Supporters drive through wildfires to cheer

Updated: May 8, 2004, 2:01 AM ET
Associated Press

RENO, Nev. -- Vicente Escobedo didn't want to disappoint the fans who came to cheer him on. Not after they drove through fire to see the boxer who will represent the United States in the lightweight division in Athens.

Escobedo's friends and family helped pack a hotel showroom Saturday night to watch the 132-pounder win a decision over Puerto Rican Olympian Alexander de Jesus that boosted his Olympic hopes.

It wasn't easy, since the 150 or so fans who came from his hometown of Woodland, Calif., had to make their way across Interstate 80, which was closed at times because of wildfires.

"If they made it, they made it," Escobedo said. "If they didn't, they didn't. I had to concentrate on my fight."

In the balcony of the showroom at the Eldorado hotel-casino, Escobedo's family and friends waved flags and cheered wildly as he entered the ring, then chanted his name as the fight began.

He didn't disappoint them, winning a 23-10 decision in the dual meet matching U.S. fighters against their Puerto Rican counterparts. The United States won the meet 7-4.

"Everywhere I go I get a big crowd support," Escobedo said. "It hypes me up. It makes me want to fight harder for my country, my family and my friends."

Escobedo started slowly against the southpaw from Puerto Rico, and was trailing after the first round of the four-round amateur fight. But he began landing in the second round and soon was leading 17-5 after three rounds on the computerized scoring.

The 22-year-old was especially happy with the win since it came against a fighter who will also be at the Olympics.

"I know I'm going to have to fight him in the Olympics," he said. "These are the guys I have to beat to get the gold medal."

One of Escobedo's Olympic teammates gave the crowd something else to cheer about in stopping his opponent on points in the third round.

Middleweight Andre Dirrell of Flint, Mich., then gave them something extra -- a back flip in the ring to celebrate his win.

Dirrell, who was winning 23-3 when the fight was stopped on the 20-point rule, said skeptics who don't think the U.S. team will win many medals in Athens will be proven wrong.

"I just sit back and laugh at that," Dirrell said. "I know we have a strong team. I see six or seven medals for us."

Also winning was Andre Ward, though that wasn't surprising. Ward hasn't lost a fight since 1998, and that streak continued against Santos Marquez of Puerto Rico.

Ward won an easy 22-2 decision in a fight that Marquez seemed eager just to make it through.

U.S. heavyweight Devin Vargas of Toledo, Ohio, also won, stopping Vicente Miranda 41 seconds into the third round.

Five of the nine members of the team going to Athens came to Reno to fight in the dual meet. One, 152-pounder Vanes Martirosyan of Glendale, Calif., won on a walkover when his scheduled opponent couldn't fight.

In previous years, the United States fielded a team of 12 boxers, one for each weight class. This year, with one fewer weight class and two boxers failing to qualify under new qualifying rules, there will be no Americans competing in Athens at 119 and 125 pounds.

The U.S. team is coming off an Olympics where no boxers won a gold medal for the first time since the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press