New-look city event for boxers 

Northern California’s top boxers will be able to put their Olympic-size dreams to the test this weekend at the San Francisco Championships, which will act as a qualifying start for the 2008 Games in Beijing.

The event will take place at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium today and Saturday, with doors opening at 5 p.m. on both days.

San Francisco has normally hosted U.S. qualifying boxing matches, but this is the debut of the S.F. Championships, which will now be the featured qualifying event for Northern California. USA Boxing revamped its qualifying process following the 2004 Olympics.

More than 40 boxers have signed up for the tournament,including Junior Olympic hopefuls and women, but the only boxers sanctioned to move on for more Olympic qualifying events will be the men’s Open Division competitors.

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To continue their journey toward Beijing, the amateur pugilists will have to win two matches in two nights, although some boxers get byes today.

With the victories, the boxers will move on to a regional qualifying tournament pitting Central California and Northern California’s top fighters. Fighters who advance out of the California regionals will become eligible for the USA Championships and, lastly, the Olympic Trials, S.F. Championships promoter Mario Serrano said.

"It’s going to be a great event," Serrano said. "We’ve got the best fighters in NorCal squaring off and there is a lot of excitement and energy surrounding these fights, especially because it’s the first year this event is acting as an Olympic qualifier."

Serrano said tickets for the first night are almost sold out, with 5,500-6,000 people expecting to watch the bouts.

Saturday should be especially notable, as the legendary Sugar Ray Leonard will be making an appearance to promote the event, accompanied by protégés Sergio Mora and Peter Manfredo from the reality-television show "The Contender."

Oakland’s Andre Ward, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the light heavyweight division, will also be in attendance Saturday.

Amateurs looking to advance from the S.F. Championships can look to Ward as an inspiration. He made his way to the Olympic team through qualifying events similar to the one taking place this weekend.

Two boxers squaring off this weekend who could follow in Ward’s footsteps are from very disparate divisions, but they are equally lauded in their respective weight classes.

Aaron Alafa, a flyweight (112 pounds) from Visalia currently ranked second in the U.S., was the 2002 national champion.

On the other end of the spectrum is another fighter ranked second in the country — 201-pounder James Zimmerman. The San Jose native will be competing as a heavyweight and is considered a favorite to represent the U.S. in the 2008 Olympics.

San Francisco Championships

WHEN: Today-Saturday

WHERE: Bill Graham Civic Auditorium

DOORS OPEN: 5 p.m. both days

TODAY’S SCHEDULED BOUTS (Open Division): 132 pounds—James Johnson vs. Max Becerra; 141—Kevin Barger vs. Evan Esguerra; 152—Alex Paracha vs. Geraldo Lopez; Will Walters vs. Santos Soto III; 178—Payton Boyea vs. Cymone Kearney; Stan Tillman vs. Joe Gumina.

SPECIAL APPEARANCES: Sugar Ray Leonard, Sergio Mora, Peter Manfredo, Andre Ward


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Will Reisman

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