Unable to make U.S. team, Brooklyn boxer chases Olympic dream with Haiti

Kevin IoleCombat columnist
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/olympics/rio-2016/a/1181673/" data-ylk="slk:Richardson Hitchins">Richardson Hitchins</a> fought in the New York Golden Gloves tournament in April. (AP)
Richardson Hitchins fought in the New York Golden Gloves tournament in April. (AP)

RIO DE JANEIRO – He walked around the Olympic boxing center wearing red, white and blue, and spoke frequently, passionately, about making his country proud.

“I want to do this for my country,” he said again and again and again.

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Richardson Hitchins is a 19-year-old from Brooklyn who believes he’s destined for greatness. He doesn’t put limits on himself, and though he’s eyeing an Olympic medal he already is thinking down the road.

You will remember his name, Hitchins promises.

“I can do big things in this sport of boxing,” Hitchins said. “Real big things. You’ll see.”

His first task will be to win his Olympic debut on Wednesday against a pesky rival with whom he’s struggled. They’ve fought twice, and Hitchins has lost each time, including in the finals of the U.S. Olympic Trials.

But Hitchins is a guy with a deep belief in his ability. It’s almost as if he views an Olympic medal as his destiny.

The irony of the draw is that in the first round of the Olympics, in the biggest fight of his life, he’ll face the guy who nearly snuffed out his dream.

He’ll be standing across from Gary Antuanne Russell, the U.S. representative at light welterweight, as well as coach Billy Walsh and all his former Team USA teammates.

Richardson Hitchins will be fighting not for the U.S., but for Haiti. His country, as he now calls it.

“Me and my coach had been talking about it for a while,” Hitchins said of representing Haiti and not the U.S. “He told me I should do it, but I was like, ‘Nah, man. I want to qualify for the U.S.’ But once I’ve seen all the attention I started getting and how much better it felt qualifying for Haiti, I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this.’ ”

That Hitchins is even in the Olympics is thanks to the generosity of former world champion Andre Berto, who represented Haiti 12 years ago. In 2004, Berto was the favorite to make the American team but was disqualified after throwing Juan McPherson to the canvas in what was regarded as a flagrant foul.

Berto’s parents are of Haitian descent, and so he took a spot on Haiti’s 2004 Olympic team. His Haitian roots have always been important to him, and Berto did yeoman’s work to help the tiny island nation recover after the devastating earthquake in 2010.

Richardson Hitchins (right) fights Christian Coakley in the N.Y. Golden Gloves tournament. (AP)
Richardson Hitchins (right) fights Christian Coakley in the N.Y. Golden Gloves tournament. (AP)

Berto’s publicist is Julie Goldsticker, who also does public relations for USA Boxing. She told Berto about Hitchins, whose parents also are from Haiti.

And though the two hadn’t met, Berto paid for Hitchins to fly to Azerbaijan in June for a qualifier in order to help Hitchins make the Haitian Olympic team.

“I didn’t know him at all, but I guess through his connection with Julie, this happened,” Hitchins said. “He really took Julie’s word for it. The type of person he is, he did it out of generosity and said, ‘All right, I’m going to give this kid a shot.’ He’s making a dream come true. And I hope to do that for a kid one day, too.”

But Hitchins wasn’t certain after being eliminated in the U.S. Olympic Trials that he wanted to go to Azerbaijan and try it again for Haiti.

He’d always had talent, but he was suffering from doubt that sometimes prevented him from performing at his best.

“Julie told me to go out there, and ‘do you,’ and everybody else was convincing me [to go to Azerbaijan],” Hitchins said. “My friend, Shakur [Stevenson, a bantamweight on Team USA], my coaches, everybody, they were convincing me. I was ready to turn pro.

“I still had mental hurdles even then. I was like, ‘Yo, damn. This is international. This is a different stage.’ But once I got out there I realized none of these guys were on my level. I was out-skilling them easy.”

He needed to get to the quarterfinals or further, and managed to make it to the semifinals. That put him on the team and in position to follow his dreams.

He now faces Russell, the man who has beaten him twice. But he shrugged at the irony of the draw.

“He’s a good fighter because he’s beaten a lot of good fighters, but I still don’t feel like he’s on my level, though,” Hitchins said. “I feel like I’ve got a chance to prove on this stage that he’s really not on my level. I’m just waiting on my time. I’m counting down the hours and waiting until we get in that ring so I can show off.”

It would have been great, he said, to win a medal for the U.S., where he was born and raised. But he would have been just another medalist in a long line of American boxing stars.

For Haiti, he’d become an instant legend. The country has won only two Olympic medals, one silver and one bronze, and nothing since Silvio Cator was second in the long jump in 1928 in Amsterdam. Haiti never has won a boxing medal in the Olympics.

Hitchins dreams of being the first Haitian boxing medalist and, in a way, paying back Berto’s kindness.

“It would be for him, but not just for him, for all of Haiti,” Hitchins said. “This would be special to the people in my country. I know I can do it. It’s in my mind and I can see it. All I have to do is go out there and perform.”

Team USA coach Billy Walsh knows it will be a tough fight. He likes Russell’s chances, but isn’t dismissive of Hitchins.

Hitchins has undeniable talent and he’s a force to be reckoned with, Walsh said.

“He’s been in the camp as a No. 2 or No. 3 and he’s worked real well with us,” Walsh said. “He’s learned the same things everyone else has learned, and he’s used it to good effect.”

The U.S. hasn’t won a gold medal since 2004, when Andre Ward took the light heavyweight gold in Athens. There would be a bitter irony if Hitchins won the light welterweight gold, a U.S.-born and raised boxer winning the gold for another country.

Hitchins smiled at the notion.

“It’s worked out great for me,” he said. “This is going to be great for Haiti and for me. This is the way it was meant to be, I guess.”

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