Santa Ana teenager Ronny Rios has fought his way into contention for the U.S. Olympic boxing team. He didnt do it alone

Ronny punches and lunges methodically in the corner. Unlike those of the other boxers his strokes are clean, crisp. Some of the other fighters notice.

"That's Ronny Rios?" a boxer says to Lopez. "He can use the ring if he'd like to," he says, signaling to one of the three massive rings in the gym. Ronny shakes his head no. He's okay in the corner. He focuses his jabs at Lopez, who has mitted up and works quietly, diligently, without looking at anyone else around him.

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Santa Ana's Ronny Rios. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Santa Ana's Ronny Rios. Photo by John Gilhooley.

When a boxer decides to go pro, and if he's good, Las Vegas becomes a kind of second home. "This is where the money is, as far as professional boxing, my God," Lopez says.

The heat retains its melting effect later that evening. Ronny is holding Lopez's two-year-old daughter's hand as they walk through New York, Paris and the other oversized replicas that crowd the famous Vegas strip. When they reach Caesars Palace, Lopez's eyes gleam. "This is it, Ronny, this is where you're gonna be one day," he says smiling.

It's here, in Las Vegas, that the pro boxer will be televised, adored and showcased. Like the white tigers, Cirque du Soleil and other glittering Las Vegas acts, the pro boxer will become a unique and exotic entity unto himself, stitched into the fabric and excesses of this modern-day World's Fair.

Scouts and recruiters for top professional promotion agencies already know who Ronny Rios is. They attend all major amateur matches and look for boxers the same way a college basketball scout keeps an acute eye on every promising high-school hopeful. The difference is that boxing recruiters are also looking for a boxer's marketability in the pros.

"We tell recruiters to bring us fighters who they believe will be a world champion someday," says Lee Samuels, publicist for Top Rank, one of the biggest boxing promotion companies based in Las Vegas. (Oscar De La Hoya was signed by Top Rank; now his Golden Boy Promotions is a major competitor.)

"After a recruiter brings him in, a matchmaker has to like him, see what kind of energy he has, if he can talk to the press.

"It's a long process. It's not easy, but the rewards are great for those who make it."

It also matters what city a fighter is from, he says, both to see if the fighter has a hometown fan base and because a majority of pay-per-view sales are concentrated in California—Los Angeles being No. 1 above all states and cities—Nevada, Texas and New Mexico. And they're not necessarily looking for a string of gold medals, he says. "We look at a fighter's style," he says, "his energy."

Lopez knows all too well what can go wrong if a boxer isn't managed properly. "Ronny needs to mature before he goes pro," he says. "Both as a fighter and physically."

Lopez says the dream scenario is to win at the Olympic Trials, qualify to go to Beijing and then go pro when Ronny returns in 2009.

Ronny says he wouldn't trade Lopez in for a different coach down the road. "A lot of good fighters lately have been staying with the same coaches for a lot of years, like 'Winky' Wright, Hopkins, I think Ricky Hatton, they've stayed with their coaches their whole career. That's how I want to do it."

Plus, he says, it's hard to know what a coach's motives are once a boxer has shown potential. "Hector trained me before, when I was nothing. Why am I going to switch off with some famous coach that wasn't even around, who never paid attention to me when I was nothing, you know? Why does he want to coach me now when I'm at the top?"

"This is my favorite," Lopez says looking up at the grandiose columns and decadence that make Caesars Palace one of Vegas's most overwrought spectacles. The hotel and casino has hosted some of the best-known, pro boxing matches of all time, including three bouts between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson's heavyweight championship match, headliners including Michael Moorer, Oscar De La Hoya and "Sugar" Shane Mosley and the famed, racially charged Larry Holmes/Gerry Cooney bout.

"They have fights out here?" Ronny says, pointing to the outdoor bleachers and mini-Coliseum replica. "It's too small."

"Naw," says Lopez. "When they get those spotlights on and set up the ring, it gets packed. It's incredible," he says.

The next morning Ronny is up running through the sweltering Las Vegas heat at 8 a.m. Lopez managed to secure a last-minute spar session with brothers Diego and Jesse Magdalena. Like Ronny, Diego is ranked No. 1 in his weight class—132-pound, two steps above Ronny. He's beefy, with shiny, green eyes and a crew cut. He's full-grown and is probably about 20 pounds heavier than Ronny on this day. He's also a southpaw, which can make for a tangled match for a right-hander like Ronny. On the ride over, Lopez reminds Ronny to be careful.

"He kind of jumps a lot, so get him in-between when he's jumping. Just jab and push him back a little. But as far as banging with him, don't sit there. He's too heavy."

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