By Ryan Maquiñana
Two years and 11 months have elapsed since the U.S. Boxing Team returned home from Beijing Olympics with neither a gold nor silver medal in tow.
During this time, a new crop of American amateurs has entered the fray hoping to erase 2008’s unprecedented debacle in next summer’s London Games.
The ten men who will eventually travel across the pond will earn their spots at the 2011 U.S. Men’s Olympic Trials, which will be held in Mobile, Ala., from July 31-Aug. 6.
Eight combatants in each weight class will duke it out in a double-elimination tournament to decide who earns the right to don the Stars and Stripes across the pond next July.
In the light flyweight division, Louie Byrd of Denver, Colo., is a heavy favorite, having won both the National PAL and Golden Gloves. However, he struggled in last month’s nationals, scraping by on punches counted against San Jose’s Eros Correa and losing in the final to Cincinnati’s David Carlton.
“I was too focused on slowing [Carlton] down with the body shots, and I wasn’t really focused as much on getting those headshot points as I should have been,” the 108-pound Byrd said.
Byrd might have to go through one or both to win the Trials; both were noticeably taller, a trait he thinks he can neutralize the second time around.
“[Regarding Correa], that fight shouldn’t have been so close. I had just gotten a bad cold before that fight, and I was not at my full potential, but he is a great fighter. I had to just sit there and rough it out. I know at the Trials its going to a whole lot different story, everyone is going to see a different Louie Byrd.”
The San Jose fighter would love to get a second chance at “King” Louie.
“He had a good third round, but I thought I won the fight,” Correa replied. “My coach [Candy Lopez] and I have worked on what we’d do differently, and we’ll be ready for him next time around.”
Of everyone in the field, the most decorated American amateur can be found in the flyweight division. Two-time Olympian Rau’shee Warren of Cincinnati has led a well-traveled career so far.
The 2007 world champion recently took part in the pro-style World Series of Boxing for the L.A. Matadors and is currently training with Freddie Roach in Hollywood. The question is if the southpaw who throws a hurricane of punches in bunches can make the transition back to the standard amateur rules.
He commented on the new scoring system, which will average all cards and omit the highest and lowest scores, as well as get rid of the white part of the glove as a prerequisite for scoring.
“I feel like this is good for American boxers because we are used to fighting other countries that hit and run,” the 114-pound Warren said. “Evidently if they throw a punch, they might not get a point, so they have to let their hands go sort of like Ray Leonard did in the 1976 Olympics when they were letting their punches go and throwing combinations, so we just have to stay busy.”
Army sergeant John Franklin of Fort Carson, Colo., deserves special mention as well, having won last month’s nationals, but the Warren is unequivocally the man to beat.
The bantamweights will be headed by two-time national champion Joseph Diaz Jr. of El Monte, Calif.
“I’ve been working on picking my shots lately,” the 123-pound Diaz said, having also accumulated experience with Warren as a Matadors member. “My body shots are very effective and my defense has been getting tighter and tighter…I’m fighting for my family I want to show everyone that all the hard work has been worth the sacrifice.”
“JoJo” will likely come in as the top seed, but New Haven, Conn.’s Tramaine Williams is a darkhorse candidate that is primed for an upset as well.
Lightweight is easily the deepest division, and the winner will probably be America’s best chance at a gold medal—aside from Warren and Byrd should they advance.
Leading the charge is two-time national champion Jose Ramirez of Avenal, Calif. The Fresno State University freshman doubles as a Starbucks barista to help pay his tuition, and hopes this summer vacation will be his most memorable of all.
A smooth orthodox boxer who isn’t afraid to mix it up inside, Ramirez found a rival in newly naturalized Erick DeLeon of Detroit, a switch-hitter who trains with Emanuel Steward. DeLeon dealt Ramirez a rare loss in the 132-pound National Golden Gloves final, but the latter insists he has learned from his mistakes.
