OLYMPIC BOXERS TURNING PRO -- Five members of the U.S. men’s boxing squad that competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics have turned pro. Flyweight Antonio Vargas turned pro on Feb. 24. Light flyweight Nico Hernandez made his pro debut on March 25. Lightweight Carlos Balderas had his first pro fight on April 9. Bantamweight Shakur Stevenson makes his maiden run this Saturday on Bob Arum’s big show at the Stub Hub Center in Carson, California. Middleweight Charles Conwell signed with co-promoters Lou DiBella and Tony Holden and will make his pro debut next month at the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Oklahoma.
How far will these young men advance in their professional careers? To gain some insight, we checked in with Team USA assistant head coach Augie Sanchez who accompanied the team on their journey to Rio.
A featherweight in his boxing days, Sanchez retired at age 25 with a professional record of 28-3. As a pro he defeated the likes of Jorge Paez and Luisito Espinoza, both former champions, but his signature win came as an amateur at the 1996 Olympic trials where he defeated Floyd Mayweather.
The rules then in effect dictated that the Olympic trials champion and runner-up would advance to a box-off. As the champion, Sanchez needed to defeat Mayweather once more to lock down an Olympic berth. As the runner-up, Mayweather had to defeat Sanchez twice to make the cut.
Mayweather rose to the occasion and the rest, as they say, is history. But unbeknownst at the time, it would leave Augie Sanchez with a singular distinction. And if Floyd Mayweather never fights again, or if he fights again but retires undefeated, no one will ever snatch away Augie Sanchez’s badge of distinction as the last man to get the best of the “Money” man.
We were particularly interested in Augie’s take on Shakur Stevenson (pictured). The five-foot-eight bantamweight from Newark, New Jersey, was the most heavily hyped of the U.S. Olympians heading into the Rio games and left with a silver medal. His second exposure in the paid ranks will come on May 20th at Madison Square Garden underneath Terence Crawford’s title defense against Felix Diaz.
“Shakur showed a lot of talent,” Sanchez told us. “He’s very skillful, doesn’t waste punches, is improvisational when he needs to be, and knows how to control the flow of a fight. He was smart to hook up with Top Rank which is the best in the business at moving a young fighter.”
Sanchez’s observations on the other Olympians ran along similar lines. He feels an emotional connection to these boxers and sees only the positive, omitting any shortcomings they may have had when talking to a member of the media.
Antonio Vargas – “cat quick...a very busy fighter...his high punch count should make him a fan favorite.”
Nico Hernandez – “he’s young but he’s ready for the pro’s right now because he has a pro style...he will do good.”
Carlos Balderas -- “an excellent counter-puncher...fights with a lot of intensity...will go far.”
Charles Conwell – “a great prospect...very teachable...does whatever you ask of him...the sky’s the limit.”
Gary Antuanne Russell – “a hard worker...he has the natural talent that comes with a great pedigree.” (The younger brother of reigning WBC featherweight champion Gary Russell Jr, Russell competed in the junior welterweight division in Rio, advancing to the quarterfinals where he lost a controversial decision. As far as going pro, he remains a holdout.)
From an international perspective, the U.S. amateur boxing program has been in a funk. Shakur Stevenson and Nico Hernandez (bronze) were the only medalists in Rio. Three Olympiads have come and gone without a U.S. boxer winning the gold. In 2015, USA Boxing, which governs amateur boxing in the United States and organizes the Olympic team, hired Billy Walsh as the head coach with hopes of manufacturing a quick turnaround. There have been gains under Walsh, formerly the head coach of Ireland’s national team, but they haven’t been dramatic.
Augie Sanchez notes that the U.S. team in Rio was young. Indeed, none of the competitors was over the age of twenty. The eventual gold medalists, on average, were almost five years older than the American boxers. The team was also shorthanded because there are more qualifying tournaments nowadays; more hurdles in the way of would-be Olympians. No country is guaranteed an entrant in every weight class.* The 2016 U.S. Olympic men’s boxing team had three fewer members than the team that went to London in 2012.
Compounding matters, the Olympics are now open to professional boxers. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Jonathan Esquivel, a light heavyweight from Anaheim, California, who was bounced out of the Olympics by French Cameroonian pro Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam at a tournament in Venezuela. N’Jikam currently holds the WBA “interim” world middleweight title.
We asked Sanchez his reaction when he first heard that pro’s would be eligible to compete in the Olympics: “I said to myself, cool, I missed out in 1996 and now I have another shot.” He said it tongue-in-cheek.
Born and bred in Las Vegas, the son of a welder, Sanchez turned pro while still in high school. Of his 28 victories, 25 came by knockout. Top Rank matchmaker Bruce Trampler said he was the hardest hitting featherweight he had ever seen. But Sanchez, nicknamed “Kid Vegas,” was betrayed by a soft beard.
In August of 2000, Sanchez challenged WBO featherweight champion Naseem Hamed at the Foxwoods resort in Connecticut. He was clearly ahead after three rounds, but Hamed lowered the boom in the next stanza. It was a vicious knockout, the sort that dictated he spend the night in a hospital. Sixteen months later, a similar scenario unfolded when Augie opposed former bantamweight champion John Michael Johnson in Indio, California. The Nevada Boxing Commission lifted his license and although he regained it several years later on an appeal, he chose not to resume his career. Regaining the license, which required him to pass a battery of medical tests, was his way of leaving the sport on his own terms.
By then he was married. His wife, the former Dawn Barry, is the manager of Child Haven, a shelter for abused and neglected children run under the aegis of the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services. She is the daughter of Pat and Dawn Barry, retired police officers who have been fixtures on the Las Vegas amateur boxing scene for more than three decades.
Barry’s boxing gym, where Sanchez trained for many of his pro fights, sits in an industrial era near the north end of the Las Vegas Strip. It was here at his in-laws gym, working with young boxers like the Magdaleno brothers, Diego and Jessie, that Augie came to the attention of the powers that be that control amateur boxing in the United States.
Sanchez isn’t around the gym as much anymore. He estimates that he spent about half the year out of town in 2016 working with America’s elite amateur boxers. Before Rio there were tournaments in Argentina, Azerbaijan, and Venezuela. And although 2017 isn’t an Olympic year, he will be on the road quite a bit. On May 12 he heads off to the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs to help prepare a team for a tournament in Honduras.
Then there are his family obligations. Someone has to watch the kids. In 2012, Augie and Dawn adopted three children, the oldest of which was five. They recently welcomed a fourth child into the family, a biological sibling of the others.
Barry’s boxing gym sits in close proximity to the Mayweather Boxing Club. They are separated by only 2.2 miles. We asked Sanchez if he occasionally bumped into his former amateur rival.
The answer was no and that wasn’t surprising. They travel in different circles. One isn’t likely to find Augie Sanchez making it a rain at a so-called gentleman’s club. “But Floyd was in Rio,” Sanchez interjected. “As I was walking into the ring with a fighter, I heard someone yell 'hey Augie.’ It was Floyd and after the fight he came over and shook my hand. That was nice.”
As for the proposed match between Mayweather and Conor McGregor, Sanchez says he wouldn’t be interested in watching it. “Let McGregor prove his mettle against an established pro first,” he says, “someone along the lines of an Andre Berto.” But he has more than a passing interest in Shakur Stevenson’s 6-round fight on Saturday, notwithstanding the fact that the outcome is a foregone conclusion.
Preparing Stevenson and his cohorts for the Olympics was a dream come true, he says, and if they do well at the next level it will magnify his sense of accomplishment.