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RIO DE JANEIRO – Carlos Balderas gave himself quite the birthday present on Saturday in his opening match in the lightweight division of the Olympic boxing tournament.
Balderas, who turned 20 on Thursday, outworked Kazakhstan’s Berik Abdrakhmanov to win Team USA’s opener.
The American team has struggled tremendously in recently years and reached its nadir four years ago in London when for the first time in its history it failed to win a medal.
It’s a young American team but Balderas showed against the much more experienced Abdrakhmanov that it is not without talent.
“That was very impressive,” U.S. boxing coach Billy Walsh said. “For the first two rounds, he took total control and did exactly what we had planned.”
Balderas, who had about 20 friends and family in the crowd from his home in Santa Maria, Calif., loudly rooting him on, said his emotions were all over the map before the bout.
He’s a dark horse medal candidate and showed why against a gritty veteran who was the favorite in the match.
“I had chills,” he said, grinning. “I had chills going down my body. I was patient. I was excited. I was nervous, but at the same time I was very confident. It was back and forth. There were a lot of mixed emotions in the back when I was warming up.”
He fought, though, with the calm, cool precision of a veteran. He popped his jab and landed an occasional hard right. In the second round, he wobbled Abdrakhmanov with a pair of stinging rights, but didn’t realize it in time to take advantage.
“I remember my coaches telling me he was loosening up or his legs were gone, something like that,” Balderas said. “This guy has a lot of experience and he figured out how not to show it so much.”
It was critical experience for Balderas, who is in some ways reminiscent of another Mexican-American Olympic lightweight from California, Oscar De La Hoya.
With a right hand like he showed Saturday, Balderas has a chance to emerge as a star if he continues to develop.
He knew he was facing a big moment, not only for his own Olympic dreams but for the team’s as well. Historically, the U.S. has dominated in men’s boxing, but since 1992, only De La Hoya, David Reid and Andre Ward have won gold medals.
The U.S. won only one medal – a bronze by heavyweight Deontay Wilder in 2008 – in the last two Olympiads.
So there was pressure on Balderas to get off to a good start for the team to create some momentum.
“No disrespect to other guys, but I feel like we’ve got something to prove,” he said. “We’ve got a strong, strong team. … I felt it was kind of my responsibility to lead everyone down a good path. [There was] no pressure. I just went in there and had fun.”
Walsh wanted him to enjoy Saturday’s win before he begins to think of Tuesday’s second-round match with Daisuke Narimatsu of Japan.
Narimatsu outworked Venezuela’s Luis Cabrera in an entertaining match.
“I got the nerves down already,” Balderas said. “I think it was just maybe first 20 seconds, 15 seconds that I was a little tired. I felt very anxious. It was just a lot of mixed emotions.”
The 20 or so folks who made the long trip with him to South America had only one emotion, pure joy. While many of the Brazilians were rooting for Abdrakhmanov and frequently chanted his name, Balderas’ friends and family stood and roared as the verdict was announced.
It was a neat celebration and could be the sign of things to come.