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LORDS OF THE RING

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Nelson returned to his job as a hazardous-materials handler at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. (The job-related risks don't bother him. "I like walking that line, anyway," he says. "That's why I'm in boxing.") Last year he attended the state Golden Gloves tournament at the Auraria campus, where he met Louis Silva.

Silva, a short man with a round face, boxed at 106 pounds as a kid in Washington state. He enjoyed moderate success, winning several local tournaments before quitting at age seventeen to enter the service. Like many other fighters, he is proud to have faced off against a good boxer, and such losses end up in his personal scorecard's win column.

"I fought Robert Shannon three times," boasts Silva, "and he went on to the Olympics." (Shannon was a lightning-quick southpaw who fought at 119 pounds. After becoming the only member of the 1984 U.S. team not to win a medal, he compiled an 18-6-2 professional record. He retired in 1990 to Washington, where he is now a barber.)

Silva had heard of Nelson and had seen him around local tournaments. At last year's Golden Gloves, he gathered himself and approached Nelson to discuss Joe, who was showing signs of talent.

"Lou Silva came up to me," Nelson recalls. "He said, `My son'--and every father thinks his son has all the tools--he said, `Could you just come out and see if my boy has what it takes?'

"I went and watched this kid work out. He was a southpaw. Now, most kids his age, if you watch a match, it's just pitty-pat punchin' and runnin', tying the guy up--scoring points, more or less. The pro game is more like a chess match; you set a man up for a KO in the later rounds.

"But little Joe's left hook is his biggest punch, and that's the money shot in the pro game. And for his age, his workout is just as strenuous as a professional's. This little kid works his butt off. I wish some of the pros I had worked like this boy, lived like this boy. He's got the desire. He's sure got the tools to go someplace."

From its tuxedoed promoters and ring announcers to the quaint term "smoker," which is used to describe club fight cards, boxing strives earnestly to maintain a feel of nostalgia and sophistication. The simple truth, though, is that the game is stocked with guys for whom fighting is a very serious hobby. Boxing enjoys--and to a degree even promotes--more than its share of quirks and spats and feuds. This appears to be particularly true in Colorado, where the state's boxing clubs recently have split into two distinct camps.

Inspiring the rivalry, whether he likes it or not, is Joe Garcia, a coach who runs the boxing program at the city of Denver's Rude Recreation Center. He has also headed U.S.A. Boxing Colorado for three two-year terms as president. The organization's bylaws prevent any one person from holding the title more than three consecutive terms, so last year he simply switched places with the association's registration clerk. He says he probably will run for president again in June.

At a recent evening at the Rude Rec Center, a crowded building in the shadow of Mile High Stadium and McNichols Sports Arena, Robert Thomason waits for Joe Garcia. He has brought his son, a broad-faced preteen with freckles and dark hair, to begin training. "If he wins some fights, that'll be great," he says, watching his son run around the nearby basketball court. "But mostly, I want him to gain some speed. I'm trying to get him ready for baseball."

Thomason, who is from Arvada, adds, "I brought him here because this place is the best. This is the best club in the country. Joe Garcia is the best coach."

Moments later Garcia arrives. He is short, with slicked-back hair. He's wearing a green windbreaker with the words "Rude Rockers" on the back. Although he never boxed himself, both his daughter and son have enjoyed tremendous success fighting. A storage closet tucked into the corner of the gym and crammed with jump ropes, heavy bags and shelves of boxing gloves and wraps doubles as his office.

Garcia dismisses the feud among the state's local boxing clubs. "There's only 5 or 6 clubs out of, what, 25 or 30 in the state that don't like me. They can do whatever they want. All the guys you talked to aren't up-front guys. They like to jerk you around."

He adds: "Some people are always going to complain. I'm not here to injure the sport. If I'm hurting the sport, why do my boxers always show up? Other coaches are always losing fighters. My guys always come back. I have the winningest team in the state. There's a lot of personal jealousy."

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer