In the last two summer Olympics, the United States boxing team has sent nine boxers to Athens and nine to Beijing, respectively. That's it - nine (the maximum is 10). One spot for each weight class. Thousands and thousands of prospective pugilists spend hours and hours beating bags, socking sparring partners, running themselves ragged. All for the remote chance of wearing the red, white and blue.
In 2008, Maryland boxer Gary Russell, Jr., realized his Olympic dream, although he failed to make weight and never competed in Beijing. Now, another Maryland amateur with almost 50 victories and five major tournament titles is reaching for the dream.
[db] Dmitrius Ballard [/b] relaxed in a folding chair behind the bleachers at the KCI Expo Convention Center in Kansas City, Mo. It was an hour before the Maryland native had to defend his junior middleweight title at the 2008 Ringside World Championships. He had been waiting all day, occupying his time listening to Marvin Gaye on his iPod and watching Evander Holyfield fight tapes on his DVD player.
Finally, dusk settled over Kansas City. The 15-year-old amateur boxer calmly listened to his grizzled trainer, Bernard Roach, who reminded him for the umpteenth time that his opponent, Isaac Cordoza, was a big slugger with a long reach.
"Don't get overanxious," Roach implored. "Throw your punches sharply ... correctly. And you'll win the fight."
As the match drew closer, Roach meticulously wrapped his fighter's calloused hands. Ballard donned a pair of blue boxing gloves and white headgear. A few moments later, the 6-foot, 152-pound phenom slowly made his way to ring six.
Around 1,000 spectators stayed to watch the final bout of the night, the marquee matchup between Cordoza, who won a silver medal at the Junior Olympics, and Ballard, the defending champion with two major tournament victories to his name. A nervous excitement pulsated through Ballard's body like an electrical current.
"I was pretty calm but also excited," said Ballard, a potential 2012 Olympian from Oxon Hill, Md. "I was looking forward to the fight. I wanted to go in there and show him my stuff. I was just talking to myself in my head, telling myself what to do. When I get the gloves on, it's down to business."
Ballard grew up playing football; he didn't start boxing until he was nine years old when - on a whim -- he stopped by a gym on his way home from football practice. Inside he saw boys his age hitting bags and sparring with each other. To a nine-year-old kid who loved to hit, this was nirvana.
"I started hitting a bag and I just fell in love with it," Ballard said.
Ballard showed early signs of greatness. He had speed, quick hands, good hips and an innate ability to throw a punch. After one year of training, he was deemed ready for his first bout. The skinny, raw kid registered for the Golden Gloves tournament and fought an amateur boxer with 56 fights to his credit. The 10-year-old Ballard survived round one, but in the second he took a punch to his nose, which started sputtering blood. The referee stopped the fight.
"But he was really hanging in there," said Ballard's father, Victor. "He showed he had a big heart and wouldn't duck anyone."
Ballard admitted he had a deer-in-the-headlights look in that first bout.
"I was scared and nervous, especially going against a guy with nearly 60 fights," Ballard said. "But I though I did pretty good. I had the bloody nose and they had to stop it, and I can understand that."
Ballard dropped a number of decisions his first three years in the ring. He grew frustrated and decided to switch gyms and trainers. In 2006 he transferred to Bernard Roach's NoXCuse gym, which is located near D.C. That's when Ballard began to raise his game.
"D'Mitrius always could fight, but he just didn't have enough tools in the toolbox," Roach said. "When I got him I gave him some more tools to complete the job. Now he's really locked in and confident in his abilities."
Two years after training with Roach, Ballard already had one junior Ringside World Championship under his belt and was in position for a second. But first he had to defeat Cordoza.