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After arduous journey, Molina makes it to Beijing


Reprinted from SI Latino

For Javier Molina, the road to Beijing has been as grueling as it has been long.

In his first international competition, in 2006, he had to sidestep rabid fans as well as his opponents. At the Cadet World Championships in Istanbul, he defeated a Turkish boxer only to be showered with bottles and insults by a belligerently anti-U.S. crowd.

"That was scary," says Molina, who was then 16 and had to be escorted out of the arena by security personnel. "All the U.S. fighters were booed, no matter who they fought. But that experience was nothing compared with what I went through to get to Beijing."

Indeed, Molina could be the poster child for Olympic perseverance after enduring an arduous 13-month qualifying ordeal. In order to compete in the U.S. Olympic Trials, the Mexican-American boxer first had to qualify for the National Championships. He failed in his first three attempts: in February 2007 at the Regionals in San Diego, in April at the Midwestern Trials in Cincinnati and in May at the Golden Gloves in Tennessee. "I hadn't felt that nervous since I was a little kid," Molina says. "It was like I was fighting my first bouts as an amateur all over again."

His trainer, Robert Luna, a former U.S. Army boxer, drove him from Tennessee to the Eastern Trials in Cocoa, Fla. -- one of only two remaining venues where Molina could qualify. During the 10-hour trip, Luna tried to ease the pressure on his young fighter, stopping in Atlanta to take in a Braves baseball game. In Florida. they drove to a lake where they had a heart-to-heart.

"I told him to relax and try to visualize his fights frame by frame," Luna says. "Boxing is 80 percent mental. You can always spot an opponent's weaknesses if you stay calm." Luna also promised that he would stick by Molina and prepare him for the next stage of his boxing career.

Inspired by his trainer's faith in him, Molina won five fights and earned one of the final two spots in the Nationals. "Looking back, I see that losing all those times was good for me," he says. "I gained a lot of experience. With each fight I got better, and my mind got stronger."

At the Nationals that June, he tore through the competition, beating all six of his opponents in the 141-pound division. After that, he and Luna traveled to the Olympic Trials in Houston, where the fighter won all four of his bouts to secure a spot on Team USA.

But there was still one more hurdle to leap before booking his flight to Beijing.

In March 2008, at the first Americas qualifying tournament in Trinidad and Tobago, Molina took third place in his weight class -- good enough for an Olympic berth -- by overwhelming Canada's Kevin Bizier by a score of 20-5.

That victory, however, would prove to be bittersweet. Javier's twin brother, Oscar, with whom he had trained since they were children, had failed to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 152-pound category. Oscar later won a spot on the Mexican team, but he was eliminated from Olympic contention in the final Americas qualifier, in Guatemala in April.

"I was heartbroken when Oscar didn't qualify for Beijing," says Javier. "I felt like crying."

On a cloudless Sunday afternoon in June, the twins' half-brother, Manny Molina, a burly cement-truck driver, hosted 30 members of the close-knit Molina clan in the backyard of his house in Ontario, Calif. Manny cooked up heaps of tacos laden with cow's tongue, chicken, beef tripe and pork. The adults settled in for a six-hour marathon of the poker game Texas Hold 'Em (with a $5 buy-in), while the little, sunburned Molinas with mohawk haircuts splashed about in an inflatable pool.

The hours flew by as the family indulged in good-natured ribbing, singing (by the charismatic Manny) and, of course, the card game. Javier, Oscar and their 22-year-old brother Carlos, also a promising fighter with a 3-0 pro record, battled with Manny and with Carlos' girlfriend. None of them were willing to abandon the game, even as dusk settled in.

It was in this competitive family environment that the Molina boys grew up, shielded from the gangs and drugs that have ravaged so many struggling families in Los Angeles. Carlos credits their father, Miguel, for keeping him and the twins from straying into the savage street life of East Los Angeles.

