Chris Pearson: an American boxer you want to root for

The last American boxer to win gold at the Summer Olympics was Andre Ward. That was in Athens, in 2004, in the light-heavyweight division, 178 or so pounds.

It has been a long, dry run. Everyone who knows the first thing about the sport in the United States understands that, and immediately.

“We’re going to go back to the golden days of boxing and the USA is going to reign again in the future!” the president of USA Boxing, Hal Adonis, all but shouted into the microphone this past Sunday night between matches as the first season of the World Series of Boxing came to a close in Los Angeles.

The crowd roared — a standing-room only mass of some 600 people at the Music Box, just steps from the iconic corner of Hollywood and Vine. In the house: Sugar Ray Leonard, Evander Holyfield, Lou Ferrigno, Jenny McCarthy, Julie Benz and “swimgerie” (that would be “lingerie-inspired swimwear”) designer Lilly Ghalichi, along with swimergie models Johanna and Kristen.

The scene at the Music Box, with the Femme Noire line "swimgerie" models Johanna and Kristen preening between fights. Kristen is the blonde.

What would the Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the reputed founder of the modern Olympic movement, have thought of such a scene?

“This is innovation,” said C.K. Wu, the president of the international boxing federation, which goes by the acronym AIBA.

Giving the baron the benefit of the doubt:  if the intent has always been to get young people involved in sport, the swarms of young men wearing replica USC jerseys who cheered boisterously for the fighters and then lined up to get their photos taken with Johanna and Kristen in those revealing “swimgerie” suits — it all seemed good.

As did the real surprise of the evening, and perhaps the reason there might be — genuinely — reason for optimism in Mr. Adonis’ corner.

In boxing, you never know. The sport can be so political. Then again, as the saying goes, you simply can not teach speed, and Chris Pearson is mighty fast.

In the third fight of five Sunday, Pearson, a 20-year-old left-hander from a little town northwest of Dayton called Trotwood, Ohio, defeated a 2008 Beijing Games gold medalist, Bakhyt Sarsekbayev of Kazakhstan.

Chris Pearson, just 20, from Trotwood, Ohio, using his reach to take it to Kazakh fighter Bakhyt Sarsekbayev // photo: Myles Regan

Pearson had come to the Matadors late in the season, referred by Rau’shee Warren, the 2007 flyweight world champion (112 pounds) and 2008 U.S. Olympic team member. Warren is also an Ohio guy. He’s from Cincinnati, about 50 miles south of Dayton.

In a March 14 fight, Pearson, now fighting as a middleweight, at 160 pounds, had defeated one of the league’s top fighters, Yamaguchi Florentino.

In the third round against Sarsekbayev, the 2008 welterweight gold medalist now fighting up as a middleweight, at 160, Pearson opened up a big cut over the Kazakh fighter’s left eye. From then on, Pearson controlled the bout. He won a split decision: 50-45, 49-46, 47-48.

You want to root for a guy like Chris Pearson. He was raised by a single dad, Milton. Dad has been working for the Montgomery County court system for 21 years now. Chris’ grandfather, Troy, and his grandmother, Zell, have been married for more than 50 years — they were college sweethearts at Fort Valley State. Troy used to run a youth basketball program that’s famous in and around southwest Ohio, the Dayton Mohawks.

Chris was a really good high school basketball and football player — he was being recruited by big-time college programs — until he tore up a knee.

It’s not that he wasn’t known as a boxer. He was, after all, a 2009 national PAL champ.

But now he’s older, and bigger, and stronger — after time at Northern Michigan University, at Marquette, Mich., and the U.S. Olympic Education Center there. While he has been earning two years worth of college credits, Chris Pearson said, way out of the spotlight up there in northern Michigan, he has been working on his boxing, and he has been working hard.

“Going in,” meaning to the fight with Sarsekbayev,” Milton Pearson said, referring to his son, “he told me, ‘If I beat him, I am going to open some eyes.’

“I told him, ‘Just go in and do what you know how to do.’ ”

As Chris Pearson later said in a telephone interview, “He knew he wasn’t fighting no slouch.”

The beginning of the end for Sarsekbayev // photo: Myles Regan

There’s a long way to go before Chris Pearson makes the Olympic team — he’s going to have to choose, for instance, whether to fight at the 152- or 165 1/2-pound Olympic weight classes — and there are bound to be a lot of good fighters to be in his way.

But, as he proved Sunday night, he’s pretty good himself. And bound to keep getting better.

Andre Ward, for one, has already told Chris Pearson that the sky is the limit.

This is why you really want to root for Chris Pearson. He says, “Yes, sir,” and, “No, sir,” when he speaks to you because that’s what his father and grandfather taught him to do. He’s humble about his accomplishments and his prospects even if, truly, the sky might be the limit.

All he will say, with an eye on London and 2012, is this: “I’m thankful for the opportunity to take my fighting to another level.”

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