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Sunday, August 3, 2008

Paea Wolfgramm: Mountain Man, Mountain Heart

As recorded elsewhere in this blog the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics were marred by a Soviet-led boycott, reducing the original number of invited competing nations. The 16 countries that didn't attend were in turn replaced by 19 new countries and their representative National Olympic Committees. One of these debuting nations was the small Pacific kingdom of Tonga. Whilst not officially a member of the IOC, the Tongan NOC was allowed to send a team which whilst small, began a participation history which reached its (so far) most glorious Olympic moment thanks to a boxer, devout Mormon and Auckland-based clerk, Paea Wolfgramm.

Paea Wolfgramm was a former rugby player when he was named as Tonga's entry in the Super-Heavyweight category of the Atlanta 1996 boxing program. Paea started boxing in 1990 after receiving encouragement from a University of Auckland friend, Tony Fulilangi. After only 24 bouts and boxing mainly in the Pacific Islands he was on his way to Atlanta. Paea was definitely under the radar when it came to those pundits forecasting gold in his weight division. The favourite was the Russian world champion Aleksi Lezin, with other major candidates for medals including the American Lawrence Clay-Bey and Cuban Alexis Rubalcaba. However as so often in the history of the modern Olympics the pre-games favourites didn't exactly meet the expectations of many an armchair expert.

In the first round of bouts most competitors had byes, including Lezin, Clay-Bey, the Ukrainian Wladamir Klitschko, Rubalcaba and Wolgramm himself. It wasn't until the second round of bouts that there was a complete list of super-heavyweight competitors in the ring. Klitschko defeated the hometown favourite Clay-Bey 10-8, underlining the quality of his family's boxing heritage, with his brother Vitali winning silver behind Lezin in the preceding world championships. Lezin also won through, defeating the Kazakh boxer Mikhail Jourchenko, whilst Rubalcaba progressed to the quarter finals with a win over the Italian Paolo Vidoz. In one surprise result the unheralded Nigerian Duncan Dokiwari defeated his Pakistani opponent after only 85 seconds of the first round, but he wasn't the only underdog to progress. Wolfgramm, who chanted before every bout the Tongan mantra "Tonga mounga kihe loto" - "Your mountains are your heart.") defeated Belarus boxer Sergei Dahovich 10-9 on points. The next round match ups included Klitschko versus the Swede Levin, Lezin versus the German Monse and Wolfgramm versus Rubalcaba.

Normally the Cuban would have been considered a certainty. Cuban boxers have been literally punching above their weight at most post-war Olympics thanks to their incredible team strength, plus the performances of iconic gold medallists such as Teofilio Stevenson and Felix Savon. However to the delight of the crowd Wolfgramm set out to defy the odds, history and boxing logic.In what he described later as a "gold medal match" the huge Tongan belted Rubalcaba against the rope almost as soon as the bell stopped ringing for round one. To the crowd's chants of "Ton-ga! Ton-ga!" Wolfgramm inflicted two standing counts on the much more fancied Cuban, and at the end of the fight he stood most surprisingly the winner in a 17-12 points division. It was already the greatest moment in Tongan Olympic history as Paea was assured at least a bronze medal, and it was going to get better.

Klitschko and Lezin had set up their semi-final with wins against their respective opponents, whilst in Wolfgramm's half of the draw the Nigerian Dokiwari had again flattened an opponent (the Azerbajani Mamov) in almost brutal fashion, 23 seconds into round three of his bout. Dokiwari was set to box Wolfgramm, and these two unknowns would get the chance to battle either a world champion or the European championship runner-up for a gold medal.

In Tonga the nation was absorbed in their super-heavyweight's ascent to Olympic glory. Unfortunately the Tongan TV channel didn't broadcast the bout, and it was a truly great fight. Dokiwari had the more credentialled background, having won gold at the 1994 Victoria Commonwealth Games. And up until the last round he and Wolfgramm traded hits with the points split evenly 6-6. Then, with lietrally seconds to go Wolfgramm planted a fist into Dokiwari, scoring the necessary point to win the bout 7-6. The Tongan was in the gold medal fight.

King Taufa'ahou Topu IV, the Tongan monarch ordered a national day of fasting and prayer for Wolfgramm. Asked if he ever fasted Paea pointed to his massive 182 cm, 140 kg frame and replied "Do I look like I've fasted a lot?".Whilst fasting may not have helped him, prayer was certainly something he appreciated. Unfortunately during his bout with Dokiwari he had broken his wrist and also had a broken nose, and would probably have not even tried to step into the ring if it weren't a gold medal fight. Yet Wolfgramm had unfinished business; a ringside rendezvous with the Ukrainian Klitschko. As he put it;
"If I won a gold medal, I could not even imagine. I would die first, coach would die next and the king would give me half of Tonga."

The Russian gold medal favourite Aleksei Lezin had been outpointed 9-5 byWladamir Klitschko and so was the the Ukrainian was an unbackable certainty. In the final Wolfgramm gamely tried to match Klitschko, and after two rounds was only down 2-3. However in the third and final round the Ukrainian took another four points to Wolgramm's 1, ending the fight and winning the gold 7-3. Yet as much as his victory was notable, it was the silver medal of Tonga's Paea Wolfgramm that arguably brought most glory to the Atlanta boxing tournament. A country with only about 106,000 people spread over 169 islands had claimed its first ever Olympic medal, and as Wolfgramm brought the silver home he stated "I felt like it was national property", letting anyone who wanted to wear it a chance to don the medal. Never before had such a small country with such little opportunity to stand high on the Olympic stage had achieved so much, and it was thanks to a mountain of a man with a mountain for a heart.

Wladamir Klitschko (red trunks) connecting with Paea Wolfgramm (blue trunks) in the final bout of the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Super-Heavyweight boxing tournament


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