Young boxer can't hide his enthusiasm

Updated: July 29, 2004, 10:49 PM ET
By Thomas Gerbasi |

There was plenty of pressure on Vanes Martirosyan as he stepped into the ring for the beginning of the Western trials in February. It wasn't that the then 17-year-old would have to win five fights in five days to make it to the Olympic trials.

"My dad is a smoker," Martirosyan said. "He told me that once I won the Western trials, he would quit smoking. I wanted him to quit smoking because it's not good for me and it's especially not good for him."

And despite being ranked 14th in the country in his weight class in January, Martirosyan ran the gauntlet in Bakersfield, Calif., going 5-0 with two stoppages.

"I went to the Western trials and beat the number two guy right out of the gate in the first night," Martirosyan said. "I won the whole tournament and then he told me that if I won the (Olympic) trials, then he would quit smoking."

So Martirosyan geared up again. With two of the top 152-pounders Andre Berto and Juan McPherson disqualified after their controversial match-up, the Armenian born teenager made his way through the trials unscathed, earning a spot as the U.S. representative at welterweight. -- a spot he further proved his worthiness of when he defeated Berto (now fighting for Haiti) in the Americas' qualifier in Tijuana in March.

More important, Norik Martirosyan quit smoking -- for now.

"After I made the team, then he quit smoking," said the 18-year-old welterweight, "but I think he's starting back up. He might be doing it for me to win the Gold."

If Martirosyan does stand on that podium in Athens next month, it will be the culmination of a great story that began in Armenia, where Martirosyan lived with his parents and three siblings until the family moved to the States in 1990. Three years after arriving, Norik Martirosyan brought his son to the boxing gym.

"He felt I was an active kid and my father was a boxer also, so he put me in boxing when I was seven years old," Martirosyan said. "I started training and I started boxing."

Ironically, as he grew up, one of his local heroes was current teammate Andre Ward, and he aspired to the same type of success the light heavyweight from Oakland was enjoying.

"When I was little I always used to watch Andre Ward fight where we used to live because he was from California," remembered Martirosyan. "He used to put on a show. After all that, I just trained every day. I would go online and look at the computer, look at the ranked guys, and I would always say, 'When I'm older, I'll be on top if I win this tournament.'

"My dad always used to tell me that you're just gonna come straight up top. I just worked hard and worked hard and when I turned 17, I started fighting open and my dad said just go to the Olympic trials, do your best, and we'll just think about 2008 if you don't make this team. Just go out and have fun. Once I made the trials, I just went out there and had fun, and everything just worked out great and I made the team."

Plus, now he has Ward not as just a fighter to admire, but as a teammate.

"I look up to him like my older brother on the team," he said. "Me and Rau'Shee (Warren) are the youngest guys, so I look up to these guys like my older brothers. They give me advice and try to break me in."

What about ribbing him and Warren because they're the youngest?

"They try to toughen me up a bit, but it's good though," he said, laughing.

Home schooled, Martirosyan was taken out of junior high by his father when it was obvious that he needed to keep his son's fighting confined to the ring. It was a wise choice.

"There were fights going on and stuff like that, so my dad saw that that wasn't good for me and he took me out," Martirosyan said. "Just because I was a boxer, friends tried to push me into fights, or try to be friends with me because I was a boxer. My dad found that out, so he took me out and said this is the best thing for you. You can get your education at home and you can do what you love to do, which is boxing."

And that love for the game is obvious. In a sport where a poker face is essential to success, Martirosyan can't hide his enthusiasm. This is a kid who is genuinely happy to be here. And with his success also comes the spoils -- a celebrity status most 18-year-olds can only dream of.

"Where I live in Glendale, it's a big Armenian community so everybody's proud of me," Martirosyan said. "When I walk out of my house people point at me and congratulate me. One lady even came up to me and kissed me. People cry when they see me on the streets because they're so proud of me. You don't see many Armenians come to the United States and make the Olympic team."

That fact is not lost on Martirosyan.

"My family is really happy because we finally have a way to thank this country," he said.

Yet win or lose in Athens, you get the impression that Vanes Martirosyan will be just fine.

"I don't look at things in a bad way," he said. "I always look at them in a good way. I think that's why it worked out for me this way. Every time, no matter what happened, I always had a smile. I just go back into the gym, work hard, come back, and do my best again."

If that best earns him a medal next month, don't worry -- Martirosyan, like practically all his teammates, has already lived the moment out a thousand times.

"Every time I'm running in the morning, listening to that CD player, sometimes when I'm laying in my room, tears come out of my eyes just thinking about it," he said. "I get chills all over my body thinking about standing on the podium with my gold medal with the red, white, and blue. It feels so good, it's the best feeling in the world."