One spot at stake

Updated: February 29, 2004, 3:43 AM ET
Associated Press

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."


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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