Carlos Navarro can tell the stories with a slight smile now, recalling the depressing details of life in south central Los Angeles -- "Riot Land" as he calls it -- with an occasional laugh. The area remains home to Navarro, who grew up with eight sisters and three brothers, but not forever.

As one of the nation's best hopes for an Olympic medal in boxing at next year's Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Carlos Navarro has seen the future. Carlos Navarro has seen a way out.

That is exactly what Navarro's father, Carlos Navarro Sr., had hoped for when he began grooming his 6-year-old son into a boxer at Los Angeles' 108th and Broadway Gym 12 years ago.

"I saw I didn't have money for schools, so I wanted {his sons} to have a chance {to be successful} with sports," Navarro Sr., who speaks limited English, said through his son. "\. . . Since I was small, I liked boxing. Boxing was my favorite and little by little, I worked with them."

His efforts appear to be paying off. Although the family's oldest son, also named Carlos, had to stop boxing after breaking his hand in a street fight, the other three are on the road to promising careers. Seventeen-year-old Ignacio, who now fights at 139 pounds, won the Silver Gloves national title in the 125-pound division and 14-year-old Jose is an up-and-coming 85-pounder with the most potential in the family. For now, however, the spotlight belongs to the youngest of the Carlos Navarro trio.

He is the world's third-ranked bantamweight (119 pounds) behind Germany's Dirk Kruger and Russia's Raimkul Malaschbekov. At the U.S. championships here in April, Navarro decisioned Jason Pires, the nation's No. 2 bantamweight, for the title. Last year Navarro won the same championship, only in the 112-pound flyweight category. He lost in the championship fight of last year's Goodwill Games, but was awarded the gold when opponent Waldemar Font of Cuba tested positive for a diuretic.

At this week's U.S. Olympic Festival he outpointed Pires in the semifinals to gain a spot in tonight's gold-medal bout against Jorge Munoz, the same person Navarro beat in the finals of this year's Pan American trials. He beat Munoz again, in a 31-9 decision.

"I think I can win the gold medal" at the '96 Olympics, Navarro said. "I think I can do real good like {1992 Barcelona Games gold medalist} Oscar de la Hoya -- even better."

Navarro has worked with some of the sport's best, training with World Boxing Association junior lightweight champion Gabriel Ruelas and Joe Goosen at the Ten Goose Gym in Van Nuys, Calif., until Ruelas had to devote more time to his own career a year ago. Each person says the same thing -- Navarro is for real.

"He's not a prospect anymore," said USA Boxing Coach Al Mitchell. "He's one of our elite guys. Everybody knows he's there. . . . He's always determined."

Navarro, who is known as "El Surdo de Oro" (the Southpaw of Gold) for his quick left cross, gives most of the credit to his father. Navarro Sr., who still coaches his sons, has been known to get worked up over his son's fights -- sometimes too worked up. At the Pan American trials in Portland in January, Navarro Sr. had to be hospitalized for two days for ulcer trouble.

"I was getting warmed up for the championship fight when I turned around and saw {his father} standing there," Navarro said. "It ended up that he had sneaked out of the hospital to see me fight."

At the Pan American Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in March, Navarro badly wanted to win the gold medal for his father. Cuba's Juan Despaigne, however, put an end to that quest in the quarterfinals in a hotly disputed bout in which Navarro is said to have controlled all three rounds.

"When they announced the decision he turned around and started crying right there," Mitchell said. "Now I'm a hard guy from Philly, but when I saw that, I even started crying. We need more like him."

Navarro still burns when he remembers the Pan American Games. He can tell you exactly how to spell Despaigne, chewing off each letter as he pronounces it.

"I've been wanting {Navarro} to move from 119 {pounds} to 125," said Frank Rivera, Navarro's current trainer. "Physically, mentally, I told him it shouldn't be so much of a big deal. But he didn't want to do it. He kept saying he wanted to fight Despaigne again. He kept saying, I want him.' It's like a kid who wants his food."

Which is something Navarro, who will make the move up to the featherweight category after tonight's fight, has had plenty of experience with."We were always poor," he said. "We couldn't wait for the 10th {of the month}. On the 10th, we would get our food stamps and then we could go to the store and grab what we needed."

Almost all of Navarro's $1,000 monthly stipend from USA Boxing goes to help his family pay bills. After the Olympics, Navarro will pursue a professional career. It is then that he hopes to leave behind poverty and help his family. His family "tells me I could be the first person to be somebody big," Navarro said. "I believe them."

He also dreams it. In a recent recurring vision, Navarro said he has six championship belts draped all over his body, making it difficult for him to walk down the streets. The streets of Los Angeles? Navarro laughs. "Aww man, no," he said. "Beverly Hills." CAPTION: Carlos Navarro easily fends off attack of Jorge Munoz in winning gold at U.S. Olympic Festival; he has his sights set on Olympic gold medal next year, too.