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Former rugby player Paea Wolfgramm was a giant of a man who weighed in at 140kg, but in international boxing terms the Tongan super heavyweight was a rank outsider unknown to many outside his native country.
At the Olympic Games, however, ranking and reputation do not always have the final say. Wolfgramm was utterly inspired by competing at the Games, even though he was among the least experienced boxers in the field, having fought only 24 bouts prior to Atlanta. He was widely expected to lose his first bout – instead he made it all the way to the final, causing an extraordinary surprise on the way.
He came through the first round thanks to a bye, and then found himself up against the Belarusian Sergey Dukhovich. In a close bout, the Tongan took a points decision to set up a quarter-final encounter with the Cuban Alexis Rubalcaba.
Rubalcaba was one of the firm favourites to win gold; however right from the opening bell, Wolfgramm went onto the front foot, launching wave after wave of attacks and pushing his illustrious opponent onto the ropes. Rubalcaba seemed stunned, and struggled to respond, taking two standing counts and only starting to show his real talent as the fight went into its later stages.
By then, it was too late. Wolfgramm was a deserved winner, taking the verdict 17-12 and guaranteeing himself at least a bronze medal.
Tonga, which had never won an Olympic medal of any colour, already had cause to celebrate, but Wolfgramm was now focused on his semi-final against the explosive Nigerian Duncan Dokiwari. It turned out to be a magnificent fight, tied at 6-6 with just seconds to go. Then Wolfgramm landed a decisive punch, took the lead and then heard the bell ring out to signal his place in the gold medal bout.
In the final he not only had to contend with a formidable opponent in Ukraine’s Wladimir Klitschko, he also had to cope with the broken nose and broken wrist he had suffered in his bout with Dokiwari. Despite the obvious pain he was in, Wolfgramm was adamant that he couldn't pull out – after all, he had an entire country praying for him and urging him on. – He put up an excellent performance in the first two rounds, trailing only 3-2.
The final round, though, saw the Ukrainian dominate to win 7-3. Wolfgramm would have to settle for silver, but that was still a quite astonishing achievement for a boxer who had arrived in Atlanta with almost no pedigree in elite sport, and who had persevered through the pain barrier. Tonga's first Olympic medal was celebrated wildly throughout the 169 different islands that make up the country!