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Monday, June 28, 2004
Olympian meet and greet

By Thomas Gerbasi

NEW YORK -- They're young, motivated and carrying the hopes of the United States on their shoulders. And in less than two months, we'll see which, if any, can win the U.S. Olympic boxing team's first gold medal since 1996.

Yet for now, as Showtime analyst Steve Farhood put it, it's all innocence among the nine young men who will represent the U.S. in August. Last week, at their first public media appearance during an Everlast-sponsored event in Manhattan, there were workouts and autograph signings as wide-eyed team members seemed to be enjoying every moment of their time in the spotlight.

For the rest of us, it's a time to look at the team, which ranges in age from 17 to 24, with a clean slate and assess who may emerge as the next Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Mayweather Jr., Antonio Tarver or Roy Jones Jr.

One sure bet, according to insiders, is light heavyweight Andre Ward, a two-time national champion. Yet despite the accolades, Ward refuses to set himself apart from his team, which he believes will surprise a few people in August.

"I don't look at myself like that," Ward said. "It's an honor for people to say that, but all my teammates have the ability to win a gold medal, and I believe that with all my heart."

And if you haven't seen Ward fight yet, he says you're in for a treat.

"They'll see a little bit of everything," said Ward, 20, an Oakland native who, along with lightweight Vicente Escobedo (Woodland) and welterweight Vanes Martirosyan (Glendale), hails from California. "They might see a little fighting, a little scrapping, toe-to-toe, a lot of boxing. But one thing for sure, they'll see is a lot of speed. That's one of my main ingredients, and it's hard to beat speed."

It's a formula that has worked for many former Olympians in the pro ranks. But sometimes in the world of amateur boxing, the scoring system has hurt fighters who throw too many punches too quickly. So in essence, it would be better to land one solid scoring blow that the judges record than five quick ones that may get lost in the shuffle.

Enter 22-year-old heavyweight Devin Vargas, who started his 14-year amateur career as a boxer, until he learned that he could punch and take a punch. Add to that his ease in front of the camera, and the Ohio native could emerge as one of the stars of the Class of '04.

"I'm always one to please a crowd," said Vargas, a former all-city defensive end in high school. "I'm known that way in my fighting; that's why some say I take some shots I shouldn't be taking, but it's all for fun.

"I'm more of the banger on this team. I like to get in a war and land the big shots. But the coaches are breaking me down pretty good, and getting me to box."

And while Ward may have the speed and Vargas the power, the pedigree may be the sole property of 22-year-old junior welterweight Rock Allen, who comes from a fighting family that includes his coach/father Nasszim Richardson, best known for his work with middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins.

Oh yeah, he's a Philly fighter, too, so you know what that means.

"You know Philly has a whole bunch of great fighters," said the soft-spoken Allen. "We got Bernard Hopkins, Joe Frazier, Meldrick Taylor. I guess that's good because I get to look at them as Philadelphia history, and I strive off that. You come from Philly you definitely got a hard chin and a lot of heart."

Having Hopkins dispensing advice doesn't hurt either.

"Bernard is definitely a big role model for me," Allen said. "Bernard's discipline is extraordinary; he's extremely intelligent business-wise, and I watch the way he handles interviews. He keeps me under his wing. I'm very blessed to be in the same gym with Bernard Hopkins."

Holding up the middleweight end of the team is Andre Dirrell of Flint, Mich., a two-sport athlete in high school who is going for the gold not only for himself, but for his grandfather, Leon Lawson, who raised the 20-year-old and who still coaches him.

"My grandfather worked hard on getting me where I'm at, so I'm aiming on pleasing him," said Dirrell.

One of the comedians on the team, according to flyweight rep Ron Siler, Dirrell is pleased with the chemistry of the team thus far, and he believes they're ready to correct the flaws of the past and bring home some medals from Greece.

"We've all been getting along pretty well," he said. "We have little fights here and there, but it ain't nothing too deep. We know we're a strong team and we know we can make it on top, so wešre working hard and looking at other mistakes that they (past teams) made back then and the reasons why they didn't have gold medals. As long as we sit back and watch the tapes, and see how not to make those mental mistakes, everything will be great."

The other comedian, Siler, is the team's oldest member at 24, a fact that has led to him being called "the senior citizen" of the squad. But with perhaps the most fascinating history of any of the U.S. boxers, the fact that he is still able to smile and laugh is a feat in itself.

Abandoned by his mother as an infant, Siler was raised by his father and also lost nine months due to an assault conviction that landed him in prison. But he persevered and made the Olympic team the second time around after falling short in the 2000 trials. And now he wants to not only land a medal, but also -- along with training partner and 106-pound rep Rau'Shee Warren -- better the performances of the 2000 team.

"It made me more motivated to get back in the gym because I sat there and watched them, and I watched Brian Viloria, and I felt that I could have done a better job than him," Siler said. "But I didn't know about all the hard work it took though. And when I got back in the gym I said in 2004 I'm going to make the Olympic team."

He made it, but the question always comes up: Will even a gold medal help a flyweight in the pro ranks?

"I feel if you show a lot of skills and you get the knockouts, a lot of people are going to pay attention to you, and I think your personality helps out a great deal," said Siler.

Personality and some slick boxing skills are going to help super heavyweight Jason Estrada go far. Despite his height (6-0) disadvantage among the big boys, the 24-year-old native of Providence, has been a fighter to watch for the last couple of years, and he has gotten used to the attention that comes with competing in the sportšs glamour division.

"It's always been that way for me," Estrada said. "Everybody's always been watching me, even in the junior Olympics. My fight would come up and people would move over to the next ring just to watch my fight, so it really isn't any more pressure; it's just more motivation."