When the final bell brought the semifinal Olympic Trials bout to a close, Ronny Rios' opponent, Gary Russell Jr., slumped toward his corner. Before the judges made their call, Russell, who is ranked fourth in the world in his 119-pound weight class, told a cadre of reporters last Friday night, "I'm bothered by my performance; I could have done better," and was led out the back door to be lectured by his father.
It seemed to many in the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston who were watching the bout—especially to Rios, the Santa Ana teen ranked No. 1 in the nation, and his coach Hector Lopez—that Russell knew he'd lost. Rios had fought a solid fight, throwing Russell off rhythm and maintaining a steady lead throughout the first three rounds. Russell, a three-time national champion had never fought Rios before, but by now, he was familiar with the 17-year-old, who had surprised many in the boxing world this year by winning match after match to arrive undefeated at the Olympic Trials (see "Ronny," Aug. 3).
For months, Lopez and Rios had studied Russell's technique and style, strengths and weaknesses, knowing that the two top-ranked boxers might well face off during the Trials. "He was so calm the whole fight," says Lopez of Rios. "The game plan we put on was perfect. Perfect."
Before the winner was announced, Rios felt good, Lopez says. He seemed to have bounced back from a narrow three-point loss to Roberto Marroquin two days earlier. The win would mean Rios would go to the finals and be one fight away from a spot on the Olympic team.
"There was no doubt in my mind he would be fighting in the championship fight. No doubt," says Lopez.
But the decision was announced—and it went to Russell. Rios would not be advancing to the final bout. It was decided by the panel of five scoring judges that Russell, who had trailed Rios the entire fight, had won by three points. The crowd booed. Russell, according to the Washington Post, did not smile. Rios turned to Lopez.
"He just looked at me," Lopez recalls. "I mean, what do you say to the kid? He just looked at me and then said, 'They did it again.'"
Just two days earlier, Rios had faced off with Roberto Marroquin, a Texas boxer and home-crowd favorite. Rios bloodied Marroquin and knocked him down during the first round, but he was then told he was down five points. He came back during the second round and took the lead. But in the end, Marroquin won a narrow 30-27 decision.
"It's so frustrating," says Lopez, who cried and hugged Rios after the semifinal bout with Russell and told him he was proud of him. The first person to come up to Rios afterward was Marroquin, whom Rios would have fought in the championship bout. Lopez says Marroquin told Rios, "I thought you won."
"I would have been able to handle it if he got his butt kicked," Lopez says. "I could have looked at him and said, 'We lost, Ronny.' But when it's taken away from him, what do you say?"
The next day, Lopez says, "Tons of people kept coming up to us, telling us they thought he'd won. Saturday, I just turned my phone off, everyone calling saying you got screwed. We didn't want to keep hearing it," he says.
Rios retreated after the fight and prepared to come home. "I wasn't really mad because I knew I had won . . . but then when I saw my family's expression, and then I saw Hector's expression, I was just kind of let down right there," Rios says. "I was like, 'Man, I came this far, for this?'" He was in a state of disbelief, says Lopez. The usually shy and humble Rios was certain of one thing: "I was up every single round. I won every single round clearly," he says. "It wasn't even close."
But once back in Santa Ana, Rios, who started his senior year this week at Nova Academy, seemed optimistic. He will take a break for a few weeks and prepare for his next fight in Minnesota in November. "It's time to move on, you know? I can't be that one guy that never made it, oh, 10 years ago. I don't want to be like that," he says, laughing, "wearing a 2030 Olympics shirt."
Officials at the tournament said they were already eyeing Ronny for 2012, says Lopez. "It will not happen. . . . I don't see why we'd want to stick around if they did this to him now," he says. "This was his year. He was hungry for this."
Boxer and coach will now set their sights on Rios' pro boxing debut in a few years.
"Don't be surprised if this kid becomes a three-time world champion," Lopez says. "You watch."