For seven University of Nevada boxers, the moment of truth has arrived, with the Wolf Pack hosting the Western Region Boxing Championships tonight and tomorrow at the Eldorado Hotel-Casino's Convention Center.
In addition to Nevada, five other schools will participate, including California, UNLV, San Jose State, Arizona and three-time defending national champion Air Force.
"This is what everybody's been working for since August," said Nevada coach and boxing coordinator Mike Martino. "We've had a lot of young boxers this year. They've been tested and they performed well."
The first and second place winners will receive gold and silver medals, respectively, and in two weeks will advance to the National Collegiate Boxing Association (NCBA) National Championships in Las Vegas.
"I look for our three small divisions --112 (pounds), 119 and 125 -- to compete for national championships," Martino said. "I think we'll do well at regionals. With the other (weight divisions), we'll have to wait and see. They're young kids, and they're going against seasoned Air Force Academy kids."
Martino said part of the inexperienced Wolf Pack's unexpected success this season can be attributed to smart matchmaking, which paired up boxers with equal experience. The difference now will be that the Western Region's best boxers will represent each division. While representing more of a challenge, the step up in competition isn't exactly intimidating the Nevada boxers, who will be led by two-time 112-pound national champion Lawrence Tam.
"I think we'll do well," said Tam, who is 4-0 on the season and coming off a March 7 win over arch-rival Xenon Mallari of UNLV at City Center Pavilion. "I've watched (112-pound Daigo) Moki and (125-pound) Jose (Casas) grow. I've taken over a leadership role to help mold these people, just like (former Nevada boxers and NCBA national champions) Ryan Simpson and Joey Gilbert did for me."
Tam will be competing in the 119-pound division this tournament, a weight he said he still hasn't quite adjusted to.
"I don't feel as agile or lean," Tam said. "I'm not having to cut much weight. In the past cutting weight was part of my motivation, part of my process. It's different now, but I think it's mental. I feel great. Everything has come together well this year."
Tam said he didn't know much about his first opponent, except that he is from UNLV and has gone 1-2 against Moki. Tam said his opponent in the final could be Darren Smith of Air Force, who is the defending 119-pound regional champion and whom Tam has beaten twice this year, once in New York and the other time in Reno. Tam said in spite of his success against Smith, he won't be taking him lightly.
"I underestimate no one," Tam said. "We all know in any fight just one punch (can end it all)."
Tam, a senior airman in the Nevada Air National Guard, is also hoping his possible deployment to the Middle East will be delayed long enough for him to finish the tournament.
"Keeping busy has helped keep my mind off the war," Tam said. But I need (the title) for closure. If I'm not able to finish up with the title, I'll feel empty. I've worked so hard for this."
In addition to boxing, the 24-year-old Tam is taking 18 credits (six classes) at Nevada and working three jobs.
"It's been a run," Tam said. "I've been able to handle it and develop time-management skills. Looking back on it, I'll be able to say I've done it. When I go into the real world -- under whatever circumstance I'm going -- I'll be more confident."
While lacking experience one Nevada boxer who isn't lacking for confidence is 175-pound Ryan Healey of Salem, Ore. The hard-punching freshman has stopped both his opponents this year and is looking forward to continuing his streak.
"I like to win. My goal all season has been to make the nationals and become an All-American," Healey said. "I've been running every day and boxing hard (in the gym) six days a week. I feel confident because we have such good coaches."
Healey said he has been working on leverage and trying to get the most out of his power, along with adding some technique. But when push comes to shove, Healey admits he has a passion for slugging it out.
"I like to fight. I like to go for the KO," Healey said. "It looks better on the record. A lot of friends will be (at the fights). I'm going to fight hard."
Five other Wolf Pack boxers will be competing, including Moki at 112 pounds, Jose Casas at 125 pounds, Jesse Wabbel at 139 pounds, Keishi Sakakihara at 156 pounds, and Steve Meerschaert at 165 pounds.
"We're going to put on a great show for Northern Nevada boxing fans," Martino said. "We'll be back next year, stronger and more experienced."
Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at the box office or by calling (775) 786-5700. Doors open at 6 p.m., with action starting at 7 p.m. tonight and tomorrow.