK’s own Henry Cooper, and of course his most famous rival, Joe Frazier.
In bouts with names such as “Rumble in the Jungle” and “Thrilla in Manila”, Ali didn’t just box, he fought veritable wars in the ring. With his skill, personality, and philanthropism, Ali dominated much of 20th Century boxing and was named the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Century.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, his legacy lives on in his own daughter, the undefeated 24-0, super middleweight boxing champion, Laila “She Bee Stingin” Ali too.
His name has since passed into folklore, and is so synonymous with the sport that whenever you mention boxing, the first name you hear, is ‘Muhammad Ali’, and rightly so.