LORDS OF THE RING

NINE-YEAR-OLD JOE SILVA WAS READY TO FIGHT--UNTIL POLITICS GOT IN THE WAY.LOW BLOWS EVERYONE IN COLORADO'S FIGHT GAME LOVES A GOOD BRAWL--FROM THE LITTLEST BOXER TO THE TOP OFFICIAL.

Like most other serious boxers, Joe Silva has discovered that his time isn't his own. Five evenings a week he meets his coaches at a gym in a Thornton strip mall. He stalks and feints his way through shadow boxing, first righty, then southpaw. Later, he stages furious rounds against the hand pads and the heavy bag. The sessions end with stomach crunches, calisthenics and a long run to loosen up. On those weekends when he doesn't have scheduled bouts, he spends an hour fending off Ping-Pong balls thrown at him by one of his coaches. Brushing them aside seems to improve his reaction time.

Joe began taking his boxing seriously three years ago. Now, a veteran at age nine, he has compiled an impressive record, fourteen wins against only four losses. Recently he traveled to Arizona to fight in a Junior Olympics tournament and won his weight class.

"This kid eats, drinks and dresses it," says Dennis Nelson, a former professional trainer who last year agreed to coach Joe full-time. "I have no doubt that he will be a champion of the world someday if he doesn't get burned out."

Or if he doesn't get burned by U.S.A. Boxing Colorado, the private organization that oversees amateur boxing here. Three months ago, Joe was not allowed to fight in one of the area's biggest tournaments, the Rocky Mountain Invitational. The reason was not that he was out of shape or unqualified--he'd been training specifically for the tournament all summer. Rather, the snub was the result of a long-simmering feud among the state's local amateur boxing clubs.

Joe's father, Louis, recently filed a discrimination complaint with the state Civil Rights Commission that was settled when Joe Garcia, U.S.A. Boxing Colorado's registration clerk, agreed to write a letter to Joe Silva admitting that he had made a technical error. The incident was only the latest one to rattle the state's amateur boxing system.

In recent years U.S.A. Boxing Colorado has fractured. The fault line seems to run directly through Garcia, whose feisty personality has the state's local boxing clubs lined up either with him or against him. In addition to heading the state's amateur boxing association, Garcia coaches the Rude Rockers, one of the most successful clubs in the state.

"I don't like to say anything bad," begins Ken Borchert, a sand-voiced man who has coached Grand Junction's Western Slope Sharp Shooters for eight years. "But we've had a major falling out. Joe's a prejudiced, egotistical man. Everything's his way or no way. There's no Robert's Rules of Order."

Among many state coaches, Joe Garcia stories are traded as freely as body blows in the corner of the ring: officials refusing to work fights in which Joe's boxers are fighting. Garcia screaming at and berating other coaches, sometimes igniting physical confrontations. The intimidation of judges and referees.

Garcia counterpunches the criticism. The split, he says, is overrated and is mostly because of professional envy over his club's success. "There is some jealousy among coaches," he explains. "There is some hatred."

He also defends his leadership of the state's boxing program. If there were any problems, he points out, then he wouldn't have been voted U.S.A. Boxing's state president for three two-year terms.

On the other hand, if Garcia's stewardship of Colorado's amateur boxers weren't a problem, Jerry Dusenberry probably wouldn't be concerned. But Dusenberry, who lives in Portland, Oregon, and who is president of U.S.A. Boxing, which oversees the country's amateur fighters up to and including Olympic fighters, is worried about the state of boxing in Colorado.

"There are problems," he concedes in a phone interview. "Colorado has some internal dissension. It's been an ongoing battle for several years."

Interest in amateur boxing seems to wax and wane in four-year cycles. Dusenberry says that the number of registered fighters climbs as the summer Olympic Games approach and then falls off again in the period directly following. Right now the sport--with 23,000 registered athletes in 1,800 clubs across the country--is in a pre-Olympic upswing.

(About 300 registered boxers are girls, and in 1993 U.S.A. Boxing held its first girls' program. Barriers remain, however. Last spring a female referee wrote a letter to local Colorado clubs complaining about the use of the briefly clad "ring girls." One official recalls, "We took care of it. We told the girls to wear T-shirts instead of bikinis. And we wrote [the female referee] a letter telling her she wouldn't be invited to any more tournaments. We don't need troublemakers.")

Despite the high profile and unbelievable purses earned by some professional fighters, the sport's training grounds more resemble Little League baseball than black-tie nights at Caesars Palace. Most kids fight for tiny local clubs that tend to live and die with the success or dedication of individual coaches. If they do well enough in state tournaments, the fighters move on to regional contests and then the nationals. Several Coloradans--Shane Swartz of Fort Collins is one--enjoy high national ranking.

Ninety-nine percent of coaches and trainers who guide young fighters (children are eligible to fight in sanctioned bouts when they turn eight) through the rigors and discipline demanded by boxing are volunteers for whom it is not unusual to put in twenty-hour weeks. Many are ex-fighters who remember the exact time, place and blow that ended their active boxing careers.

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