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June 4, 2004
Puerto Rico's five Olympics-bound boxers are got a local tuneup this weekend in Caguas at the Jose "Cheo" Aponte invitational tournament. Three teams of local amateur boxers tested their mettle versus teams from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and a club team from New Jersey.
While it's much less of a challenge than the kind their Cuban counterparts have undergone this past month, P.R. head trainer Jose Luis Vellon said he'd take what he could get.
"You always want better and more tune-ups for the fighters before an event like the Olympics, but a tournament like this one [Caguas] is still a good opportunity," said Vellon, who recently stepped down from his post as president of the P.R. Boxing Federation to devote his efforts to the team's training.
Puerto Rico's fortunate five Joseph Serrano (112 pounds), Juanma Lopez (119 pounds), Carlos "Piri" Velazquez (126 pounds), Alex "El Pollo" De Jesus (132 pounds) and Victor Bisbal (super heavyweight) have already logged long hours in the ring just qualifying for Athens. De Jesus was the only Puerto Rican boxer to earn an Olympics berth at the 2003 Pan Am Games. The other four got plane tickets by winning at tough Americas zone qualifiers in Mexico and Brazil this spring. They got a first-hand look at the U.S. Olympic team during tournaments in both Reno, Nev., and New Jersey. Both times, the Puerto Rican Olympic boxers won their fights, with the exception of De Jesus, who lost in Reno.
In addition to this Caguas tournament, the island will get another privileged view of the fighters in San Juan next week at the Juan Evangelista Venegas tournament. The boxers will spend the last week of June training in the United States and the month prior to the Games in Italy along with the Brazilian and Dominican teams.
Photo courtesy Miguel Maldonado/City of Caguas
"We wanted to get them a tuneup in Romania, but we haven't been able to communicate with them," said Vellon. "The Cubans went to Germany and Czechoslovakia to train and that would have been good for us because that's the element we're missing: training against the Europeans, who have a very different style."
With all due respect to Vellon, who knows his amateur boxing, it's not just the Europeans Puerto Rico has to look out for. Vellon witnessed first hand last week as the Cubans swept the Athens Olympic test event, which was attended by the top U.S. boxers as well as the rest of the world's finest. Of the 11 weight classes, Cuba won gold in eight. In the remaining three, the Cubans took two silvers. Serrano's Cuban counterpart is Yuriolkis Gamboa, Lopez's is Guillermo Rigondeaux. Velazquez's is Luis Franco and De Jesus' is the formidable Mario Kindelan. Victor Bisbal has already seen his Cuban opponent, Michel Lopez Nunez: The two squared off at the 2003 Pan Am Games.
"It was hard to scout the boxers in Athens because I was also officiating at the tournament," said Vellon, who added that he would have preferred to get video.
De Jesus said he'll count on the luck of the draw to keep Kindelan at bay until the later rounds. He said he's not worried about the rest of the field.
Cuban boxers are incomparable at Olympic tournaments. In Barcelona, Oscar de la Hoya prevented the Cubans from sweeping all (then) 12 weight classes. Nor has the United States has much luck against the Cubans. Over the last three Olympics, the U.S.'s only gold medal winners were De la Hoya (1992) and David Reid (1996). Like Puerto Rico, the U.S. came up empty in Sydney. Puerto Rico has not won an Olympic boxing medal since Daniel Santos garnered bronze in Atlanta (1996).
The trainer most likely to figure out how to beat the Cubans is Puerto Rico's Vellon, who represented Puerto Rico at the 1974 World Amateur championships before staying on in Cuba to get a masters degree in coaching boxing. He knows the system well and his experience as an international judge means he also knows how to win amateur boxing matches.
"Amateur boxing is all about scoring points on the computer," said Puerto Rico Olympic Committee president Hector Cardona, a former boxing federation chief. "You have to know where to hit to get the points."
Lopez said he has spent this past Olympic cycle studying the technique.
"You have to hit a lot of clean punches to the face," said the Caguas native. "The judges also look for clean hits, speed and punches with force behind them. If that doesn't work then I go to Plan B and just hit him with everything I have."
Good aerobic capacity also helps, Lopez said.
"A lot of times that's what the amateurs are missing, so if you can get a second wind, you have a better chance," he said.
Of course, the super heavyweight requirements are different.
Bisbal, one of Puerto Rico's most talented fighters, said he does less cardio work than the rest of the group and mostly concentrates on tactics.
Bisbal has already beaten his stateside rival, Jason Estrada, twice. No matter what happens in Athens, promoter Hector Santiago said Bisbal has a pro career to look forward to.
Ousted from Olympic qualifying, Valcarcel turns pro
Puerto Rico's other potential Olympic hopeful, Carlos Valcarcel, made his pro debut this past weekend in Miami versus Mexico's Rafael Solis. He scored a second-round KO and his stock rose considerably, according to local promoter Hector Santiago, who is managing the youngster's career.
Valcarcel represented Puerto Rico at the 2003 Pan Am Games but missed the Mexico qualifier for the Olympics after he suffered an accident while gardening the required stitches in his head. Joseph Serrano replaced him and subsequently placed at the qualifier to knock Valcarcel out of the running.
"I told him he has to move on with his life and not sit and think about what happened," said Santiago. "He can have a great pro career."
Valcarcel unsuccessfully appealed to the PROC to be reinstated on the team, arguing that by sending Serrano at 112, the PROC essentially snuffed out Valcarcel's Olympic dream.
PROC president Cardona said there was no easy solution to the problem.
"There was no other way to handle the situation [of qualifying]. The other fighter [Serrano] qualified fair and square and it wouldn't have been right to take the spot away from him," Cardona said.
"Valcarcel was encouraged by the [pro] fight debut," said Santiago. "Taking off the headgear and putting on smaller gloves he realized that he can really hit. Now I have people calling me asking about him. But now the shoe is on the other foot because if they want him to fight they're going to have to pay."
Van der Linden named 2004 USA Softball collegiate Player of Year
Jessica van der Linden, whose mother is Puerto Rican and who has represented Puerto Rico in international softball tournaments, was named the 2004 USA Softball Collegiate Player of the Year for her performance this past season with Florida State. The award is a combined nomination by the Amateur Softball Association, the national governing body of softball in the United States, and USA Softball.
Van der Linden was back-to-back ACC Conference Player of the Year and lead her team both offensively and defensively this season as the Seminoles made their seventh Women's College World Series appearance. She combined for a 0.52 ERA and a 28-7 overall record while posting a .389 batting average with 74 hits and 53 RBI.
Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.