Amateur boxer Rubens Nicolas was about a half-hour late to a noon workout last month at Johnny Tocco’s Ringside Boxing Gym. Public transit and punctuality don’t always mix.
But there’s no way he was missing training altogether. The Summer Olympics begin on July 24, and he wants to be there.
Nicolas is trying one last time to qualify for the games in Tokyo, where he hopes to become the first Haitian boxer to earn an Olympic medal. The 30-year-old Las Vegan unsuccessfully attempted to qualify in 2016, but he said issues with his passport prevented him from traveling abroad to qualifying events.
He’s spent the past four years preparing for this year, though, bypassing multiple opportunities to turn professional and squandering several valuable years of his theoretical prime. But professional prize money doesn’t compare to the allure of Olympic glory.
Not for Nicolas, anyway.
“There’s certain things and experiences in life one can’t buy, or replace, and I feel like that’s something,” said Nicolas, whose logged roughly 80 amateur bouts. “Going to the Olympics, representing your country, coming out of that tunnel, it’s an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Nicolas was born to Haitian immigrants and grew up in South Florida. He didn’t begin boxing until the age of 12 and learned of Haiti’s Olympic boxing team in 2004, when he watched fellow countryman Andre Berto compete in Greece and conceptualized his Olympic dream.
He trained first in Naples, Florida, and also lived in New York before moving to Las Vegas in 2015, seeking the opportunity and training that the city provides. Haiti’s national team recruited him to compete in 2016, but he was denied a passport despite submitting what he said was proper documentation.
“That blew me away,” said Nicolas’s sister, Shayla Ruffin. “It shot him all the way down into depression. He put his all into it. He (invests) in the sport 24/7, then the time comes, and he can’t go. … He was hurt.”
Nicolas said he was devastated by the ruling and subsequently isolated himself from friends and family while pondering his future. He contemplated turning professional and giving up his lifelong dream. But his passport was approved later that year, and he resisted the urge to turn pro to train full-time in preparation for this summer’s games.
He’s relied financially for years on a stipend provided by Haiti’s boxing federation and lives rather minimally. He rides the bus to save money, hence the tardiness to Johnny Tocco’s, and he struggles gathering the requisite funding for crucial developmental tournaments.
Yet his optimism doesn’t waver, and he trains five or six times a week with his sights set on Tokyo.
“My life is basically just boxing,” he said. “I’ve dedicated myself to this sport.”
Olympic qualifying for Nicolas begins on March 26 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One of his coaches, Merqui Sosa, says the southpaw needs to tweak his approach before the tournament. Nicolas, he says, paces himself too much in training — as if he’s fighting 10 or 12 rounds like a professional. Amateur fights are three rounds, and Sosa says Nicolas needs to fight with more pace and throw more punches.
“There’s no time to get ready,” Sosa says.
Nicolas plans on turning professional this year, regardless of how his summer concludes. He’s waited this long, though, in search of something more sentimental.
He’s fine waiting a little longer.
“People told him to give up,” Ruffin said. “But his focus is all on boxing. He’s breathing boxing.”