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Benitez, Allen win provisional spots

CLEVELAND -- Roberto Benitez and Rock Allen won contentious decisions Friday night in the Olympic Box-offs, earning provisional spots on the U.S. Olympic boxing team.

Cleveland's own Mickey Bey Jr. won 23-13 in the featured
featherweight fight at the box-offs, which match the winner of the
champions' bracket from last week's trials in Tunica, Miss., with
the second-place finisher in the double-elimination tournament.

Rau'shee Warren, Ron Siler, Vicente Escobedo, Andre Dirrell,
Andre Ward and Devin Vargas also won their weight classes, earning
a trip to Tijuana, Mexico, for the Tournament of the Americas in
March.

Jason Estrada bloodied Mike Wilson to win the super heavyweight bout 14-5. Because Estrada won gold at last year's Pan Am Games, he is guaranteed a trip to Athens in August.

The rest of the fighters could join Estrada if they finish in
the top two in the Tijuana field of boxers from across North and
South America.

The champions needed just one victory in the box-offs'
four-round bouts to advance, while the challengers needed to win
Friday to force a rematch in Saturday. In 10 of the 11 divisions,
there will be no rematches at the Cleveland State Convocation
Center.

Before the bouts, the fighters were joking around in the locker
room when Siler, the top flyweight, yelled out, "Who wants to
fight tomorrow?"

"There was dead silence," said Ward, the light heavyweight
winner. "Nobody wanted to see tomorrow."

The welterweight division will be decided Saturday following a
week of contentious negotiations between USA Boxing and two of the
division's top amateurs.

Juan McPherson and Andre Berto were disqualified for their
actions in a fight last week in Tunica, Miss. McPherson was injured
-- and later medically disqualified -- when Berto threw him to the
canvas during their bout.

Both fighters challenged their disqualifications in court and in
front of an arbitrator, but were unsuccessful. Four fighters still
have a shot at the title.

McPherson still got in the ring in front of his hometown fans,
drawing a standing ovation when he was introduced between bouts
while wearing street clothes.

Benitez, a native of Manhattan's Lower East Side, got a disputed
victory by surviving four lively rounds against Philadelphia's Eric
Hunter, even recovering from a standing eight count in the final
round to win on points.

Though some fans booed, Benitez was rewarded for his
persistence. He moved to Michigan's Upper Peninsula eight years ago
to pursue his Olympic dream, and returned to the qualifying events
four years after failing to make the 2000 team.

"I know how many people doubted me and thought I was wasting four years for another chance to box in the Olympics," Benitez
said. "I used my experience, my knowledge of being in the ring.
I'm a more experienced athlete, and I think that comes out in my
boxing."

Allen won a similar decision, outpointing Lamont Peterson 27-12 despite a fine performance by the challenger. That's the nature of
this particular brand of boxing, where computer points count more
than emotions.

"I knew if I just stuck to my strategy and boxed him, I'd be
moving on," Allen said. "It's important to be a disciplined
fighter and to listen to your coach."

Warren, a 10th-grader from Cincinnati who turned 17 two weeks ago, dominated the light flyweight bracket. He stopped Diego
Hurtado 30 seconds into the third round with several combinations
to the head.

Warren leaped to the top of the ropes with his arms outstretched
while his fans bellowed "Queen City!" from the stands.

Siler, another Cincinnati fighter, had a similarly easy time
against Aaron Alafa of Visalia, Calif. Siler, a two-time Golden
Gloves champion, staggered Alafa with a wicked right in the second
round, then chased Alafa across the ring until the referee stopped
the fight.

Ward, an Oakland, Calif., light heavyweight considered one of
the Americans' top medal hopes, solidly outpointed Marcus Johnson
16-11. Ward hasn't lost since 1998, and he's focused on earning a
trip to Athens.

"It's just the beginning of something beautiful that I believe
will happen in 2004," Ward said. "They're doubting us, but I have
high expectations for the team and for myself. I think we're going
to do great things."