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One spot at stake

2/29/2004

CLEVELAND -- The 10 new members of the U.S. boxing team gathered in the ring Saturday at the Olympic Box-offs for their first team photograph, their menacing clenched fists betrayed by
ecstatic smiles.

Only a welterweight was missing -- and once he's in the picture, the fighters and their coaches can focus on a long summer of hard work.

In the only match of the second day of competition at the Cleveland State Convocation Center, Austin Trout of Las Cruces, N.M., beat Brooklyn's Cory Jones 24-15 to advance to a box-off
against Vanes Martirosyan of Glendale, Calif. on Sunday.

If Martirosyan wins, he will join the 10 fighters who earned a
spot on the U.S. team with victories on Friday. Trout must beat
Martirosyan twice to advance.

"I'm just hoping I can get up there and get in that photograph
pretty soon," Trout said. "That's the dream of every fighter out
there."

The welterweight division was delayed after the controversial
disqualification of the top two fighters during the Olympic trials
last week in Tunica, Miss.

Nearly everything else about the trials and the box-offs went
according to plan, with 10 well-regarded boxers advancing. The team
is headed to Colorado Springs for two weeks of training before the
Tournament of the Americas in Tijuana, Mexico, where the top two
finishers in each weight class will earn a trip to the Olympics.

The boxers expect to bond as a team in Colorado, since they'll
no longer be fighting each other -- well, except flyweight Ron Siler
and light flyweight Rau'Shee Warren, who regularly spar back home
in Cincinnati.

Most are expected to advance from Tijuana to Athens, but that's
where the confidence in this team ends. Many experts believe the
Americans have a solid but lackluster crop of top amateurs who will
struggle in Greece.

Don't tell that to the fighters, though.

"I think this team can take it to a whole other level," said
light heavyweight Andre Ward, an Oakland, Calif., native who hasn't
lost since 1998.

"I'm very excited about the talent we have. I'm expecting great
things from us. Everybody counted us out. They said, 'Don't look
out for 2004, because they're not going to win any medals.' Well, I
think we're going to win a lot of medals."

According to Ward, the American team's impressive speed will be
important with the physical pounding the fighters could take
against the top boxers from Cuba and Europe.

Basheer Abdullah, a longtime Army coach leading his first
Olympic team, plans to evaluate his top fighters over the next
several months before making any predictions on their medal chances
-- but he liked the winners' performances in the box-offs.

"We've got a very solid team across the weight classes,"
Abdullah said. "I like our speed, and I like the experience of
some of the more veteran fighters. We'll know more after Tijuana,
which is the only thing we'll be focused on for the next two
weeks."

In Saturday's main event, Trout earned a belated berth in the
box-offs with an impressive win over Jones, who beat Trout in the
first round of the trials. Trout adjusted his style in the interim,
and his changes resulted in a cleaner, more efficient performance
in the computer-scored sport.

Trout, Jones and Martirosyan traveled to Cleveland last week not
knowing who they would fight or when it might happen. Disqualified
welterweights Juan McPherson and Andre Berto appeared before a
judge and an arbitrator in a futile attempt to get back in the
competition.

McPherson was medically disqualified with an injury after Berto
threw him to the canvas last week in Mississippi. McPherson
insisted there was nothing wrong with him, while Berto wanted his
own disqualification overturned.

"It's a shame that it all had to go down like that," Trout
said. "There was nothing we could do about it, but I'm just
focused on trying to win Sunday, and then move on."