In the world of professional sports, most athletes make their case for inclusion to the big leagues by showcasing their skills at the college level.
Playing in front of massive crowds and representing their school through thick and thin, they learn the hard way the difference between playing not to lose and playing to win, and they learn that nothing is more expensive than regret.
For those athletes who would see themselves fighting in front of millions for millions, their dream showcase is the Olympic Games.
Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and countless other professional boxers—now legends—all saw their careers really begin when they stepped foot into the Olympic ring.
So, who among this new crop of Olympians will follow in their footsteps? Here are some fighters who could step off the podiums in London and soon be stepping into the professional ring for the start of a great career.
Already owning a gold medal from the Beijing Olympics in 2008 as a featherweight, Vasyl Lomachenko looks to claim another and should he be successful. He will be poised to enter into the world of professional boxing with quite a pedigree.
At 24 years of age, the time is right for Lomachenko to take his place among the world's professionals and see if he can live up to the potential that’s been afforded him.
Of course, he may be one of a growing number of fighters who crave nothing more than to be a “professional” amateur. If that is indeed the case, having a gold medal should be enough to earn him some contentment.
But take a look at him when he fights in London. See if you think he’s going to be one of those young men who content themselves with watching the biggest lights on the biggest stages being filled by someone else.
I don’t think so either—at least not without a fight.
Speaking of “professional” amateurs, Shiming Zou of China is a 31-year-old veteran who is aiming for nothing less than his third appearance in the Olympic Games.
His first appearance saw him win a bronze medal in 2004, and then he made history in 2008 by winning China their first gold medal in Olympic boxing. Now, he looks to be a serious contender to win another gold medal and more glory for China.
So, what comes after London 2012?
Why, an entry into the world of professional boxing, of course.
The talk is that Zou has signed with Dino Duva and will indeed go pro after London, but he may have missed his chance. Professional boxing is a different animal that Olympic boxing, and the transition may be a hard one, given how much time Zou has spent serving as a tamer, point-friendly master.
Still, with the success of fighters like Manny Pacquiao and Nonito Donaire, never has there been a better time to be a highly-skilled Asian boxer. The pro ranks are looking for their next pay-per-view superstar, and they no longer feel as if that star has to come from America.
Now is the time for Zou.
Heading into the London Games as a favorite to win the gold medal, Lazaro Alvarez is 21 and looks to be headed one way: straight to primetime.
Yes, it’s a little soon to start declaring Alvarez as a world beater, but it doesn’t seem too early to buy some champagne. Alvarez is a serious contender for the gold, which is no doubt a delight for many a Cuban boxing fan.
Alvarez showed why there is so much hype surrounding him as he dispatched many Top 10 fighters during the 2011 Worlds, and he was very convincing as he dominated all to win the gold at the Pan American Games.
Still, this is the Olympics we’re talking about, and that tends to change things quite a bit. Many a fighter has looked to be a favorite only to be upset and dismantled by an upstart from the left or right.
Alvarez has all the tools, and every match will be a defining moment.
Although he didn’t medal in either the 2004 or the 2008 Olympics, Rau’shee Warren is still seen by many as Team USA’s best prospect to win a gold medal since Andre Ward in 2004.
As a highly-experienced 24-year-old, it looks like the time is finally right for Warren to win the gold and fulfill the promise he made to his mother: to hang Olympic gold around his neck.
After that, he can fulfill the promise of his potential and begin a career in the professional ring. By now, Warren has learned the trials of remaining an amateur. He’s been able to earn some money from boxing by entering the semi-pro World Series of Boxing, which made it easier for him to focus on London and the gold medal.
But the time is now for Warren. His dedication to winning the medal for his mother is inspiring, but should he fail to win it in London, he should move on and strive to be the best professional he can be.
Given how badly the sport of boxing needs a new crop of fighters who believe in what they are fighting for, Warren could go a long way as a professional. And his mother could end up sitting in a very nice house, gold medal or not.
If anyone has been inspired by the current big men in the world of professional boxing, it’s Great Britain’s Anthony Joshua.
Like his mentor, Lennox Lewis, Joshua is a big man with big promise. He arrived on the boxing scene with a roar, going from 46th seed to the silver medal at the 2011 World Amateur Championships.
He now looks to show the world why so many are looking to him as the next big thing in boxing’s declining heavyweight division.
With a surprising level of athleticism, a big frame and quickly improving skills, we could see Joshua become the next big man from England who’s also great in the ring.
If nothing else, he could be leading the way for the next new crop of heavyweights, and, given the state of the game, he may stay at the front of the pack all the way to the title.
At a tender yet wise 19, Joseph Diaz Jr. is an interesting study in contrast.
He’s got the mind of an experienced general who’s learned the virtue of controlling the battlefield, and thus the engagements, yet his is the body of a youngster who’s full of optimism and excitement as he discovers the world before him.
As a 2011 U.S. national champion, he knows how to box and in some ways reminds me of Erik Morales in the way he remains composed and ever watchful of the opportunity to strike.
He’s also experienced the heartbreak of a tough loss—having been defeated by Lazaro Alvarez—while qualifying for London, and yet he remains undaunted and ready to seize this opportunity.
While Alvarez is probably going to win the gold for Cuba, Diaz Jr. could pull off the upset or end up on the podium with a silver or bronze and use that momentum to barnstorm the professional ranks.
As a 2009 U.S. national champion, Terrell Gausha is living in a moment he nearly gave up on. He almost left his Olympic dreams on the canvas in Mobile, Alabama when he failed to win at the U.S. Trials.
Now, he’s in London after taking advantage of every opportunity that knocked on his door, and if anyone knows what it’s like to make good on even the slightest window of opportunity and turn it into an Olympic berth, it’s a man of true desire.
As a man who knows how rare and precious second chances are, he’s got a huge chance to show the world who he really is. From there, he could keep this run of good fortune rolling straight into the pros.
Fighters like Gausha are great professional prospects because they’ve learned that those who dare win. After all, given their talent and desire, they’ve got nothing to lose by voyaging into the world of professional prizefighting and everything to gain.
And they appreciate that perhaps more than anyone else.
Starting at the tender age of eight, Jose Ramirez has all the typical makings of a great professional fighter.
As a 2011 U.S. national champion, Ramirez secured his place on Team USA thanks to a second-place finish in Brazil. He’s also known as the young man who lost a very close decision to Val Baker Trophy winner—and 2008 Olympic gold medalist—Vasyl Lomachenko, who would go on and win the 2011 World Championships.
A fighter who employs a high work rate in the ring and throws punches in bunches, Ramirez is exactly the kind of fighter fans love to watch. Plus, at only 19, he is just starting to come into his own.
Ramirez is a driven young man who dreams of bigger things for himself and his family, and a good performance in London could be just the catalyst he needs to make a successful professional career.