PUMMELING each other into the ropes, onto thefloor, and, once, out of the ring, the avatars of CentralAmerica’s amateur boxers laid the smack down last weekat the XI Central American Amateur BoxingChampionship, and first Central American AmateurWomen’s Championship in San José.The sponsor, Shut shoe company, passed around papervisors, perhaps to protect those nearest the ring from thesweat and water flung out of the fights. It was mostlybloodless and even the losers stood without much of asway while the victors took pot shots at the air for thenewspaper photo.In the wide enclosed spaces of the NationalGymnasium there was the odd spectacle of composed andexperienced fighters jabbing and tying up against the backdropof a blue-and-yellow bleachered gym that looks like itbelongs in a middle-American high school.Costa Rican boxers battered through their six internationalopponents and took home first and second place trophies.Sixty-three boxers, including 18 women, fromBelize, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua,Costa Rica and Panama competed for 11 gold medals in themen’s division and six in the women’s.Though some hopes were squashed, Costa Rica’s teamof 11 men swiped second place with two gold medals andfour silvers, conceding the first-place prize to CentralAmerica’s boxing superpower, Nicaragua.THE northern neighbor took the tournament in a landslidevictory with seven gold medals, pounding on theiropponents in nearly every category, and one of them tookthe prize for the most knockouts.They hit hard and “feel no punches,” Costa Ricanfemale gold medallist Katheleen O’Connell said, echoingthe complaints and somewhat awed admonitions of otherson the team.“This teaches us that we have to keep working,” saidcoach Jorge Duarte. “We should give more support, investin training time.”Costa Rica’s women’s team is already at the top of itsgame. The four wrested the first-place trophy from thehands of nascent women’s boxing teams around the isthmus,three of the boxers taking gold medals in their first evercompetitions.The home-ring advantage could not have been much ofa factor – the visiting teams, their friends and families easilymatched if not outnumbered the Costa Ricans in attendance.It was a testament to Costa Rica’s exclusive loyaltyto soccer, but coach Duarte said it had to do with a lack ofpublicity as well. Unfortunately, the slugfest took place inthe cavernous National Gymnasium on the east side ofSabana Park, where the lack of fans was obvious in thewide swaths of empty bleachers.Though this is not the boxing of Pay-Per-View fame, itis fiercely fought. The difference is that they beat on eachother like gentlemen and ladies – no ear-biting, spousalabuse scandals or pre-match smack-talking here. Betweenfighters, embraces supplant handshakes at the end ofmatches, losers often congratulate the winners and, in somecases, the winners’ coaches.RATHER than risk serious injury, all knockouts aretechnical, meaning nobody loses consciousness, they justtake some dizzying blows until the referee rules themknocked out. The hardest hits came from the heaviestweights, with more people dropping to the floor.Though there was a stretcher and medical personnel inthe wings, it was only a precaution. Duarte said he wantsall the Costa Rican families to know that boxing is one ofthe sports in which there are the fewest injuries and accidents.Juan Gabriel Zuñiga, weighing 64 kilograms (141pounds), took his second gold medal from the championship,with a third-round technical knockout of hisPanamanian adversary.“My preparation took me far, and my teachers,” hesaid.The last bout of Saturday’s finals, Costa Rica’s heavyweightMario Castillo, knocked his contender from Belizearound the ring like a sack of beans. The guy took severalfalls, one punch throwing him under the ropes and halfwaydown the stairs. Castillo won with a technical knockout inthe first round. He had known he was going to win from thestart of the championship. The night before the final fighthe told The Tico Times “the medal has my name on it.”This was a special victory for Castillo, who, at 31, is theoldest on the team and started boxing competitively with agold medal in the Central American Championship, andwanted to end his amateur fights with another gold. Thisyear he plans to go pro. The Costa Rican team doesn’t needto worry about losing their heavyweight, though, he said.“THERE are three guys who can take my place,” hesaid. “They’re good, they’ll get Costa Rica the gold.”A close fight he won at the beginning of the championshipgave Castillo reason to doubt his supremacy, he said.“I want a rematch with the guy from El Salvador,”Castillo said. “It was too close. We need to see who is thereal heavyweight champ in Central America.”The women met the expectations of their coaches, whopredicted they would take the competition.O’Connell, weighing 48 kilograms (106 pounds), dazedher opponent with a technical knockout in the first round, awin she had anticipated from the beginning. Her propensityfor smacking people senseless earned her the coveted MostTechnical Boxer trophy for the women’s division.After this win, she said she will keep training, fightnext year, and participate in the 2008 Olympics beforeentering a professional boxing career in the United States.Karla Rodríguez, weighing 70 kilograms (154 pounds),won by points in the final. She plans to keep training andfight next year. The scarcity of female opponents in thecountry makes practice difficult, so she fights men as asubstitute.MARTINA Arias won by points in the final in spite ofa thumb injury early in the match.The women entered the boxing ring with minimumcontroversy. Coach Olger Duarte supports this evolution ofthe sport without reservation, but his opinion is not unchallenged.“First, a woman is a human being the same as a manwith the same rights, and better abilities in many areas,”Duarte said. “The only difference between men and women is in bed. Not being machista, if they want tobox, they have to be allowed to box.”Rafael Vega, recently renamed presidentof the Central American Confederation ofAmateur Boxing and continuing as presidentof the Costa Rican Association of AmateurBoxing, is not wholly behind the idea ofwomen in the ring.“I have an agenda against women’s boxing– I don’t think women should hit eachother,” he said. He qualified that positionwith the admission that women’s fights areserious and worth the effort to watch them.“WOMEN often commit themselvesmore to the fight than men,” he said.Coach Jorge Duarte predicted thewomen’s win before the finals.“The male Costa Rican is a little lazy,”he said. “The women have more desires.”Women’s champion Arias said there is areason that Costa Rican women flattened thecompetition.“We have more interest in the sport thanother girls and we want to show that CostaRican girls are stronger,” she said.The Nicaraguan men’s team won a disproportionatenumber of gold medals, andthere are two theories to explain it. One isthat they are simply tougher, hardened bytheir poverty, the other is that the countrysupports boxing more than other countriesdo, so the boxers receive better training andmore breaks from school and work to train.NICARAGUAN boxer gold medal winnerRooney McFields, weighing 60 kilograms(132 pounds), subscribes to the latteropinion. He said the “preparation, disciplineand training” are the reasons his team shinesabove the others.Women’s champion O’Connell said theNicaraguans are good because “they’re justmore hungry, I guess. It’s a poor country andthey’re tough people who work hard. Theythrow, throw, throw and you can’t stop them.”The training conditions in Costa Rica area sore spot for those involved.“Social conditions of these kids don’tallow them to train all year,” coach OlgerDuarte said. “In this country there is noother sport but soccer. In Nicaragua and ElSalvador they support sports in spite of theirpoverty.”STATE-FUNDED boxing gyms areavailable in most of the Costa Rica’s bigcities and trainers are available free to kidsunder 18 and for accessible rates for adults.For more info, call the Costa RicanSports and Recreation Institute (ICODER)at 284-8700.