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Mike Wise

Small in Stature, Big on Desire

By Mike Wise
Wednesday, August 18, 2004; Page D09


The little boxer does not look more than 12 years old. He stands 5 feet 3. He wears size 4 shoes, proudly showing off his equally tiny hands, the fists that flutter like a hummingbird's wings.

Rau'Shee Warren puts his foot next to yours.

Rau'Shee Warren, right, is 5 feet 3, wears size 4 shoes and at age 17 is the youngest male on the U.S. team. (Lance Murphey, The Commercial Appeal -- AP)

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"See, small," he said, smiling through 12 gold teeth.

"I don't actually need the bottom ones," he said. He pulled out a pure gold retainer, the one he purchased to make himself look more imposing.

"I just like wearing it," he said.

The little boxer is 17 years old, the youngest male on the U.S. team, almost lost in a sea of height at the Opening Ceremonies. He is America's 106-pound light flyweight representative and will fight his first bout in the single-elimination competition Wednesday.

Like many of his teammates, Warren simply does not have the international experience to match up with the powerful Russians and Cubans. Unless you count adventure and worldliness gained overseas -- those museums in Sweden, the spicy food in Thailand, that . . . strip club in Romania?

"I was only 15," Warren said. "We sneaked in. We were just in there chillin', throwin' fake dollars. When they wanted to bring me drinks, I got scared and left."

The way Rau'Shee tells the story is more endearing than alarming. When he turns away from you, embarrassed -- as if his mother just confronted him about the Playboy found in his closet -- you figure, big deal, you can't learn everything from the classics.

The little boxer is so young, green and gullible, he makes you feel old.

Born in 1987, Rau'Shee was 1 when Roy Jones Jr. was robbed of the gold in Seoul. He began kindergarten the year Oscar de la Hoya won in Barcelona. To Warren and his teammates, the incomparable 1976 U.S. boxing team of Leo Randolph, Howard Davis, Sugar Ray Leonard and the Spinks brothers, Michael and Leon -- gold medalists, all -- is something your father's father remembers. These U.S. boxers in Athens, most long shots to medal, are not that team.

In Warren's own division, Cuba's Yan Bhartelemy Varela and Russia's Sergey Kazakov are regarded as the top two fighters in the world.

When Warren says, "They have to beat me, too," you want to write it off as misplaced confidence, the things young fighters need to say before they enter a ring against someone they have little chance of beating.

But then, you figure, Rau'Shee Warren got this far. Why not go with him?

He is from the Westwood community of Cincinnati, an impoverished area where other things supersede being the first from your family to graduate from college.

"Naw, I'm the first to come out of the neighborhood to get this far," Warren said. "Making the Olympics? I still can't believe it myself."

Between tennis and cycling and basketball, especially since the advent of NBA players in 1992, the Olympics are not the ultimate prize in many of the world's more commercial sports. Venus Williams would rather win a Grand Slam. Cyclists would choose winning most premier road races in Europe than gold in Athens. Allen Iverson knows, down deep, that he would take an NBA championship over a gold medal, any day, on the basis alone that his peers would grant him more respect.

Boxing is different. Warren has no team or career to come back to after Athens. He has the Olympics, a goal he sought for 11 years.

At just 6 years old, he walked into the same East Side gym that Aaron Pryor once used to train at and defeat the great Nicaraguan Alexis Arguello in the 1980s, when some of the sport's greatest lightweights traded flurries and knockdowns.

Steven, one of Warren's three older brothers, wanted to keep Paulette Warren's youngest son out of trouble. The little boy fooled with the heavy bag, throwing left hooks and right crosses. Then he began popping the speed bag, blinding rat-a-tat punches that reverberated through the gym. The kid was enraptured. People were going places in that gym, so Warren decided to go with them.

"I knew then that was where I was supposed to be," Warren said. "It's hard to describe what it felt like, really. I just knew I was supposed to be in the gym. I knew I was supposed to box. After we left the gym that day, I started bugging my brother, asking: 'When can I go back? When can I go back?' "

He won his first amateur fight at 8 years old, beating an opponent two years older. He kept going to the gym, working the bag, putting in rounds, until by the time he was a teenager he was nationally ranked.

Warren said he would like to attend the University of Cincinnati. Mostly, he wants to turn pro if he wins a medal. Or, if he performs so spectacularly in Athens that promoters can't help but bid for his talents.

"I believe I can win the gold medal here," he said. "Nobody knows me, or what I can do. And when I show them, it'll be time to take it to the next level."

"I got this gold," Rau'Shee said, pointing to his teeth. "So now I need to get the other gold."

They're bold dreams, almost unrealistic given his relative inexperience and age. Many of the fighters in his division are grown men, few of whom, if any, wear size 4 shoes. Part of you wants to tell the kid to push for getting into Cincy and out of the neighborhood, rather than some career in such a violent, unforgiving sport that might not work out. Enjoy the Games and leave it at that.

But another part of you just sees how much belief he has in himself, the cocksure smile through those 12 gold teeth, the little hands that churn like pistons in the ring.

You realize the Olympics are all Warren has at this moment. The little boxer got this far, you figure, so why not keep going with him.

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