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ATLANTA 1996 OLYMPICS

Vargas, Raheem Fight Off Jitters

Boxing: U.S. teenagers not happy, but they score easy victories in openers.

July 21, 1996|TIM KAWAKAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ATLANTA — No drama, no flourishes, no problem.

Handed the anxiety-filled role of kicking off the U.S. boxing team's Olympic journey, teenagers Fernando Vargas and Zahir Raheem cruised to clear first-round victories Saturday afternoon before 8,586 at Alexander Memorial Coliseum.

Neither Vargas, from Oxnard, nor Raheem, from Philadelphia, sounded particularly pleased by his winning performance, but both were relieved that they had averted instant American disaster.

"We both wanted to start it off right; everybody wanted to see us win, especially our teammates," Vargas said after his 10-4 welterweight victory over awkward left-hander Tengiz Meskhadze of Georgia.

"We knew if one of us lost, or if both of us lost, then they'd all be thinking, 'God, am I going to be next?' "

Vargas traditionally is a slow starter but started even more slowly than usual Saturday because he didn't know Meskhadze was left-handed until moments before the bout. Vargas, 18, looked tentative and threw few punches until the final minute of the first round.

"The European style is awkward for me, but I was able to pick my shots little by little," Vargas said. "I always start off slow like that, I don't know why.

"I'm more of a pro-style fighter, I can feel it. And I can't wait to be wearing the Olympic gold medal around my neck and going into the pros."

With his teammates and many friends and family members in the audience--and a wildly pro-U.S. crowd--Vargas landed two overhand rights and a left hook to take a 3-1 lead heading into the second round.

By the end of the second, Vargas had pulled to an 8-3 lead, finding the range with counter-punching left hooks that banged off Meskhadze's face.

"I'm not very satisfied with the way I fought," Vargas said. "I'm always slow to start, and I get stronger as I progress through the other fights. This, to me, was a fair fight; it was not one of my best fights.

"I'm not saying my performance reeked, but I know I'm a much better-caliber fighter than this."

U.S. Coach Al Mitchell said he thought Vargas showed canniness by abandoning his trademark inside body punches--which were not being counted as scoring blows by the judges--and firing away from the outside.

Meskhadze continued to lean his long body back to make Vargas miss with his overhand right, and to keep his large left hand pawing at Vargas to deflect other shots, and closed to within 8-4 early in the final round.

But Vargas landed a scoring right uppercut midway through the round and a left in the final seconds to end the mini-threat.

"I was nervous, and he has better technique," Meskhadze said.

Both Vargas and Raheem decided to rest instead of attending the lengthy opening ceremonies Friday night, but Vargas said he watched Muhammad Ali light the Olympic torch on television.

"Oh, I was mesmerized," Vargas said. "Not being able to be there really hurt me. Who isn't he an idol of?"

Next up for Vargas, a serious medal contender, is Romanian Marian Simion, who defeated Hussein Bayram of France, 13-6, with an 8-1 flurry to close the fight.

"As the matches go on, he gets stronger," U.S. assistant coach Patrick Burns said of Vargas. "It's going to take a tank to come in and beat this kid."

In contrast to Vargas, Raheem, a 19-year-old bantamweight, took a 9-1 first-round lead over Korean Jong Gil Hoe, then said he simply could not keep up the pace.

Raheem, fighting in the second match of the tournament, scored with tricky in-and-out shots, but was given only a "C" grade by Mitchell for making too many mistakes because of fatigue.

"The guys were looking for me to start it off real well, and that's what I wanted to do," Raheem said. "I was really hyped and I rushed things, I was anxious. That took a little toll."

Said Mitchell: "He didn't listen when I told him to run the last two rounds. That's the Philadelphia in him coming out. But when you're that far ahead, you've got to run."

Raheem's mettle--and his medal chances--will be tested early, because his next fight is against Cuban southpaw Arnaldo Mesa, a 19-5 victor over Sweden's John Larbi on Saturday.

"I could be fighting somebody from Honolulu; I'm not really thinking about who's next," Raheem said when asked about the Cuban. "Just because he's from Cuba doesn't mean anything."

Vargas and Raheem said the chanting, loud U.S. crowd spurred them emotionally.

"I'm not going to let anybody come into our house and violate us," Vargas said.

So, after starting 2-0 on the tournament, Mitchell said he was pleased.

"It was excellent," Mitchell said. "You've got to understand, on the first day of a major tournament, even Sugar Ray Robinson can look bad. And this is the Games, everybody's nervous.

"Hey, it's better than losing."

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