MOBILE, Ala. – Dreams, like fighters, die hard. If they didn’t, Rau’Shee Warren wouldn’t have been in this steamy port town last weekend fighting for what boxing is really all about: a long shot bet on yourself in a world where few other opportunities exist.
Warren has had one bold fixation for the past 16 years. One focus. One solitary goal. To reach it he had no choice but to do what he has done. He is the one who stayed behind.
“You only got one life to live,’’ the 24-year-old flyweight from Cincinnati said recently. “Why not try to live your dream?’’
Many would tell him simply this: because the cost is too high. Every dream comes with a price but to dream of one day boxing your way through the politics and the pain to win an Olympic gold medal is to place exorbitant demands on yourself with little chance of success. To do it twice is to double down, the odds so long it seems a loser’s bet.
But to do it three times?
Some would say that is simply insanity, but Rau’Shee Warren would argue it is something far different. He would say its history but even more than that. It’s a statement about the things his mother, Paulette, taught him not by talking about what it meant to be a fighter but by showing him.
“You don’t give up,’’ Warren explained after becoming the first American boxer to make the Olympic team three times by twice dominating Chicago’s Shawn Simpson at the recently concluded Olympic Trials, beating him by a combined score of 65-38 and winning the championship bout 31-18.
“My Mom struggled all her life but never gave up. I wanted to go this route to make history. When I’m gone, my name will still be in the record books.’’
Whether Rau’Shee Warren finally wins that gold medal he’s been chasing since he made his first Olympic team in 2004 as the youngest athlete in the Games at barely 17 remains to be seen. He still must finish in the Top 10 at the World Championships in October in Baku, Afghanistan, to even qualify for London next year. And he has learned harshly that not even that is a guarantee of anything but possible disappointment.
Warren went to Athens in 2004 as a fresh-faced surprise and lost in the first round to eventual gold medalist Zou Shiming of China. So it goes but four years later he arrived in Beijing as the gold medal favorite after becoming the first American boxer in years to spurn the advances of the professionals and remain as an amateur.
Stunningly, once again he was eliminated in his first fight, losing to former amateur world champion Lee Ok-Sung of South Korea after he wrongly concluded he held a slim lead in the final round when he actually was trailing by a point and simply stayed away from his opponent.
That much disappointment would have broken many men much bigger than 114 pounds. Even under the best of circumstances (which these were not) most Americans can’t turn pro fast enough, refusing to even consider returning for a second shot at the Olympics let alone blindly pursuing them a third time.
But most people aren’t Rau’Shee Warren. He is different. Always has been. Considering how things have gone for his family back home on a hard side of Cincinnati few people visit unless they are condemned to live there, that’s been a good thing. A very good thing.
“That medal and the struggle kept me going,’’ said Warren, who has seen the dreams of two of his three brothers die through mistakes that sent them off to long prison terms. “We been through so much.
“I’m the baby so I wasn’t told a lot but I seen it. Two of my brothers went to jail. My father wasn’t around. It was all falling back on my mother but it was falling on me, too.
“I would hear things. I came back from a tournament and my brother was gone. I came back from another one and another brother was gone. I came back once and my friend was shot. I’d go listen to my mother talking on the phone, and I’d hear things I wasn’t supposed to hear. It made me step up as a man.’’
Many fighters would have used those travails as an excuse to turn their back on such a dream and reach out for the first chance to cash in on the boxing skills he’s been blessed with and worked so long and hard with his coach, Mike Stafford, to develop.
Who could blame him? Already the father of two children himself, Warren has received a stipend from the Olympic Committee as an elite athlete and this year was allowed to participate in the World Series of Boxing, a 12-city team event in which the AIBA, the international controlling body for amateur boxing, ruled amateurs could fight for cash (and without headgear) while retaining their amateur status. Still, why bother?
Why not move on to bigger paydays and a new set of dreams in the professional fighters’ life he long ago accepted was his fate?
“You had to feel for him,’’ said Stafford. “In Beijing it felt like they stole it. He got discouraged but he stayed disciplined. He’s worked to become better. He’s worked hard for this dream.’’
It is, in one sense, a simple dream. A boy’s dream. A dream without much financial underpinning because the days are gone in America where simply winning an Olympic medal can set a boxer up for life, especially one that weighs only 114 pounds.
So what he’s looking for in London next year has little really to do with money really, but everything to do with payback.
“When I lost the second time, it was a difficult decision to make to stay amateur,’’ Warren said. “We’d work so hard, me and my mother, to get that far. But then I thought about the dream I’ve had since I was young. To put that gold medal around my mom’s neck.
“When I would slack off in training, she’d be there to push me. My Mom is strong. She never gave up. She raised four boys alone and we were rough boys. We got in trouble. I got kicked out of school. But every time I came home with a win it kept her strong.
“She’s the one who taught me to compete. She taught me never to quit. That pushed me to another level. It’s her medal not mine.’’
Warren showed in an unexpected way that he’s his mother’s son in Beijing. After losing so quickly, he could easily have done what fighters in the past have done in recent years as the American boxing program fell into disarray and packed his bags for home.
Riddled with dissension, laziness and questionable leadership, U.S. boxing has suffered a notable decline from the glory days of 1976 and 1984. In the last five Olympiads, America has won only three gold medals and in 2008 sunk to a record low, winning only a solitary bronze. Warren was suffering with his own disappointment in Beijing but as captain of the team he refused to let his personal loss affect his teammates.
Instead he was a fixture at every fight and spent long hours trying to lift his teammates’ spirits. His reasoning was, in a sense, the same reason he’s back again.
“I was the captain,’’ Warren said. “Why would the captain leave the battleship because he took a loss? I showed my support. If they won a medal, I won a medal. Now I’m back to try again.’’
From the outside, Warren’s single-mindedness seems noble but some would argue foolhardy. Had he turned pro four years ago, he likely would by now be closing in on a title shot, if he hadn’t already had one. With uncommon speed and admirable punching power for a flyweight, he could be earning more than Olympic accolades for his family.
But he has taken the road less traveled. A different road from his peers, just as he did when faced with the same road his brothers and too many of his friends followed to ruin back in Cincinnati.
“You never know what Rau’Shee Warren will do,’’ he said. “I’m here today because I made the right decisions. Just because you’re on TV doesn’t mean you got paid. A lot of people are famous and they got no money. People say boxing kept me out of jail but it wasn’t boxing. It was the struggle I seen at home.
“I didn’t have a normal childhood. It was school and boxing all my life. Boxing has been my job for a long time but I loved it from the start. The first time I made the Olympic team I was away so much I had to repeat (a grade in) school over. I was frustrated but my Mom told me, ‘Son, when you feel like that go punch the bags really hard. Let that stress go.’
“I saw my brothers go down the wrong road. I seen my friends go that road. I saw that was a dead end. I knew I needed to be my own leader. No matter what happens now everyone knows Rau’Shee Warren NEVER GAVE UP HIS DREAM! He went to the Olympics THREE TIMES!’’
Only when he proudly says he “NEVER GAVE UP HIS DREAM!’’ does he raise his voice above a whisper. It was a shout not to his questioner but to a harsh world that has shown him far too much of its dark side and only a glimpse of the golden possibilities beyond. Yet a glimpse has been enough to keep Rau’Shee Warren following a hard road to glory.
“I feel the pressure some times,’’ Warren admitted. “I came to the Trials knowing all these young kids were shooting for me. It will be the same at the world championships and in London. They will all be shooting for me. What they don’t know is I’m shooting for them, too.’’
Photos: Action shots from U.S. Trials / Scott Foster-Fightwireimages; Portrait / USA Boxing