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Las Vegas boxer Hunter qualifies for Summer Olympics

He took a circuitous route, but Las Vegas heavyweight boxer Michael Hunter arrived at his dream destination – the Olympics – by qualifying Friday with a semifinal victory in the AIBA Americas Olympic Qualifying Tournament in Rio de Janeiro.

The 23-year-old Hunter defeated Ecuador’s Julio Cesar Castillo 14-8 and will face Argentina’s Yamil Peralta in today’s finals. But by winning Friday, Hunter locked up a spot in his 201-pound weight class on the U.S. team that will compete in this summer’s London Games.

“It’s a big relief,” Hunter said by phone shortly after his bout. “I’ve been going through this process for a long, long time. But I wasn’t too excited. This is only one part of the mission.

“I want to win the gold, and I’m so proud that Las Vegas will be represented in London.”

Hunter, a three-time national champion, fell short in his quest to qualify for the 2008 Olympics, losing at the world championships. He decided not to turn pro, wanting to fulfill a promise he made to his late father, former boxer Mike “The Bounty” Hunter, before he died in 2006 that he would make it to the Olympics.

It appeared Hunter had made his dream come true when he won the U.S. Olympic Trials in August in Mobile, Ala. However, his dream turned into a personal nightmare when he tested positive for marijuana, a banned substance.

Hunter was stripped of his gold medal and suspended for three months. After being reinstated last fall, he had to go through the qualification process again. Fortunately, three spots in his weight class remained open, so he had an opportunity for redemption.

In early March, Hunter went to the USA Boxing national championships in Colorado Springs, Colo., where only the winner could move on and keep his Olympic dream alive. He breezed through the tournament with lopsided wins and earned his spot in the Americas tourney this week in Brazil.

As had been the case throughout this week’s single-elimination competition, Hunter started fast Friday, building a 6-3 lead over Castillo in the first round. He extended the margin to 10-6 and boxed a smart final three minutes, winning the round 4-2 and locking up his spot for London and becoming the eighth U.S. boxer to make the Olympic team.

“My plan is always the same – get off to a fast start, dictate the pace and build an early lead,” Hunter said. “You don’t want to make things too close and leave it in the hands of the judges.

“I’ve been trying for the knockout all week, but it just hasn’t been there. I’m not going to back off (today). Every time I suit up, I’m trying to win, so I’m not holding anything back. The game plan is the same – go out and go for the win.”

Hunter’s mother, Gwen, watched her son qualify via streaming video on her computer. She said it was emotional as she and Hunter’s younger sister Janelle and younger brother Keith also watched him qualify for London.

“He’s come a long way,” she said. “He’s overcome a lot of obstacles to get to this point, and I’m very proud of him. Sometimes you make mistakes in life. But he learned from those mistakes, and he’s a better person for it.”

Gwen Hunter said she and Michael’s siblings will be in London to watch her son compete in the Olympics.

“There’s no way we’re missing this,” she said.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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