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Iraq vet hopes to fight for U.S. in the ring

January 06, 2008|From the Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Christopher Downs spent 13 months serving his country in Iraq. Now the light heavyweight hopes to represent his country in another place -- the ring at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

For Downs, the road to the Olympics is decidedly different from that of his younger, more seasoned teammates. At 33, Downs is more than a decade older than some of his fellow boxers. But with just four years experience fighting, he has less time in the ring.

Downs missed an opportunity to qualify for Beijing after losing his second fight at the World Boxing Championships in Chicago this past fall, but there are two more qualifying events.

He likens the challenge to accomplishing a task in the Army.

"My specific mission was to make the Olympic team," Downs said. "And I can say if I make it to Beijing that it was a mission completed."

Beijing would be a long way from Knoxville, Tenn., where Downs grew up and joined the Army at age 22. He became a heavy tank weapons specialist, earning the rank of first sergeant.

Downs hadn't even stepped inside a boxing ring until 2003 when one of his commanders volunteered him for an Army event. Downs took to the sport. And he kept winning.

But his time fighting was cut short when he was called to serve in Iraq in January 2004. Downs was put in charge of six soldiers. Boxing took a back seat.

"I was more focused on our mission and making sure that I was doing all the stuff we needed to do to complete our mission and get all our guys home," Downs said. "So I didn't have much time to worry about boxing and where boxing would take me."

Boxing would take him places, though. One day in Iraq, a commander asked Downs to apply for an Army boxing event. With support from his fellow soldiers and commanders, Downs left Iraq two months early. A spot on the U.S. boxing team followed.

His military experience contributes to an air of responsibility and authority around Downs. His younger teammates elected him co-captain and as part of the job he rhythmically chants the counts in cadence as he leads the team through stretches.

Downs is humble about it, but he's earned the role of an older brother, if not father figure, for some of his teammates. Other boxers come to him, asking him advice about their professional futures. He preaches good behavior. Stay off the streets. Don't act like they do on television.

"From the boxing point of view, I probably couldn't teach them anything," Downs says.

"I try to lead by example. Something that we say in the military, that's be on time, do your curfew. Make sure you do your homework because all those little things in the end build up to greater things in the long run. And that's what I try to show those guys."

And like the father he is to his 9- and 7-year-olds -- Downs says he has taken scrapbooking classes and scrapbooks pictures of his children -- he brags about his boxers, too.

"I'm predicting -- I'm not guaranteeing anything -- but to watch these guys work and the work ethic, to see these guys match up, I'm not going to bet against them," he said.

Luis Yanez, 19, the squad's co-captain, said the team has deep respect for Downs.

"Chris, he's a grown man," Yanez said. "Everybody treats him like a grown man because if you say one bad thing to him he's going come back and back you down. I'll let you know that."

Just as he has knowledge to share, Downs said he's observing and learning from his teammates.

"I find myself punching the bag, and I'm looking around and thinking, what can I steal from this guy and try to work on?" Downs said.

U.S. boxing coach Dan Campbell said he sees what Army training and experience has brought to Downs' boxing.

"As a former Vietnam veteran, I know what going to war can do to a person -- either make you very, very mature or make you very, very scared," Campbell said. "He surprises us every day in his maturity and the way he can push these guys to greater heights all the time."

Downs' limited years in the ring do affect his performance, Campbell said.

"There is occasion when he gets nervous and it takes him a little while to overcome that, and that's inexperience," Campbell said. "The more experienced guys know not only how to hide but how to overcome it very quickly. It takes him a little time sometimes, and so we now know to start working on that before we get in the ring."

Downs recognizes the weakness as well.

"I know I train hard enough to know that I can win," Downs said. "What makes me the most nervous is boxing up to my ability on that night."

Whatever challenges Downs faces in the ring, they don't match what he and his fellow soldiers faced in Iraq. And when he's fighting, Downs said, he doesn't just represent his own hopes for Olympic glory.

"I'm representing all the guys in the military that want to be out there playing basketball or soccer or softball -- whatever their sport may be," Downs said. "I hope that they can live some of that through me, know that it can be done if they want to work hard enough to do it."

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