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Tropical 'Punch' Packs A Wallop

Light-Flyweight Viloria Left Hawaii for Michigan Because Reputation as a Hitter Left Him Out in Cold


And the gold medal for most obvious nickname among athletes competing at the Sydney Olympics goes, by knockout, to Brian Viloria, the Hawaiian-born boxer who is known by friends and strangers alike as, yes, of course, can't-help-but-telegraph-this-one . . . Hawaiian Punch.

"Personally," Viloria says with a polite smile, "I think it's been overused. I mean, I'm from Hawaii and I can punch. You can put two and two together."

Not helping matters is Viloria's ever-scant tale of the tape. At 5 feet 4 inches and 106 pounds, he is the smallest member of the U.S. Olympic boxing team, the reigning world champion in the light-flyweight division, yet he hits with more force than the most hulking heavyweight. The story has been told and retold of how technicians tested Viloria and his teammates for punch velocity last year and Viloria exceeded the highest score listed on the measuring device.

Viloria is the real-life incarnation of those old soft-drink commercials, the little guy with the oversized fist who rears back and KOs some hapless oaf twice his size.

Realizing the nickname isn't going away, Viloria, rather than fight it, has decided to flaunt it.

After every fight he wins, Viloria performs a victory hula dance in the ring.

During interviews, when asked how someone so small can hit so hard, Viloria jokes that it comes from years of practice "hitting banana trees" back home.

Now a 19-year-old sophomore at Northern Michigan, where training runs take him through snow drifts, far from the lapping waves and swaying palms of Oahu, Viloria says the biggest adjustment he had to make was getting used to mainland cuisine.

"Rutabaga," Viloria says quizzically. "What's a rutabaga?

" I miss all sorts of weird foods that I was used to in Hawaii. I miss the stuff a lot of people look at and say, 'What's that?' I miss the rice. In Hawaii, our culture is that you always eat rice with everything. Rice with sushi. Rice with seafood. Rice with Spam."

In Marquette, Mich., Spam is served with Spam. Viloria left his hometown of Waipahu for Marquette in the fall of 1998, partly because of Northern Michigan's renowned U.S. boxing training program, partly because he couldn't get any competition in Hawaii.

Which doesn't mean he couldn't find good enough opponents.

Because of his reputation, Viloria couldn't find any opponents.

"Nobody wanted to fight me anymore," Viloria says, and he does not exaggerate. He would enter a tournament and each round, every opponent drawn to fight against him would immediately forfeit.

"If I stayed there," Viloria says, "my boxing was going to die out. So I moved from Hawaii to Michigan, where I'm now training with a lot of national champions."

Viloria built his reputation with his very first fight, at age 9, when he was so small he had to be lifted over the ropes into the ring by his coach. "I closed my eyes the whole match," Viloria says, "I threw my punches, and the next thing I knew, I won that match."

Afterward, Viloria was informed by his coach that the boy he had just defeated was previously unbeaten in 20 bouts.

"Wow," Viloria says, laughing at the recollection. "I should have killed that coach, because he got me fighting a kid who was a lot more experienced than I was and didn't tell me about."

From there, it was usually more of the same: Viloria looking up at his opponent as the bell sounded, then looking down at him after a few rounds.

"I used to spar against guys 40, 50 pounds heavier than I was," he says. "That's probably where I learned to punch so hard. I never sparred against guys who were my own weight. They were always a lot bigger.

"I even competed against guys a lot heavier than I was. In order to make weight, I'd put weights in my pockets and step on the scale. I'd use coins, sandbags, anything heavy. Because there were no guys in my weight class. I was, like, 95 pounds when I was 12, 13 years old, and I had to fight guys who weighed 112."

About that time, Viloria faced a sparring partner more than twice his age. "He was in his late 20s or early 30s," Viloria estimates. "I hit him in the body and he fell somehow and lost his breath. He was really gasping for air.

"A couple days after that, he had to get checked up and the doctors found that he had bruised ribs. He was a man, he had a wife and kids. I felt sorry."

Viloria is almost a Saturday morning cartoon come to life, a mighty mite with a very real chance at winning an Olympic gold medal, which might explain his popularity with children.

"Especially the smaller kids," Viloria says. "In school, I was always the smallest kid. I was always the little one, always the one standing in the far corner when they took the class picture.

"It didn't bother me much. What matters is your heart--how big your dreams are and how much you really want to attain that. I tell kids that it's your character that's important."

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