Six more American boxers have qualified for the Olympics with winning performances at a qualifying tournament in Brazil, allowing USA Boxing to send an impressive nine fighters to the London Games.
Including three boxers who qualified last year, the U.S. currently has the second-largest men's team headed to London. That's more fighters than any nation except Australia, which will send a boxer in each of the 10 men's weight classes, and more than traditional amateur powers Cuba and Russia.
Light welterweight and American team captain Jamel Herring was among the group that qualified this week at the AIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Event in Rio de Janeiro.
"This performance from the team as a whole should be a message to the world that USA Boxing is still alive and kicking," Herring told The Associated Press from Rio. "If anything, I say we're getting stronger and have something to prove."
Herring left Rio with a bronze medal after losing his semifinal bout at the qualifying event, but had already qualified for London along with lightweight Jose Ramirez, light heavyweight Marcus Browne and middleweight Terrell Gausha. Two more U.S. boxers qualified Friday night in the penultimate day of competition when heavyweight Michael Hunter and super heavyweight Dominic Breazeale won their semifinal bouts.
They'll all travel to London in July with three-time U.S. Olympian flyweight Rau'shee Warren, welterweight Errol Spence and bantamweight Joseph Diaz, who all qualified last year at the world championships.
"It's like a dream," said Breazeale, a former quarterback at Northern Colorado who only took up boxing about three years ago. "Pinch me, wake me up."
Gausha and Browne won the tournament titles on Saturday, with Gausha beating Dominica's Junior Castillo 6-2 and Browne trouncing Brazil's Yamaguchi Falcao Florentino 14-6.
While Olympic qualification certainly doesn't guarantee an improved medal count, the U.S. performance is a boon to a program that has been widely criticized for declining performance in international competition.
Americans have won just one gold medal in the past three Olympics -- Andre Ward's victory in Athens in 2004. The U.S. team left Beijing four years ago with only heavyweight Deontay Wilder's bronze medal in their worst showing ever.
USA Boxing made several changes to its program since the disappointing showing in Beijing, allowing fighters to work more closely with their personal coaches and altering the qualifying process to encourage more competition. The governing body also enlisted celebrated pro trainer Freddie Roach, who has tutored several top American fighters as a special assistant.
Hunter's victory was particularly sweet for the American team. The son of a pro heavyweight failed to qualify for the Beijing Games four years ago, but stayed in the amateur ranks and worked toward London. He finally earned a spot with a 14-8 decision over Ecuador's Julio Castillo.
"It feels good," Hunter said. "It's anti-climactic, hasn't really hit me yet. I'll probably start crying pretty soon."
Breazeale is another remarkable success story for USA Boxing and All-American Heavyweights, the remarkable training program in Carson, Calif., dedicated to winning amateur titles by turning athletes from other sports into boxers. The 6-foot-6 fighter overcame a third-round deficit to earn his Olympic spot, beating Puerto Rico's Gerardo Bisbal 15-12.
"Going into the third round, I was down my two points, and I had to dig down deep. I was gassed, tired, and I had to dig deep into the heart, knuckle up. I knew I won, but I wasn't sure if I won by a lot. When I heard that blue corner called, such a relief.