By Ryan Maquiñana
MOBILE, AL – When the smoke cleared Friday night at the U.S. Olympic Trials finals, three Californians had punched their ticket to Azerbaijan and one more almost continued his Cinderella run by joining them.
In the opening fight of the night, San Jose P.A.L.’s Eros Correa became the first Bay Area fighter since Andre Ward in 2004 to take home Trials gold with a 22-18 decision victory over Reno’s Santos Vasquez, a man who had who had beaten him in their two previous meetings.
“I was just staying on the outside and I think he got tired from missing me so much,” the 18-year-old Correa told Comcast SportsNet. He also becomes the first champ from San Jose since Louis Molina in 1932. “I was finding my rhythm, and I wasn’t tired at all, I knew I was going to finish strong in that third round with clean punches. When the bell rang to end the fight, I was not worried. I was confident that I won clearly.”
Correa’s tale was one of revenge. In addition to avenging his twin losses to Vasquez, he also reversed two previous defeats to top seed Louie Byrd. What makes Correa’s saga even more impressive is that after his loss to Byrd at Nationals in June, he had to be convinced to try his luck at last month’s Last Chance Qualifier.
He won a grueling three fights in three nights, made it to Mobile, and the rest is history. Correa even received a congratulatory text from fellow South Bay product Robert Guerrero.
“I want to congratulate Eros Correa on his victory and shot at making the U.S. Olympic Team. Continue to follow your dreams and believe in yourself!”
“What a feeling to get my hand raised,” Correa said. “To accomplish this is just amazing, and I’m thankful for all the support from home.”
In the bantamweight final, South El Monte’s Joseph Diaz Jr. shot through the rest of the field, outpointing Orange, Tex.’s O’Shanique Foster for the second time this week, 17-14.
“It was different from the last fight, because O’Shanique traded with me then,” said Diaz, the two-time reigning national champion. “But now he came out trying to box me in the first round, so I tried to hit him with my body shots. I switched to boxing in the second round and it was tied 9-9. I stayed calm, I thought I landed the cleaner punches, and won the fight.”
Diaz, featured earlier in the week on BoxingScene, has developed into the top 123-pounder in America under the tutelage of his proud father, Joseph Sr., who had no prior training experience when “JoJo” began his amateur career and relied on the internet and local trainers to help him hone his craft.
“We never dreamed we would get this far,” said the elder Diaz. “His work ethic and his talent combined with his toughness have really helped him improve every day. I’m not only proud of him as his trainer, I’m proud of him because he’s my son.”
Jose Ramirez of Kings Gym in Avenal solidified his status as America’s best lightweight with a 21-16 triumph over 2008 Olympian Raynell Williams, his second over the Clevelander. After a slight slip-up in the National Golden Gloves against Erick DeLeon in April, Ramirez has gone on a tear, taking gold at both the U.S. Nationals as well as the Olympic Trials.
“My timing was very good in this tournament,” Ramirez said. “My defense was a high level for the fight against Williams. I felt like my opponents all week along at 132 pounds were cautious with me because of my power. Our first fight was close, and he tried to put the pressure more on me. I could hear the fans screaming and I had to focus and use my intelligence to win.”
Now a student at Fresno State University, the Starbucks barista with his own iPhone app and logo has so far lived up to the unprecedented hype created by his publicist, Rick Mirigian, as he will undoubtedly be considered in any pre-Olympic medal talk as he continues to do nothing but win.
“It’s always been my dream to be part of the Olympic Team,” Ramirez said. “I knew I was going to have to fight the best to win it all, so it came down to who wanted it more. It was an honor to see my dad so happy since he’s been by my side for all my fights. My mom called me on the phone all week and that made me feel good to hear her encouragement. With Armando Mancinas, my trainer, Rick helping out, and the support of the community, it really was a team effort.”
In the final bout of the night, super heavyweight LaRon Mitchell of San Francisco’s Ring of Fire Gym had a four-bout winning streak snapped by the eventual champion, Kan.’s Lenroy Thompson.
“He got me with a lot of clean shots,” the San Francisco State University graduate told Comcast SportsNet. “He was running a lot in the first round, and a lot of it was me trying to press the issue. Trying to close the distance a lot faster than normal opened me up a lot more than I would like. The last shot of his combinations would catch me and score.”
The 31-year-old father of three won their first meeting at U.S. Nationals in June, and Thompson their rematch in the opening round last Sunday. The rubber match, however, was all Thompson, as he craftily outboxed his fellow southpaw to the victory.
Still, Mitchell’s story remains an astounding one, having picked up the sport just under a year ago and battled through a right shoulder injury that forced him to pull out of the gold medal bout at Nationals.
“Can you believe I actually got rejected by some coach five years ago because he said I was too old to learn how to box?” he asked. “I allowed it to stop me then, but not now. There are amateur fighters in the Bay that have forgotten more than I’ve been introduced to. I respect the game, and at the end of the day, you have to pay your dues, and I’ll do just that.”
Correa, Diaz, Ramirez, Thompson and the other six champions now head to Azerbaijan for September’s AIBA World Championships. Aside from Thompson, who must finish among the top six 201-plus-pounders to net an automatic Olympic berth, a top 10 result for the other nine Americans will punch a ticket to London. Otherwise, their spots will be back up for grabs next year.
“I hope Lenroy does qualify, because he’s earned it,” Mitchell said. “He won fair and square. If anybody deserves it, it’s him. But if he doesn’t finish in the top six, I’ll be more than willing to take his place next year, so I’ll be ready.”
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], check out his blog at www.maqdown.com or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.