March 18, 2016
March 18, 2016
Claressa Shields

AIBA

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NINE American boxers stepped in to the ring on Thursday at the Americas Qualifier and eight were hoping to exit as United States Olympians. Four accomplished that feat and lightweight Mikaela Mayer (Los Angeles, Calif.) advanced to her qualifying bout on Saturday. Light flyweight Nico Hernandez (Wichita, Kansas), bantamweight Shakur Stevenson (Newark, N.J.), and middleweights Claressa Shields (Flint, Mich.) and Charles Conwell (Cleveland, Ohio) scored qualifying bout victories to officially punch their tickets for Rio. Heavyweight Cam F. Awesome (Lenexa, Kansas) dropped his semifinal bout can clinch his spot in the 2016 Olympic Games with a win in Friday’s heavyweight consolation bout.

Female flyweight Virginia Fuchs (Kemah, Texas), male light welterweight Gary Russell (Capitol Heights, Md.), and light heavyweight Jonathan Esquivel (Anaheim, Calif.) each fell in Thursday’s semifinal competition but they will have future opportunities to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games.

Light flyweight Nico Hernandez (Wichita, Kansas) boxed in the first U.S. bout against host nation Argentina’s Leandro Blanc. He made it clear early that he was not going to fall victim to a hometown decision, setting the tone in the bout and landing clean punches. He kept the heat turned up throughout the bout, returning fire to any shots landed by Blanc and once again scoring repeatedly with a strong left hook. Hernandez closed the bout strongly, staking his claim on his berth in the 2016 Olympic Games. At the conclusion of the bout, the announcer named Hernandez the winner by unanimous decision and he leaped straight in the air with excitement. He fills the light flyweight spot that was vacant on the U.S. team at the 2012 Olympics as the American representative was not able to qualify.

“Man, it feels great. Since last year I’ve been trying to make it from the World Series of Boxing. I failed a couple of times but I just went back and worked harder and it paid off,” Hernandez said. “My game plan was to just feint a lot, good boxing. In the first round, I thought it took it. Coach told me to pick it up, whoever wins the round is going to win so I picked it up in the last round and came away with the W. The hook was landing again, it’s called the Coach Billy hook.”

Hernandez couldn’t wait to call his father and trainer, Lewis, after his big win. He began boxing at the age of nine and first started thinking about the Olympic Games in his first year at the Junior Olympics when he was only 15. Now at the age of 20, he has punched his ticket for Rio and can be the Olympian for his younger counterparts to look up to. Hernandez will face Colombia’s Yurberjen Herney Martinez Rivas in the finals on Friday afternoon.

Conwell looked to move the United States win total to two on the day and he did just that in his semifinal bout with Colombia’s Jorge Luis Vivas Palacios. The two boxers opened the bout firing hard shots to both the body and head in the ultimate slugfest. Palacios tried to outwork Conwell in the middleweight bout but the American teenager clearly had other plans. He picked up the pace as the bout were on, trapping Palacios and digging hard shots to both sides of his body. Conwell closed the bout impressively to ensure he emerged victorious and qualified the Olympic berth he’d had on his mind for the past eight years. The judges clearly enjoyed his performance as he earned a unanimous decision win to punch his ticket for Rio. Conwell will take on Mexico’s Misael Uziel Rodriguez Olivas in the finals on Friday afternoon.

“It feels wonderful. It’s a dream come true. Tough opponent, finals tomorrow, I can’t wait. We’re bringing home the gold, the job isn’t over. We still have one more fight. The body shots and the feints really slowed him down. I capitalized off of the feints,” Conwell said.

Conwell started boxing when he was 10-years-old and he was inspired to become an Olympian by 2008 U.S. Olympic Team Member Raynell Williams from their shared hometown of Cleveland. “It started with Raynell Williams from Cleveland, Ohio. He’s from the same gym where I started. He made the Olympic team and I’ve had the dream since then.”

