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Grasping for the rings

R.I. gym spawns Olympic hopefuls

PAWTUCKET, R.I. -- Peter Manfredo's gym sits on the third floor of a knitting mill well off the beaten path in the kind of neighborhood that produces boxers and mushrooms. It is dank there, wet and cold on a February night when young fighters and the old men who train them are working to live out their dreams. As in all gyms, most of the young men and women who pass through the doors will never become champions. Most won't even become professional fighters. But occasionally, if someone has devoted his life to a sport that seldom loves him back, a rose blooms in the alley.

This is such a time for Rolando Estrada and Manfredo, who have co-trained Estrada's son, Jason, and his friend, Matt Godfrey, for more than 15 years. When those two started out, they had two companions with them who, by all accounts, were as talented as Estrada and Godfrey, but they are not in the gym anymore. They are in other dank places where fighters can be born. Or disappear.

"There could have been four top amateur boxers from this gym, but the streets get some guys," 23-year-old Jason Estrada explained. "One of them went to jail. The other one got shot. Great fighters. That's how it goes sometimes. Kinda sad, huh?"

Boxing is the sport of "kinda sad." It is the sport of broken dreams and broken people, a hard game that ends in divorce for everybody at the end. But young Estrada and Godfrey are at the start now, and their future is bright. They are two steps from making the United States Olympic team. Two steps and four fights from glory. Win three times this weekend in Tunica, Miss., and once next weekend in Cleveland, and their first boxing dream will have been realized.

. . .

For a small gym like Manfredo's, tucked in among brick warehouses and tattered old mills, it is remarkable that even one fighter with such promise has grown from its unfertile soil. But to have two says as much about the trainers as it does the fighters, for trainers are the real dreamers. When the next kid walks in with bright hopes and a little talent, they already know what the kid does not. They know how long the odds are against anybody making it.

That is why these next two weekends are so important to Estrada, the No. 1-rated super heavyweight in the US and the gold medalist at the 2003 Pan-Am Games, and Godfrey, ranked fourth in the world in the heavyweight division. To make the US team fortifies their chances of beginning their professional careers with a leg up on the competition. It guarantees nothing but a running start, but that counts in boxing because they could avoid some of the difficult climb from four-round fighter to world-class challenger.

To win a medal means an even easier road, and to win gold is to enter the pros on a magic carpet. Not even Olympic gold guarantees anything, because most champions are not Olympians, let alone gold medalists. What it often means, though, is big money to sign with a well-connected promoter who can get the right fights and the most money for the least risk.

So when Estrada and Godfrey get to the Trials this weekend in Mississippi, they understand what is at stake. If they make it to the boxoffs the following weekend in Cleveland, where the Trials winner must defend his spot against one challenger who must beat him twice to replace him, there will be as much pressure on them as they have ever felt.

Nearly 17 years of work in Estrada's case and more than 10 in Godfrey's will be on the line. So, too, will be the work of Estrada's father, an optician by day and a trainer by night, and Manfredo, a former kickboxing champion who has worked for years at the Rhode Island School of Design while running the gym in various forms around Pawtucket and developing his own son, Peter Manfredo Jr., into an undefeated professional.

For the boxers, the Olympics are the start, but for the elder Estrada, they are the end. His dream was always different from his son's or Godfrey's. His dream was to build an Olympic champion, and now he may have two. Two weekends. Four fights. A life's work comes down to this.

A good team

"I trained Jason at home since he was 3 or 4," Estrada said. "He started in the gym when he was 7. Matt started a little later. He was about 12, but he was off-and-on until around 14. Mostly Peter trained them at first, then we shared it. It's hard for me to pick up mistakes and yell at them. Peter works the pads with them because he's better at it. He's more of a disciplinarian, so we're a team.

"I remember when I first brought Jason in, Peter said, `This kid is good.' We've been together ever since. If you stick with it and you have some talent, you can be pretty good in boxing because it's a repetitive sport. The more you do it, the better you should get.

"We've had a lot of great little fighters come and go. Drugs, women, the street. Things happen. It can break your heart sometimes. It can be very frustrating to wait all your life for that one kid who's different.

"Four years ago, when we first went to the Trials, we wanted to make the team, but we knew it wasn't our turn. Our plan always was 2004. At 18, 19, you're not physically ready to fight those older men on the European and Cuban teams. So we focused on '04, and now it's here."

Almost here. Two more weekends. Four more victories. Then dreams born in a third-floor walk-up will have blossomed into reality. If his fighters reach the Olympics, that will be it for Estrada. They will be coached then by the staff of USA Boxing, although he will be hovering, of course. When they go pro, he already has decided they will go without him in their corners. He will help manage them and watch their backs in a dirty business, but his dream will have been fulfilled even as his son goes on to new ones.

"I'll have someone else train them," Estrada said. "My dream was always the Olympics. It's gone from almost a fantasy to almost reality. My only goal was for them to make the Olympic team, but if they do that, the goals change. Then you want the highest medal you can get, even though just making the team is a great, great honor. I've had some shirts made up for them to remind them. `Four to Go!' That's what I've been totally about since Jason was 12 or 13."

Their big shot

The younger Estrada, a national and international champion, is the only American super heavyweight (over 201 pounds) to beat a Cuban in the Pan-Am Games, and he has at one time or another beaten each of the seven other fighters who made the Trials in his weight class.

Godfrey has less international experience, but he is also a national champion and a boxer who will be known by the judges when the Trials begin. Although it may seem odd and surely is unfair, such familiarity is a necessity at this level of the amateur sport because the unknown fighter seldom beats the computerized scoring system used in the amateur game.

"The judges' eyes just seem to focus more on the guy they've seen before," Godfrey said. "I guess they have a certain expectation, so a lot of times the guy they don't know doesn't get the points he deserves. That's why this is our time. We've been to the Trials before [in 2000]. It was somebody else's time then. For me and Jason, it's our time."

That is what makes amateur boxing so different from the pros. In the pros, the aim is to punch with bad intentions. It is to hurt somebody as badly and quickly as possible. In the amateurs, a knockdown punch counts as much on the judges' cards as a solid jab to the face, so the idea is simply to pile up points.

"In the amateurs, you fight the computer, not the person," Jason Estrada said. "You have to learn how to use the system. That's why the Cubans are so successful as amateurs and not so successful as pros. For a while, I was trying to knock everybody out, and I was losing by scores like 3-2. We decided to take some of the power off, and I haven't lost a fight in the United States since."

If Jason Estrada and Matt Godfrey can win four more fights, they will be dreamers no longer. They will be Olympians with golden dreams. Until then, they will continue to do what Godfrey has found himself doing almost every night for weeks now.

"I spar in my sleep now," he said. "It's crazy. It was never like that before, but now every night when I go to sleep, I'm fighting. In my dreams I always win. After all the work, I just feel like that's how it should finish."

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