Fist City

Young fighters descend on Denver for the Golden Gloves.

There's an even-money chance that the next Oscar de la Hoya was somewhere in the building Monday night -- shadow-boxing in a back hall, sleeping in the snack bar or telling his friends in the bleachers that his time had come, that he's just gottawin the tournament this time because it is meant to be. A sharp eye might also have spotted the next Roy Jones Jr. in Hamilton Gym on the University of Denver campus. With three boxing rings going full blast for five hours -- seventy fights, 210 rounds scheduled, a dizzying blur of flying leather all night long -- there were bound to be dozens of solid pro prospects in the mix and maybe even a future champ or two.

This was the first session of preliminary bouts in the Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, after all -- the national finals. From previous tournaments, many of the world's greatest fighters had emerged: Joe Louis, Cassius Clay, Thomas Hearns, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, the two Sugar Rays -- Robinson and Leonard, George Foreman, Joe Frazier.

To hear Randy Sutter tell it, several of his boys could someday be strapping on those fat gold belts encrusted with jewels. A Michigan farmer who raises cattle and grows hay on a 500-acre place outside of Grand Rapids, he's been a coach (unpaid, as they all are) with the Michigan Golden Gloves for twenty years. But this year's group is special, "the strongest team we've ever fielded." The best of them, he said, are "the cream of amateur boxing in the United States of America." He called his 132-pounder, Lorenzo Reynolds (an eighteen-year-old who just split two bouts in Kazakstan, of all places), "the best boxer in the tournament." And he claimed that his 125-pounder, Alex Sepulveda, will surprise everyone. "He's not well-known, but you just don't expect to run into somebody as fast as this guy who hits as hard as he does," Sutter allowed.

Look out, world. Sepulveda is just seventeen years old, but already he's spent a summer in Las Vegas under the tutelage of world lightweight champion Floyd Mayweather Jr., and he definitelywants to turn pro and become a world champion. After four years at Michigan State, that is.

Bravado is the coin of the realm in the fight game, of course, and even the least of the 300 or so young boxers seeking a taste of glory this week in Denver can talk the talk. "I don't care who he is," a 119-pounder from an Eastern state said of his first-round opponent. "The man ain't ready for me." Ten minutes later the hopeful from the East found himself sprawled in the arms of his coach, the victim of a furious right hook launched by the man who wasn't ready for him.

That's the beauty of the Golden Gloves. The very talented and the merely brave get it on in Fist City, and when it's over everybody's earned some respect and a shot at an upright future. Founded in 1923 by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, the nation's premiere amateur boxing program has had its ups and downs over the years, but today it gives 15,000 registered young fighters -- most of them from inner-city neighborhoods -- a chance to prove themselves and develop their virtues. In the Golden Gloves of America Inc.'s quaint phrase, the program offers "an alternative to mischief."

On Monday, though, there was plenty of mischief inside the ropes. A moment after somebody named Dangerous Dan McGrew, from Knoxville, Tennessee, sang the National Anthem from the center of ring number two, one of the Michigan team boxers, five-foot-four-inch, 106-pound Ryan Schmidt, won a decision over his Hawaiian opponent on the strength of a dazzling third-round flurry of punches. "Just another dude in the way," the eighteen-year-old Schmidt had predicted earlier in the day. "Just another guy I gotta take down to get to the top." With his big blue eyes and unmarked baby face, young Schmidt looks less like a fighter than a choirboy. But boxing is in his blood. His grandfather, Ernie Schmidt, was a 1943 Michigan Golden Gloves champ, and in 1971 his father and three uncles all fought in the same tournament. "I started goin' to the gym when I was nine," he explains. "I've been fightin' for six years."

An hour later, a slender 132-pounder named Simeon Dunwell, of the New England team, climbed through the ropes to face Lionel Madrigal, of California. Simeon's mother and grandmother had flown from Boston to watch him, and just about five minutes before the bout, his favorite aunt, Jennifer Allen, of Cincinnati, ran breathlessly into the bleachers, flustered and hot. "Plane troubles," she explained. "Had to go from Dayton back to Cincinnati, and then the cab driver here took me to the wrong college! But there he is. Oh, hey! Sim!"