Olympic champion Shields is celebrating today for more reason than one. The historic boxer celebrated her 21st birthday on Thursday and was very pleased with the ultimate present – a second straight Olympic berth. After a hectic, wild bout on Tuesday, she settled in and solely handled business in her semifinal bout with the Dominican Republic’s Yenebier Guillen Benitez. After a slower paced opening minute, Shields began firing tenacious combinations late in the first round, catching Benitez will several hard shots. The trend continued over the next two rounds as Shields connected with quick combinations for which Benitez had no answer. The birthday girl refused to let up over the last two minutes, continuing to fire away and making a statement that she was still the athlete to beat in her weight division. She went on to win her second unanimous decision victory of the tournament. Immediately after Shields was announced the winner, her U.S. teammates serenaded her with Happy Birthday to You which brought a huge smile to her face. Shields becomes the only American woman ever to compete in boxing in two straight Olympic Games. The reigning Olympic, Pan American Games and World Champion, Shields enters the 2016 Olympics as the strong favorite after being the underdog in 2012.

She will face Canada’s Ariane Fortin-Bruchu in the finals on Saturday. “I can officially say I’m a two-time Olympian, one-time Olympic gold medalist. It feels great. I’m ready for Rio, I’m ready to conquer the other side of the world now. The plan was to stay off the ropes, box to my left and step with my jab. The only round I didn’t follow the plan was the second round. The coaches told me and I got right back to it,” Shields said. “I didn’t really go in there and have fun this match. Some I did but not a lot because I knew it was a serious match and I didn’t want to end up with a split decision so I tried to pick it and try to break away from her because he’s a tough competitor. She’s better than Panama so I had to do a little more.

“The first go around I was the underdog, this go around I was the top dog. I like them both. I think people think that when you’ve been on top so long, you stop training as hard and that you get big headed. I’m not one of those people but it plays to my favor when a girl is working hard and she thinks that I’m not working hard,” Shields said. “When I was the underdog, nobody knew who I was. I think that both of them are good but being the top dog and people thinking I have a big head is an advantage for me.”

Stevenson had to wait until the evening session for his Olympic qualifying bout with Venezuela’s Johan Jose Gonzalez Mendez and he was chomping at the bit by the time he made his ring walk. He entered the ring with his signature ear-to-ear smile but there was nothing kind about his performance in the ring. Stevenson looked to neutralize Mendez’s range by controlling the distance and making his opponent uncomfortable and he was able to do so. In the second round, Stevenson put the pedal to medal, walking Mendez down and unloading punches. He dominated the second in such strong fashion that the judges gave him a 10-8 round for his efforts. He closed the bout with the same intensity and went on to win a 3-0 decision and earn a berth in the 2016 Olympic Games. Stevenson has dreamt of becoming an Olympian since he watched the 2012 Olympic Games and decided he could return the United States men to the medal stand. The first male junior and youth world champion and Youth Olympic Games gold medalist from the United States, Stevenson moves his unblemished international record to 22-0 with tonight’s win. He will face Argentina’s Ezequiel Alberto Melian in the finals on Saturday.

“It feels good knowing that all my dreams have good true and all my hard work has paid off. I saw a couple of close decisions that I felt were given away so my main point of this fight was to make sure that nothing was close and there was no way for them to give it to the other guy,” Stevenson said. “The plan was to see who was better on the outside and for a second, I started to think he was better on the outside so I had to go forward, press him out and make him uncomfortable. It’s one of the greatest feelings in the world knowing that my Mom is back home smiling. She’s going to happy for me. All my brothers and sisters are going to be happy for me.

“When I was younger, I was watching the 2012 Olympics and they didn’t do so well and I decided that I wanted to be the one to put the United States back on top,” Stevenson said. “I definitely plan to capitalize on this opportunity.”

