Hunter hopes Olympic gold paves way to heavyweight glory

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MOBILE, Ala. -- Amateur boxing is a conservative sport. There is no rap music played during ring walks, no flashy nicknames like "The Executioner" or "Dr. Steelhammer" read during introductions. It's an entourage-less business, where fighters walk into the ring in shorts, shirts and headgear and are expected to quietly walk out of it within seconds of the decision.

Michael Hunter, however, is an exception. There is a palpable swagger in Hunter's walk to the ring. He wears a bright, emerald green robe with "Bounty Hunter" stitched on the back while his two corner men wear similar styled jackets with "Team Hunter" in letters large enough to read from the upper bowl.

At last week's U.S. Olympic trials, Hunter fought with a similar flair. During a preliminary-round match against Jordan Shimmell, a fan shouted that Shimmell was scared. Hunter responded with a wink, a nod and a straight right hand to Shimmell's jaw. In the heavyweight final, Hunter had to be warned by the referee for trash talking in a rout of Joseph Williams. Hunter has a habit of dropping his hands to invite an opponent in and won't hesitate to charge when he thinks he has one on the ropes.

"This is entertainment," Hunter said. "To sell tickets, you have to be entertaining. I love doing this. It's fun. If you're not going to have fun, why do it?"

Confidence runs in the Hunter family. Hunter's late father, Mike, was a flamboyant heavyweight contender in the 1990's who owned wins over former titleholders Dwight Muhammad Qawi and Oliver McCall and was a sparring partner of Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe. The elder Hunter introduced his son to the sport, taking him to training camps and sparring sessions and watching countless hours of film together at home.

"I was always attached to his pants," Hunter said. "And being around him so much, I definitely took some of his personality."

The 23-year-old Hunter is brimming with potential. He finished first in the 2007 U.S. Olympic trials as a super heavyweight but failed to qualify for the '08 Olympics after losing in the semifinal of the Americas qualifier. Hunter dropped down to the 201-pound heavyweight limit for the '11 trials and stormed through the competition. He defeated 2010 USA Boxing Athlete of the Year Steve Geffrard in the first round and easily dispatched Shimmell and Williams to win the weight class. At 6-foot-2 Hunter has good height for a non-Klitschko heavyweight with a solid blend of power and speed.

Winning gold in London is Hunter's top priority -- the U.S. has not had a heavyweight gold medalist since Ray Mercer in 1988 -- but he has his eyes on a bigger prize: the heavyweight title. Hunter has twice served as a sparring partner for unified heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, an experience Hunter believes will prepare him for turning pro next fall.

"That first camp with Wladimir, it was like I was in a video game and he was knocking my power bar down every time he punched me," Hunter said. "But as it went on, my confidence shot up. He inspired me. I learned some technical stuff working with him. How to shoot that right hand, how to shorten your distance, how to parry and block punches. Remember, he was a gold medalist [in 1996] too. His style is the kind I'm going to see in international competition."

With heavyweight boxing in the U.S. on life support, Hunter sees an opportunity to make a name for himself quickly.

"I would love to prove that American heavyweights are still here," Hunter said. "I want to prove to American fans that we haven't gone anywhere. I want to turn pro and become one of the greatest fighters who ever lived."

And if that means going through Wladimir or his brother, fellow titleholder Vitali Klitschko?

"Those are my guys but if that's who is on top, I'm coming to get them," Hunter said. "I just want to be the best and known as great. If that's what it costs to be great, I'm going for it."