The boxing brotherhood
Ron Siler, as rugged a 112-pound boxer as you will find in the entire world, sounds a little defeated.
"Hello?" he says into the phone from his Cincinnati home. "I'm sorry, sir, but I can't hear you. The kids, they're a little noisy right now."
It's remarkable enough to produce four children within a slender span of four years, but consider this backdrop: Siler's mother gave birth to him in a Knoxville hospital, then walked out and joined the Army.
"It's true, sir," Siler says. "She did what she had to do to make it in life. I'm lucky I had my father."
And Siler, after a few missteps along the way, has done what he had to do. Truth be told, Siler has another young charge to look out for. He has known 17-year-old light flyweight Rau'Shee Warren, another confirmed gym rat, since he was 6 years old. Warren recently qualified for the Olympics as the United State's 106-pound fighter -- with a victory over Diego Hurtado in his first senior event.
On the narrow shoulders of Warren and Siler -- who spend four hours each day working out in Cincinnati -- rest a significant portion of America's medal hopes in boxing. And this time around there is a sense of urgency. In 2000, the U.S. boxers came home from Sydney, Australia with only two silvers and two bronzes -- the first non-gold medal showing in more than 50 years. Three U.S. boxers were favored to win gold -- Ricardo Juarez, Ricardo Williams, Jr., and Brian Viloria -- but were stopped short.
"In America, all we see is gold," observed U.S. 2004 Olympic boxing head coach Basheer Abdullah from the team's Colorado Springs training facility. "It was a big, big letdown. We've got a long way to go, but I think we're on the right path.
"Do I see gold? Of course, we have that talent, but I'm not going to say who. Any of these guys are capable of taking home a gold medal."
And Siler and Warren are capable, largely because they have each other. What are the odds of having two Olympic boxers in the same city, much less the same gym? But there they are, at the Mt. Auburn PAL facility, under the measured hand of trainer Mike Stafford. On a daily basis, Siler tries to educate Warren in the violent curriculum of the sweet science.
"He's almost like a brother to me," said Warren, a southpaw. "We work hard, train together, run together. We do everything together right now."
Said Siler: "We are real close friends. We take care of business in the ring."
But who takes care of whom when they spar? They won't say.
"We don't try to defeat each other," Siler said. "We work on things. Last week, Coach Stafford had us working on Rau'Shee coming forward. We don't try to hurt each other; we don't have a competitive thing. We're teammates."
Stafford sighed when he was asked about their frequent flurries.
"It's just a class act," he said. "The skills on top of the skills, strategy. Whoever makes the mistake gets victimized. It's like a splash session."
Siler almost didn't make it to his second chance. He won his first Junior Olympic Championship when he was 15, but he was sometimes a wild child of the street and after a mass fight in Cincinnati, he spent nine months in jail. He was a favorite to make the 2000 Olympic team, but lost 19-16 in the quarterfinals of the championship bracket to Nonito Donaire. Watching the Sydney Olympics from home was especially painful.
"It didn't really hit me, until I saw the boxing on TV," Siler said. "I felt I could have done a better job. It made me work very hard; it was motivation for me.
"I thought I could have won a medal."
He considered turning professional, but the prospects were bleak. So he went back into the gym. In 2001, he won every tournament he entered with one exception -- he took a bronze medal in the world championships. In this year's Trials, he was the favorite at 112 pounds. This time, he delivered.
"Before, he had the lack of focus," Stafford said. "We took him down in training camp in March and spent three weeks in Colorado Springs before the U.S. championships. Then we spent another two weeks working before the Trials.
"All the work paid off."
The same is true for Warren, whose learning curve has been steep, indeed.
"He's fast-tracked," Abdullah said, laughing. "He's blessed with talent. He's just ahead of his time. His speed, strength and power. His right hook. Against all the more experienced boxers, he's answered all the questions."
Stafford had an idea that Warren might be exceptional a decade ago. Warren would come to the gym and watch his three brothers -- Artega, Antonio and Tee box. Rau'Shee would cry when they wouldn't let him in the ring.
"Basically, we were baby sitting him in the gym," Stafford said. "When he was like 7, 8 years old (and 50-55 pounds), we put him in the ring. He handled 10-year-old guys like it was nothing."
At 15, Stafford threw him into the ring with real men. And still, Warren prevailed. He had won a number of national championships going into the Trials in Tijuana, Mexico, but it was his first senior event -- that is, facing boxers over the age of 16. Warren was not seriously challenged in his four bouts.
Now, how will he fare in international competition, where some boxers will be literally twice his age and far more physical than he is accustomed?
"He very aggressive, and smart, too," Stafford said. "He can adjust to every style in the ring -- that's what causes these guys problems.
"He's beaten all the odds. Everybody knew he had the talent, but the majority didn't think he'd win the Trials. He's a good counter-puncher, which will help him when those older guys try to get a body on him. We tell him, 'Don't try to war with them. Counter-punch and work the scoring system.' "
Siler, who knows the international scoring system intimately, has been trying to download that hard-bought knowledge into Warren's young brain.
"We both got speed, and I tell him you have to use it," Siler said. "You want to have a good defense and be in the center of ring where three judges can see you. You land a punch, you want them all to push the button at the same time.
"The Europeans will try to push Rau'Shee around, but he's slick. He's a boxer. He won't stand on the inside."
Warren knows what he has to work on.
"Defense," he said. "I think my speed gives me a good chance, but I don't want to be looking all sloppy."
Warren will have several opportunities to polish his game. He's heading to Russia at the end of April, then there's the King's Cup in Bangkok, Thailand, in June, and the Titan Games in Atlanta before the Olympics in August.
Warren's enthusiasm is starting to infect Siler, whose boxing has carried him to places like Ireland, Kazahkstan, Australia and Argentina.
"He's thinking of going to Russia with me," Warren said. "I think I talked him into it. He's already been around the world, but he should be there. We should be there.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com