"I've never seen him fight," said the boxer's mom, Paula Hanks, with a shade of worry in her voice. "When he started I was always working three to eleven, so I haven't seen him until now. But we love him for it. He's blessed. He's following his goal." Dunwell's grandmother, Doris Hanks, seemed less sure: "Well, if this is what he wants to do...." Added Mom: "This boy is also a licensed bricklayer. He built the new high school in Marblehead. Simeon and his crew, that is; they builtit. He was captain of his high school football team. And he believes in God."

Unfortunately, none of that did Simeon Dunwell much good against Madrigal, who repeatedly scored with his quick jab and turned the third and final round into two minutes of hell. "Oh, Sim!" his aunt cried. "Oh, Sim! I can't watch. Please, Sim! Stay aggressive, Sim! Oh, I can't watch. Stay aggressive!" Her nephew's moment in the national limelight lasted exactly six minutes, and when it was over Jennifer Allen hadn't even cooled off yet from her troubled daylong journey.

Meanwhile, three of the Michigan boxers (including Lorenzo Reynolds) won their bouts, while three others lost. A 147-pounder from Washington, D.C., Maxel Taylor Jr., materialized in the ring wearing boxing-ready Army garb complete with four silver stars on each epaulet, his olive-drab shorts set off by bright yellow, high-top boxing shoes. Taylor bills himself as "The General," and his ensemble drew a little chorus of jeers from some of his sartorially challenged brethren. But when he decisioned Rene Armijo of Texas, he got a round of cheers.

That's another thing about the Golden Gloves. There's no better fight crowd in the world, because almost everyone in the house -- at least on these prelim nights -- is a boxer or a coach or a bent-nosed ex-boxer or a cauliflower-eared ex-manager and thus has a trained eye for the proceedings. Mostly, the stands are packed with skinny-legged, undergrown young fighters just getting in touch with their bodies and their dreams, and they know what the other athletes are doing and feeling as vividly as if it were happening to them.

"Jab to the body, Pookie!" one of them yelled Monday. "Throw the combination, Pook!" "C'mon, Pook! Jab! Jab! Now, right hook, Pookie! That's it! Now jab!" The shouter's head was dipping and bobbing in rhythm with the actual fight, and he was throwing his own punches. Of course he was! His own hands were already taped; his shoes were laced up; he would do battle in the very same ring in twenty minutes.

"It's a beautiful thing," coach Sutter said of the Golden Gloves. "In the amateurs, you have only three two-minute rounds (four rounds in the finals), so you just go out there with both hands and stay busy and fight your fight. If you need to figure your guy out, you better do it quick, in the first thirty seconds of the fight, or you have a good chance of losing. These guys learn to think very fast on their feet."

They'll continue learning every night this week, culminating in the finals at 7 p.m. Saturday in glamorous Magness Arena.

Hey, no problem. Said Lorenzo Reynolds, who has already won 135 amateur fights and who credits much of his early success to heeding his grandfather's advice about drinking three glasses of milk every day: "I'm not looking past anybody, but I pretty much see myself walking through this tournament." Said blue-eyed, 106-pound Ryan Schmidt: "I'm goin' to the finals this year. I'm ready for it. I been trainin' for it. And whoever I fight, I'm gonna take him down." Said Andre Dirrell, a 139-pounder with high hopes of his own: "First, this. Then the 2004 Olympics. I gotta be in the Olympics. I'm winnin' the Olympics."

Such talk. Such sleek, confident, beautiful talk by teenagers seeking an alternative to mischief. Such big talk. And wouldn't you know it? A certain seventeen-year-old, 156-pounder from Detroit hadn't even gotten to Hamilton Gym, wasn't scheduled until Tuesday night. His name? Coaches and teammates call him "Mo." His full, family-given name is Mohamed Ali.

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