“[DeLeon] is a strong fighter,” Ramirez said. “He comes in real strong on the inside and kind of tries to brawl you into the ropes…If Erick DeLeon or others want to come on the inside, I will be ready for them. I’ve been working on throwing short punches, and I’ll make sure the punches land real clean for the judges to see the points.
A third big name in the lightweight ranks is Raynell Williams of Houston. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because he was a member of the 2008 team as a featherweight. After slipping into the Trials through the Last Chance Qualifier, Williams will also be one to watch.
Another Last Chance Qualifier was Duran Caferro of Helena, Mont., who will enter the light welterweight sweepstakes after moving up from lightweight. While the Bronx’s Pedro Sosa immediately comes to mind, the division has a Beltway flavor to it, with Capitol Heights, Md.’s Gary Allen Russell (younger brother of 2008 Olympian Gary Jr.) and in-state rival Michael Reed of Waldorf in the mix.
“I’ve been feeling stronger than last year,” the 141-pound Russell said. “My brother’s giving me good advice and I’m ready to go all the way.”
One name has dominated the welterweight scene. Errol Spence Jr. of Desoto, Tex., has been crowned national champion at 152 pounds three consecutive times despite limited ring experience.
“My supporting cast and my work ethic, and just trying to be the best and perfecting my craft,” Spence said. “I’m doing what I need to do to win, and listening to my coach and my supporting cast.”
He also chimed in on the scoring changes.
“At the USA Boxing National Championships, I didn’t really see a difference,” Spence said. “But you do have to throw a lot more punches and you have to stay a lot busier because by throwing out the one second window, the clickers are going off.”
The middleweight division seems wide open. Philadelphia’s Jesse Hart decided to campaign here after a successful national title run one division north at light heavyweight. Another Beltway duo of D’Mitrius Ballard of Temple Hills, Md., and Antoine Douglas of Burke, Va., are dangerous as well.
But the hottest name at 165 pounds right now is Chris Pearson, another L.A. Matador who took gold at nationals.
“This is the biggest tournament of my life,” the native of Trotwood, Ohio, told MaxBoxing’s Gabriel Montoya. “I don’t feel like I have to watch or study [my competition] because they are going to do what they are going to do and I am going to do what I am going to. As long I am in the best shape that I can be in and my skills are on point, my timing is good, I should be fine.”
The light heavyweight division produced America’s last gold medal winner in Andre Ward, and a few good men look to follow in his footsteps, namely Army specialist Jeffrey Spencer, last year’s winner at nationals in the 178-pound division and has served a tour of duty in Iraq.
“I want to represent my country any way I can,” Spencer, from Fort Carson, Colo., told the San Antonio Express-News.
The heavyweight division offers an intriguing potential matchup between 2010 USA Boxing Athlete of the Year in Steve Geffrard and 2008 Olympian Michael Hunter. Geffrard, of Boca Raton, Fla., has been sighted at Wild Card with Roach, while the Las Vegas native Hunter has adjusted to his move down from super heavyweight.
“These guys are in a little bit better shape, and I am going to have to be a little busier,” said a leaner 201-pound Hunter. “Last time, I was able to pick and chose when I wanted to fight because of my feet. This time, I think it is going to be a little different and I am going to have to fight a little more then usual.”
Finally, a Cinderella Man of sorts has taken the super heavyweight division by storm. On only ten months of experience, San Francisco’s LaRon Mitchell upset top-ranked 201-plus-pounder Lenroy “Cam” Thompson of Uniondale, N.Y. and third-ranked O’Jayland Brown of Sacramento at nationals, only to pull out in the final due to a shoulder injury.
St. Paul, Minn.’s Jonathan Hamm took gold. Still, Mitchell has opened some eyes heading into Mobile.
“There’s still a lot I don’t know, but I’ve learned that you either want it or you don’t,” Mitchell told Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. “I’ll have plenty of time to look back at what I’ve done when it’s over, but I’m not going to stop working hard until that happens.”
Ryan Maquiñana is the boxing correspondent at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. E-mail him at [email protected], contact him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/rmaq28 or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.