Mayer was the lone American who could not qualify with a win in Thursday’s semifinals yet her bout with Puerto Rico’s Kiria Tapia held special meaning beyond just Olympic qualification. The American lightweight fell to Tapia at the Pan American Games qualifier, preventing her from competing in the 2015 event. She had the opportunity to return the favor on an even bigger stage today at the Americas Olympic Qualifier. Mayer continued her strong boxing from her quarterfinal bout in the today’s semifinal match-up. She looked to pull Tapia in to her fight in the rematch, using effective feints and precise straight shots to build up a lead in the bout. She closed out the bout successfully on her way to a unanimous decision win in a berth in the finals with Mexico’s Victoria Torres. Her women’s lightweight division requires a gold medal finish so she will need a victory in Saturday’s championship bout to clinch her berth in the Olympic Games.

“Revenge is sweeter when I had to fight her for two qualifying fights. The first was for the Pan Am Games,” Mayer said. “She’s not super aggressive but she makes you come to her. She’s very elusive so you don’t really know what angle her punches are going to come from. I was a little hesitant with letting my hands go but when I did, they were landing. The game plan going in was to make sure that I fake a lot because you don’t know when she’s going to punch. So it was faking a lot and not pulling back again but slowing down the movement and stepping to her with the right hand. Now I focus on my next opponent and I don’t even know who it is because Billy (Walsh) wouldn’t let me look at my bracket from the beginning. I see why now because I had the toughest bracket. I had to fight all the top girls and I dealt with it one fight at a time so it worked really well for me.”

Awesome faced the second host nation boxer of the early session in his heavyweight match-up with Argentina’s Yamir Alberto Peralta Jara. To the surprise of no one, the crowd was cheering loudly at every punch through by the Argentine boxer. Yet Awesome did not get discouraged, landing shots of his own in his unique, unconventional way. The two traded momentum swings over the three rounds but it was Jara taking the decision by a 3-0 margin. Awesome will return in the consolation bout on Friday afternoon against Brazil’s Juan Goncalves Nogueira. If he is victorious in tomorrow’s bout, he will qualify for the Olympic Games.

“Apparently I didn’t do enough this fight but the top three qualify so I’m more concerned with my fight against Brazil tomorrow. I’m going to do the same thing I’ve been doing every day. I don’t believe I was blown out this fight. The world is full of complaints, I don’t have any.  I just have to stay positive and deal with tomorrow,” Awesome said. “Make weight tomorrow, fight Brazil tomorrow, dominate and qualify that way. The top three qualify, I didn’t get the gold medal I was coming out for but I’m not disappointed in my performance. I’m not perfect in the eyes of the world. Apparently in the eyes of the world, I can fix some things and I plan on fixing them and bringing something better tomorrow.”

Fuchs competed in the first women’s bout of the day for the U.S. team against Colombia’s Victoria Ingrit Lorena Valencia. She hoped to continued her success from earlier in the tournament but Valencia didn’t make that easy for Fuchs. Valencia took a 3-0 decision over the American boxer, who will compete in the third place bout on Saturday against Grazieli Jesus De Sousa. She will have another opportunity to qualify for Rio by placing in the top four at the Women’s World Championships in May in Kazakhstan.

Russell and Esquivel both competed against Venezuelan opponents in Thursday’s evening action, battling both their opponents and a large contingent from Venezuela at ringside. Russell competed first, taking on Luis Martin Arcon Diaz in a true slugfest. He left it all in the ring in his light welterweight contest, landing numerous hard shots throughout the bout. Yet it was Diaz taking the victory over Russell by a 3-0 margin. Russell will compete in the third place bout against Carlos Daniel Tobar Romero of Guatemala on Friday.

Esquivel boxed in the final American bout of the day in a match-up with Venezuela’s Pan American Games silver medalist and number one seed Albert Ramon Ramirez Duran. The Venezuelan used his experience in the contest and with loud support from ringside, took a 3-0 victory over Esquivel in the bout. He will be back in the third place match tomorrow in a contest with Juan Carlos Carrillo Palacios.

Both Russell and Esquivel will have two more opportunities to qualify for the Olympic Games in June. USA Boxing Women’s National Team Head Coach Billy Walsh (Colorado Springs, Colo.) and coaches Joe Guzman (Colorado Springs, Colo.), Kay Koroma (Burke, Va.), Benny Roman (Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Augie Sanchez (Las Vegas, Nev.) are leading the American team in Argentina.