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Street boxing program aims to boost sport, give young Venezuelans an outlet in slums
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) ' Migadalia Flores was worried about raising her 13-year-old son in a poor Caracas neighborhood where teenage boys often drift into crime.
So she sent him to fight.
Her son, Miguel Uzcategui, is now a standout among the youths who line up with their gloves every weekend to slug it out in a boxing ring that is moved around Caracas from parks to plazas to streets in the slums.
They're participating in a program supported by the Venezuelan government that aims not only to develop stellar fighters and expand the sport's reach but also to give poor adolescents an alternative to crime, alcohol and drugs.
Boys start as young as 8 compete in the outdoor matches, joining older boys as well as some teenage girls in the weekend competitions, where renowned Venezuelan coaches give them pointers.
Miguel said the sport has given him goals and improved self-confidence. Dozens of boxing medals hang on the wall of the family home. "Boxing has helped me a lot. I'm stronger," he said.
Flores, a hairdresser, said she thinks boxing is giving is teaching Miguel discipline and will help keep him in school. She said she hopes the sport will lead to scholarships for her son's high school and university studies.
Similar boxing programs exist in other countries, but organizers say the Venezuela matches have been held more consistently than in many places. Since 2009, young boxers have participated in more than 3,000 fights in outdoor rings, sometimes even fighting in the rain.
"Our mission is to pull the kids out of the clutches of crime, teach them values along with discipline," said Williams Gonzalez, who helped start the program in 2009 and is president of the Caracas Boxing Association.
The government's Sports Ministry provides financial support, and organizers say one of the long-term goals is to bring the country another Olympic medal. Boxing has long been popular in Venezuela, accounting for five of the country's 11 Olympic medals to date. But the last came in 1984, when Omar Catari won a featherweight bronze.
The country's fighters are expected to face long odds at the London Games this year. The three who qualified include Gabriel Maestre and Jose Alexander Espinoza, as well as Karlha Magliocco, the first Venezuelan woman boxer to reach the Olympics.
Some of the young boxers who compete in the weekend matches say they hope one day to join them.
"In about 120 fights, I've had 14 losses. All the rest I've won," said Ronnis Hidalgo, a 14-year-old who is a national champ in his age group and who receives a monthly scholarship of about $460 through the program.
Hidalgo said boxing helps him stay away from the gangs and frequent shootings that terrorize many in his neighborhood.
Cristian Lopez, 11, said there are no soccer fields or baseball diamonds near his home in the crowded slum of La Vega, making boxing a convenient option. "It has kept me away from problems and it doesn't cost much. I can practice it in any alleyway, in the living room of my house," Lopez said.
One coach who encourages the young athletes is Jesus "Kiki" Rojas, a former flyweight and super flyweight World Boxing Association champion. He said it's rewarding to help youngsters who otherwise could slide into trouble.
"Every time a kid ends up in our hands who has behavior problems, who's doing poorly in school, and later you see that he becomes disciplined, that he manages to get ahead, it's one of the most beautiful experiences," Rojas said.
Cuban boxing coach Jorge Garcia also helps train the boxers under an agreement between the Venezuelan and Cuban governments. He said the weekend matches are helping fighters improve and that the country can still do more to develop its teaching programs.
"I see a big future for Venezuelan boxing," Garcia said. "These matches promote boxing in Venezuela a lot, which is what's needed. The talent is there."