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ATHENS 2004

Dad's in His Corner

Vanes Martirosyan's immigrant father gave him a love of boxing and a belief in the American dream. Now the son wants to give him a medal.

August 19, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

ATHENS — Norik Martirosyan lost a hand in a grenade explosion, so he uses his other one when he's smoking cigarettes, one after another. It is an old, unhealthy habit and Martirosyan's son, Vanes, has begged his father to stop.

So Martirosyan said, "Vanes, if you win the Western boxing trials and qualify for the Olympic trials, I'll stop smoking."

When Vanes won those trials, Norik said, "Vanes, if you qualify for the Olympic team, I'll stop smoking."

When Vanes won the Olympic trials after the two favorites in his weight class were disqualified in controversial circumstances, Norik said, "Vanes, if you win a gold medal, I'll quit smoking."

So here he is, Vanes Martirosyan of Glendale, an 18-year-old underdog, son of an Armenian immigrant, in love with the home cooking of his mother and the rap music of America and determined to win an Olympic gold medal in the 152-pound welterweight class so that his father will quit smoking. And for one other reason.

"For all the time I have been boxing," Vanes said, "my father has told me what a lucky boy I am to be growing up in the United States, where we have freedoms to do what we want and be what we want. He has told me, since I can remember, that there would be no greater honor for a sportsman such as me to win a gold medal to honor our country. The United States is our country now."

"Yes," said Norik Martirosyan, his younger brother Serge translating Norik's Armenian words. "It would be our gift to the United States. From Vanes and from Norik, our gift."

Martirosyan will fight 2003 Pan American Games gold medalist Lorenzo Aragon of Cuba in the second round today. Martirosyan out-pointed Benamar Meskine of Algeria in the first round.

At the Olympic trials, Andre Berto was disqualified -- he later joined Haiti's Olympic team -- for a flagrant foul that injured his opponent, Juan McPherson. Berto and McPherson were considered the two strongest fighters in the weight class. Berto had thrown McPherson to the mat and sent him to the hospital with a head injury. McPherson appealed to reenter the tournament after leaving the hospital but his appeal was denied and Martirosyan won the trials.

Because of his youth and because he didn't beat the top competitors, Martirosyan isn't given much chance to win a medal here.

"But that doesn't matter," Martirosyan said. "Our family has been underdogs for a long time and what I have learned from here, so far, is that anything can happen if you work hard."

In 1990, as the Soviet Union was breaking apart. Armenia and Azerbaijan, two former republics, were readying for a war rooted in a history of religious conflict and Norik Martirosyan was doing what he thought was best.

Martirosyan was foraging in an aging Soviet bomb-making facility, looking for repairable weapons, when he picked up a grenade. Before he even knew what was in his hand, the thing exploded.

But out of that accident, a dream was born. Looking for freedom and peace, longing for a chance to raise his three sons in a land where they could prosper, Martirosyan decided to go to the United States with his parents and his brother. They would join other families in California and start over.

Vanes, the middle child, was 4 in 1991, when they left Armenia. Norik had been an amateur boxer in the Soviet Union before he had to join the Soviet army. Even when he wasn't competing, Norik would hang around gyms, watching, learning the craft, memorizing footwork or the way to throw a perfect jab.

When the family arrived in California, Norik went to work in a family-run pizza parlor in Eagle Rock. In his free time, he took his sons, Vahe, Vanes and Vatche, to the gym every day. Vahe eventually gave up boxing for swimming and Vatche turned to soccer. But Vanes, the most inexhaustible of the boys, the fiercest competitor and the son most tuned to the father's love of boxing and America, stuck with boxing.

"It gave me pride and it was a great outlet for my energy," he said. "It was a way to be so close with my father because he was always my coach. He had learned boxing under the Soviet and European style and then he spent so much time studying at home the American style. In his head, my dad put together both styles to teach me the best."

Early this year, Vanes was ranked only 14th in the country in his weight class. Then he went 5-0 at the Western qualifier in Bakersfield.

"My dad stopped smoking for a moment," Vanes said. "But then he started again. When I won the Olympic trials, he stopped again -- but has started up again. I think it's his way to motivate me more for the gold medal. He promises, no more cigarettes if I win."

Norik said he wouldn't smoke anymore, medal or no medal.

"I believed when I saw my son walking inside the Olympic boxing arena," Norik said, "I believed that in the USA, everybody's dream can come true. I believed the world is mine now. And my son's. So, yes, I will quit smoking."

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