"My dad would never let us go out, even during the day," Carlos says. "At least 10 kids I knew from school joined gangs and are now in jail. Our dad always had us either playing sports or training at the gym."

Miguel often rearranged his work hours so he could attend their amateur tournaments. Carlos, Javier and Oscar lived in a cramped three-bedroom home with their parents and maternal grandparents in Commerce, a gritty neighborhood in East L.A. Miguel had moved to the U.S. from Ciudad Juárez in 1970 and worked a string of factory jobs as he raised four children with his first wife.

In 1980, in a factory that made window blinds, Miguel met Gloria Casillas, a native of Jalisco who entered the U.S. hidden under the hood of a truck. They married in 1984.

In 1992, two years after the twins were born, Miguel set up a shop in his own backyard, where, for the past 16 years, he has made customized curtains and blinds.

"Money has always been tight," he says, "but owning my own business allowed me to spend a lot of time in the gym with my boys and go to all their fights."

The Commerce Boxing Gym, where the Molinas have trained with Luna since the twins were 9, is a no-frills community gym tucked away in the Bristow Park branch of the Commerce Public Library near the Santa Ana freeway. A sign drawn with yellow highlighters by local preschoolers declares the small training space to be the HOME OF JAVIER MOLINA, U.S. OLYMPIAN.

It was here that, in 2000, Javier trained alongside Olympic boxer Francisco "Panchito" Bojado, who mesmerized the Molina brothers with his blinding speed and crippling power punches.

"When I saw Panchito fighting on television in Sydney I decided I wanted to go to the Olympics too," says Javier. Bojado, who represented Mexico as a featherweight, didn't medal in Sydney but signed with Mike Tyson's one-time manager Shelley Finkel and now has an 18-3 professional record.

The Molina kids have always been fierce competitors inside and outside the ring. Before they focused exclusively on boxing, the twins were the best players on their baseball, football and basketball teams. For them, even hide-and-seek was a no-holds-barred competition.

One evening, on the grounds of the community center outside the gym, no one could find 11-year-old Javier until a custodian discovered what looked like a corpse beneath the bag he pulled out of a trash can. The custodian nearly passed out from fright.

"My father didn't want us to compete against each other, though, and I was a bit heavier, so I always fought in a higher weight class than Javy," says Oscar.

"We still spar a lot together," says Javier. "We know each other so well that it's a good challenge."

At 11, Javier entered his first amateur tournament: the 2002 U.S. National Silver Gloves, in Kansas City. Though he was fighting kids who were three to four years older, he shocked his father and his trainer with his unwavering confidence. "I bought him a new outfit to wear in the ring," says Miguel, "but when he fought, he used his old togs. I asked him why and he said, 'Dad, I'm going to wear the new ones in the final.' "

The boy did just that, winning the title in the new getup.

Javier is a quiet, hardworking young man who earned high grades at John Glenn High while compiling a 112-11 amateur record. In the ring, he is an intelligent, methodical fighter who combines blistering hand speed with excellent counterpunching. How he will fare in Beijing depends on his ability to adapt to the international style of boxing.

"U.S. fighters like Molina fight a style that is geared toward the pros," says NBC Olympic boxing analyst Teddy Atlas. "Molina battles well inside and is a good counterpuncher. But in the international game fighters stay on the outside and play for points. It's a hit-and-run style that's hard to adjust to."

Only three U.S. fighters have won gold medals in the past four Olympic games: Oscar De La Hoya in 1992, David Reid in '96 and Andre Ward in 2004.

This year the light welterweight division is especially competitive. To win the gold Javier, the youngest member of Team USA, will have to beat two of the world's most experienced amateur 141-pounders: Serik Sapiyev of Kazakhstan, the 2005 and 2007 world champion, and Manus Boonjumnong of Thailand, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist. Javier insists that the pressure of fighting the world's best on the biggest stage will not get to him.

"I'll tune all that stuff out," he says. "Then it's just me and my opponent in the ring. When I'm fighting at 100 percent, none of those guys can beat me."