ATHENS, Greece -- They began the year as teammates and competitors for the same spot on the U.S. team. After a string of calamities that seems possible only in the wild world of amateur boxing, they went to Athens as friendly rivals hoping to fight each other for a medal.
Of course, amateur boxing got the last laugh.
U.S. welterweight Vanes Martirosyan got off to a promising start with a 45-20 victory over Algeria's Benamar Meskine on Sunday. The 18-year-old from Glendale, Calif., was the second straight American to advance to the second round.
But Andre Berto won't join him. Berto, a Floridian fighting for his parents' native Haiti after being disqualified during the U.S.
team trials, lost a contentious 36-34 decision to former French
world champion Xavier Noel.
"We were hoping we could meet up at the end of the road, but I guess it's not happening," Berto said.
Martirosyan, an 18-year-old from Glendale, was the 14th-ranked U.S. welterweight seven months ago, but rose to the division's upper echelon in the weeks before the team trials in Tunica, Miss., in February.
That's when Berto and Juan McPherson, the top two American prospects, both were disqualified -- Berto for misconduct after allegedly throwing McPherson to the ground during their fight, and McPherson because of his injured neck.
While Berto engaged in a protracted appeals process to clear his name, Martirosyan filled the void with a series of victories and
even more wins in the qualifying events leading up to the Olympics.
When Berto's appeals failed, the Miami-born fighter became
Haiti's one-man boxing team, coached by American Tony Morgan and
encouraged by his former teammates -- including Martirosyan, who was thinking about Berto moments after he pulverized Meskine.
"I feel like there's a reason I'm on one side [of the draw] and
Berto's on the other," Martirosyan said. "I just feel like in the
finals, we're going to be together."
But amateur boxing has little to do with emotion and power -- both strong suits for most American fighters. Since the rule
changes adopted in the wake of judging scandals and an increasing
aversion to violence, Olympic boxing is a technical sport of
flurries and defense.
While the taller Noel fought a prototypical amateur fight, Berto wanted a brawl. Though he nearly rallied from a nine-point deficit in the fourth round with a strong charge, Noel hung on for a
decision that was loudly jeered by fans.
"I thought I pulled it out, but I guess not," Berto said. "I
went through a lot to get here, so I still think that's a big
accomplishment. I fought my heart out. ... I got here, man. I'm
just glad I got to participate in the opening ceremony. It's a
once-in-a-lifetime type of thing."
Martirosyan extended his Olympic hopes at least to Thursday,
when he'll fight two-time world champion Lorenzo Aragon of Cuba.
The Armenian-born fighter showed the power and flair of a
contender in his opener, dictating the fight's pace with a stiff
jab and opportunistic combinations. He also counterpunched
effectively while landing more shots to the head than almost any
competitor so far at the busy Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall, which
hosts more than 20 fights every day of the preliminaries.
While Berto's exuberance hurt him against a skilled technical
fighter, Martirosyan battered Meskine with a series of early shots
before essentially finishing the fight with a devastating left to
the Algerian's head early in the third round.
"We're Armenian. We have this thing where we get a little bit
out of control in the ring," Martirosyan said. "I love this sport
so much. The coaches have told me to calm down, just think about
points instead of trying to get the guy out of there."
Two Americans received first-round byes, and five more will
fight in the next three days before the second round begins
Wednesday. Tougher fights still loom for a team that's thought to
be among the weakest in the United States' superb Olympic boxing
history, but the boxers believe they can improve on their
four-medal haul four years ago in Sydney.
"We're a great team, we're in great shape -- and we're going to
bring a lot of medals home," Martirosyan said.