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Boxing Hopefuls Have Wild Day

Times Staff Writer

They are considered two of the brightest prospects for Olympic gold on the U.S. boxing team. But in one dizzying day of shifting fortunes at the Olympic Boxing Trials, they went from high hopes to no hope to renewed hope.

When the five-day trials opened Tuesday at the Tunica Arena and Exposition Center, a generally weak U.S. squad could at least count on Juan McPherson, a silver medalist at the 2003 Pan Am Games, or Andre Berto, a bronze medalist at the 2003 world championships, as its likely representative in the 152-pound division.

By midday, however, it appeared, after they had faced each other in an opening-round bout, that neither would be available for the Olympic Games in Athens. McPherson was in a hospital with a bruised head and Berto had been disqualified.

Five hours later, both men were back. Berto had been reinstated by a grievance committee and McPherson had checked out of the hospital with a medical clearance in hand.

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“It could have been the worst possible scenario,” said Eric Parthen, executive director of USA Boxing, “to lose two of our top boxers in one bout.”

In all, 87 boxers have come here for the trials. Twenty-two of them, two in each of the 11 weight classes, will move on to the Olympic Boxoffs in Cleveland Feb. 27-28, where the final 11 representatives will be chosen.

Some, or perhaps all of those finalists, will still have to go through qualifiers involving Central and South American countries to reach Athens.

USA Boxing officials weren’t happy with the draw for the first leg of this arduous procedure, which resulted in the Berto-McPherson match.

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“Do you really want to see your two best fighters face each other right out of the hopper?” Parthen said.

Because this is a double-elimination tournament, the loser still would have a chance to advance.

Although he had lost twice previously to McPherson, Berto appeared to be the winner this time. He had a 10-8 lead with only 27 seconds left in the fourth and final round.

At that point, McPherson moved in to clutch Berto.

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“I was waiting to see if the referee [Dennis O’Connell] was going to do anything,” Berto said. “When he didn’t, I tried to step away.”

In doing so, Berto swung McPherson around, sending McPherson crashing to the canvas. McPherson rolled over, clutching his head in apparent pain.

O’Connell ended the fight on a disqualification.

As medical personnel rushed into the ring and a stretcher was wheeled up, tears welled up in Berto’s eyes. His father, Dieuseul, tried to console him to no avail.

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“This is my dream, my dream,” the younger Berto, who comes from Winter Haven, Fla., kept saying over and over. “I’m really hurting right now. This is 15 years of work, of hard work. Man, don’t do this to me. I was just trying to get there to the top. I don’t want them to take it away from me.

“But if that’s the way they want it to be, I can’t do nothing about it.”

Berto’s father made it clear what he thought had happened.

“The kid [McPherson] didn’t want to take no punches,” he said. “He was faking it.”

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McPherson was taken to Regional Medical Center for a CT scan, while Berto’s handlers filed a formal protest.

The afternoon was agonizing for the Bertos.

“I felt like I was going to go crazy,” Dieuseul Berto said.

Finally, after deliberating and viewing a videotape of the incident, the five-member committee -- consisting of an official, a coach, a boxer, a team manager and an administrator -- upheld Berto’s grievance, reinstated him and declared him the winner of the bout.

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A statement was issued that read, in part: “The committee took all evidence into consideration and determined that the infraction did not warrant disqualification.”

Said Parthen: “Andre was declared the winner because Juan was unable to continue.”

Berto will continue in the winners’ bracket today. McPherson is expected to present his medical clearance to team doctors today and, if he passes a physical exam, he will fight in the losers’ bracket. Should both Berto and McPherson win their respective brackets, they will meet again in Cleveland.

But Tuesday, Berto wasn’t looking that far ahead.

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“I’m just happy the decision was made,” he said. “Everything’s cool. I’m sad it ended up how it did. I didn’t want to win by hurting him. I’m just glad my chance didn’t slip away.”


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