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Fighting Chance

After back-to-back heartbreakers, U.S. boxer Rau'shee Warren powers his way into the ring for a third shot at Olympic glory

Author MICHAEL KAPLAN

A SLIP OF A KID with cornrows splashed with candy-red hair dye, Rau’shee Warren strides into the Music Box theater on Los Angeles’ Hollywood Boulevard, where he’ll soon be facing off against Khabibulla Ismail-Akhunov, a little-known 19-year-old from Kazakhstan. Dressed in sweats, pristine Nikes and a nylon skullcap, Warren hopes to add a win tonight to his extraordinary amateur record of 318 and 12. He has a sparkle in his eye and the swagger of a rising hip-hop star. And for good reason: Warren is poised to make history this summer by becoming the first boxer to represent the United States in three consecutive Olympic Games.

Now 25, Warren has been boxing since the age of 6, when he followed his big brother to a gym near their family’s apartment in Cincinnati’s hardscrabble Westwood neighborhood. Afternoons of training kept him off the streets, where, he says, “I saw people getting shot, getting robbed, carrying guns — when I was young, I thought guns were no big deal.” Hitting the road for boxing tournaments even before he was a teenager, Warren gained exposure to different places and other kinds of lives. Most important, “I liked going to those tournaments because I always seemed to come out the victor.”

Did he ever. Warren piled up wins so quickly that soon after his 16th birthday, his coach suggested taking a shot at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games. “For my tryout, I fought the number-one guy and they had to stop the fight in the second round because I beat him so bad,” Warren says. The subsequent trip to Greece, where he was the youngest male Olympian, put him in good company, he adds. “I saw all these famous athletes wearing the same colors as me and representing our country. There were times I wanted to run up and get their autographs. But I played it cool and just took pictures,” he laughs.

What Warren had in talent and drive, however, he lacked in experience: He lost in the first round. But he vowed to return in 2008, and when he did, it was as a far craftier fighter — not to mention a more accomplished one. By the time he got to Beijing, he was the reigning world champion in the flyweight division and seemed to be Team USA’s best hope for gold.

In the final round of his first fight, though, having assumed he was well ahead on points, Warren spent the last 30 seconds dancing out of harm’s way. After the bell sounded, the judges scored him one point behind his South Korean opponent. When the decision was read, Warren hurled his mouthpiece to the canvas. He broke down in tears and asked to go home.

These days, Warren calmly insists he got a bum deal in Beijing. He relates this from memory, not from frequent screenings of the fight; in fact, he says, he’s viewed it only once. “My coach made me watch it so I could see how my style has evolved,” he says. “In the ’08 Olympics I was more about combinations and turning. Now I’m relying on big punches. I’ve developed to the point where I’m all about speed and power.”

Yet for all the swagger that being a knockout fighter entails, the usually flashy Warren holds off on celebrating once his opponent hits the canvas. “It feels good to knock a guy out,” he says. “But I pray that he’s OK and will be able to go home to his family. We’ve all got families and, in the end, this is just a sport.”

When he’s not working, Warren enjoys listening to hip-hop, bowling with a group of boxers in Cincinnati and spending time with his two children. But, difficult as it is, all that must take a backseat to his focus on the 2012 Olympic Games. To conserve energy, he’s even decided to refrain from going overseas for matches that might otherwise serve as tune-ups for his bouts in London. He figures he can get all the training he needs right here in the U.S. by taking fights like tonight’s, which is part of the World Series of Boxing, organized by the International Boxing Association. “I’ve got just one page left in my passport — and it’s going to be used for my trip to London,” he says, smiling tightly. “We haven’t had a gold medal for boxing since 2004. I feel like we need to win one this year, and I’m going over there to get it.”

Later, in the ring at the Music Box in L.A., Warren provides a preview of the performance he hopes to bring to London. The five-round fight features a series of right hooks from Warren, augmented by fleet defensive moves. He deploys a full-on attack against Ismail-Akhunov that brings to mind a younger version of Roy Jones Jr. or Manny Pacquiao, both smart, speedy fighters. Warren punches with rhythmic intensity, has a knack for getting out of the way when he needs to and exudes the high levels of methodical brinkmanship and pugilistic prowess that come with countless hours spent in the ring. After the final round of a lopsided contest, the ref raises Warren’s arms in victory (by decision, not knockout). And it’s not hard at all to imagine that later this year, the third time may indeed be the charm.

Hemispheres contributor MICHAEL KAPLAN‘s left hook needs work.

 

RING TIME
Memorable moments in Olympic boxing history

688 B.C.: Boxing debuts at the ancient Olympic Games in Greece, featuring fighters whose hands and forearms are bound with soft oxhide thongs, called himantes, for protection.

1904: In St. Louis, boxing makes its first appearance at the modern Olympic Games. All 44 fighters are from the U.S.; Oliver Kirk wins gold in the bantamweight and featherweight divisions.

1908: The late decision to include boxing at the London Olympic Games results in a local-heavy roster. No Americans fight, and Great Britain takes home 14 out of 15 medals.

1912: Boxing is dropped from the lineup of competition when the Olympic Games come to Sweden, where the sport is forbidden at the time. (The Swedes have since won 11 boxing medals.)

1956: In Melbourne, the U.S.S.R. claims three gold medals in only its second Olympic Games, while Hungarian László Papp becomes the first three-time Olympic boxing champion.

1960: In Rome, Cuba enters fighters in the Olympic Games for the first time (today it’s second only to the U.S. in number of boxing medals). An 18-year-old named Cassius Clay wins gold.

1976: Michael and Leon Spinks win gold at middleweight and light heavyweight, respectively, in Montreal; Sugar Ray Leonard, Leo Randolph and Howard Davis Jr. also win gold for Team USA.

1984: Helmets are made obligatory for all boxers at the Olympic Games.

2008: Nine countries win boxing gold (out of a possible 11) in the Beijing Olympic Games, including first-time gold winners the Dominican Republic, China and Mongolia.

2012: In contrast to 2008, when boxing was the only Olympic sport that didn’t include female competitors, this year women boxers will compete in three weight classes (men get 10).

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