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MIKE DOWNEY

Next Tyson Can't Skip These Games

March 15, 1995

MAR DEL PLATA, Argentina — The punching bags dangle from the basketball stanchions, on long chains. It is just a musty little gymnasio on dusty old Constitution Avenue, across from a discotheque. The turnbuckles of the boxing ring are typical, except that they bear advertisements not for a luxury hotel or a brand of beer, but for Gianelli's ice cream.

Twelve hungry men skip rope in a circle, like schoolgirls. Singing together to a rapping beat, they dare one another to venture into mid-circle. One does, a wisp of a 112-pounder from Wisconsin who promptly does the splits and begins a back-spinning break dance on the floor. Maybe he will be the one to emerge as America's next million-dollar, main-event headliner. But more likely it will be someone like Lamon Brewster, someone strong and positively busting with self-confidence.

"They thought Mike Tyson was good?" Brewster says. "Wait until they get a load of me."

The young heavyweight from Los Angeles is fearless and impatient to take on the world. But ours is a very wide world, one inhabited by opponents such as the Cuban heavyweight Felix Savon, as good as any amateur fighter there is. Long before a boxer such as Brewster gets to swap blows with Riddick Bowe and his peers, there are Pan American Games jaws that he must jab, and more in the Olympics, and elsewhere.

Brewster can't wait. In his cheerful, Tyson-like alto voice, he says, "They want to pass me the torch. But I don't plan to carry the torch. I plan to blow out the torch."

Until recently he had done most of his boxing at 118th and Broadway, mixing it up in the gym there with many of L.A.'s toughest, some of whom are in this very room jumping rope, having just arrived for the Pan American Games. Standing right over there thumping a heavy bag is the imposing Lance Whitaker, a super-heavyweight from Granada Hills who stands 6 feet 8 on legs still sore from the long, long flight.

"I begged them for an emergency-exit aisle," Whitaker says, rubbing his calves.

Or in that corner over there sits Carlos Navarro, the teen-age bantamweight fresh out of Manual Arts High who used to spar with Rafael Ruelas and picks him to stop Oscar De La Hoya's clock. And in another corner over there stands Fernando Vargas, 17, the pride and joy of Oxnard, shadow-boxing in a shirt that reads: "I'm Not Scared, I'm Not Afraid, I'm Tough, I'm an Animal and I Will Eat You If I Have To."

Vargas laughs and disagrees with his friend, saying: "Oh, no. Ruelas stands straight up and down. He is easy for Oscar, man."

Boxing brings people from different worlds together to strange places. One minute they might be at home watching HBO and next minute they are off to some Argentine arena, becoming tomorrow's contenders for pay-per-view. The hallways of their little training gym are lined with athletic celebrity posters so old that Hakeem Olajuwon's name is still spelled as Akeem.

How did they get here? Navarro began boxing, he says, because his father pushed him into it, for which he is thankful because now he has an amateur record of 104-12 and a nickname, "El Zurdo de Oro," the southpaw of gold. Vargas became curious because he saw it on television, and now his goals are to find time to study his schoolbooks, to become a champion and then "to become a fat trainer," hopefully in that order.

Whitaker, well, he isn't crazy about the quarters here, wasn't able to digest the food he ate in Cuba, but keeps upbeat because it wasn't so long ago that he knocked around Los Angeles living wherever he could, in orphanage-like boys' homes or halfway houses or with distant relatives, anywhere that would take him when he had nowhere else to go.

Asked who influences him most, Whitaker answers: "Nobody." Asked who his closest friend is, he responds: "Myself."

Pro promoters already are drooling over a 6-8, 230-pound heavyweight, particularly one people call "Babyface," but boxing is still so new to Whitaker, he wants people to understand: "I am a very nice guy and easy to get along with. But I'm just starting out. I haven't even learned how to relax in the ring."

But Brewster sure has. Mention his name to Israel Acosta, the assistant coach of the U.S. team, who runs a boxing club in Milwaukee, and his reaction is, "Oh, I wish Brewster would come back there with me when this is done. He is going to be the big surprise, you watch. He could even win the gold medal."

There is little that worries Lamon. He would like it if people would learn how to pronounce his name--it's LAY-mon, not la-MON--and if somebody in Argentina would please find his luggage. He's the only one whose bags got lost.

"Just my mouthpiece, that's all I really want," Brewster says. "The rest they can have. I'll fight like this, in these clothes with these shoes. But I had the mouthpiece specially capped for my mouth, so please, Argentina, help me. I consider myself a throwback to old-time fighters, but I'd still just as soon protect my teeth.

"I might need them to smile for the cameras."

He just might.

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