ATHENS, Greece -- Though Andre Ward's six-year winning streak is still intact, the American light heavyweight now faces for his biggest test yet.
Ward, a top U.S. medal hopeful from Oakland, Calif., beat Italy's Clemente Russo 17-9 Thursday to advance to the quarterfinals at Peristeri Olympic Boxing Hall. Up next: Russia's Evgeny Makarenko, who has a streak of his own. He hasn't lost at a major international event since 1999.
The Americans finished up a 6-1 run through the preliminaries Wednesday, sending an impressive eight fighters into the second round, with two advancing on byes.
But in their first match Thursday, welterweight Vanes Martirosyan lost 20-11 to Lorenzo Aragon, Cuba's two-time world champion.
Light welterweight Rock Allen has his first match of the games in Thursday's evening session. Except for the heavyweights, all remaining fighters must win two more matches to reach the semifinals, where a medal is guaranteed.
Ward, who hasn't lost since he was 14 years old, easily beat Russo in both fighters' first bout of the Olympics.
"I wanted to go out there and look perfect, but there's no such thing as perfect,'' Ward said. "I was nervous. I always have nerves. Every time you go into a fight, somebody's trying to take your head off, crush your dreams.''
Dancing across the ring and scoring points with both hands, Ward wrapped up an unremarkable fight by coasting through the fourth round -- perhaps saving his energy for his next bout.
On Tuesday, Ward will fight two-time world champion Makarenko for a berth in the semifinals and a guaranteed medal. Makarenko owns a 6-inch height advantage on Ward, as well as nearly nine years of experience in the amateur style.
But Ward, a natural middleweight who bulks up to take on light heavyweights, has power and quickness that have led him to multiple national championships -- and he likes a challenge.
"I saw (Makarenko) walk out. He's big,'' Ward said with a grin. "He's not the first big guy I've fought, though. I've been fighting giants my whole life.''
Shortly before Ward's bout, Martirosyan, an 18-year-old from Glendale, Calif., was done in by the 30-year-old Aragon's experience and aptitude for the amateur style. Aragon seemed to score points with any sort of punch, while Martirosyan only scored for his best hits.
Martirosyan, who was born in Armenia, staggered Aragon twice with quick shots to the head, but the Cuban piled up enough early points to hang on in a fight much closer than the score.
"He tries to frustrate you with the holding,'' Martirosyan said. "He holds you, pulls you back and makes it look like you're holding, and you're not. It frustrates you. I thought I scored more points, and I thought I should have won.''
It's a familiar refrain for fighters facing the Cuban team, which is given a world of respect by amateur judges.
Martirosyan was the second American eliminated, joining light flyweight Rau'Shee Warren.
With nine Olympic rookies facing a field featuring Cuban and Russian veterans gunning for multiple gold medals, not much was expected from the Americans. Their amateur program has been eroded by easy pro money and the decidedly un-American judging standards that reward workmanlike precision over creativity.
But as super heavyweight Jason Estrada demonstrated Wednesday night with a flashy performance in winning his preliminary bout, the U.S. fighters are determined to have some fun in Athens.
"That's the American style of boxing,'' coach Basheer Abdullah said. "That's what we do. We entertain. Unfortunately, that's sometimes not the way it's perceived here in international amateur boxing.''
The 262-pound Estrada moves on to fight Cuba's Michel Lopez Nunez. Estrada beat Lopez Nunez for a gold medal in last year's Pan American Games, and he believes his quick hands will give him the edge again.
"Regardless of what happens, I'm going to have fun,'' said Estrada, from Providence, R.I. "All I really wanted to do was have fun and get the cobwebs out. ... For me, (boxing) is something to entertain people.''
Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press
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