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Philly boxer is U.S. champ at 16 with bright future

MIGUEL CARTAGENA wasn't born on the Fourth of July, but the surprise winner of back-to-back national boxing championships didn't miss by much.

MIGUEL CARTAGENA wasn't born on the Fourth of July, but the surprise winner of back-to-back national boxing championships didn't miss by much.

Cartagena hopes to keep his remarkable winning streak going when he celebrates his birthday on July 5 as the United States' 106-pound representative in a series of dual matches against the Italian national team in Milan, Italy.

He will be all of 17 years old the day after his country turns 233.

"I'm looking forward to it," Cartagena, who just completed his sophomore year at Douglas High School, said of his first international boxing event. "I'm hoping to see some of the sights, but I'm not going there as a tourist. I'm going there to take care of business in the ring."

If all goes according to plan, this 5-4, jockey-sized fighter, who trains at the Philly Rumblers Boxing Club in North Philadelphia, soon will have a well-stamped passport. He will be back in Milan on Aug. 23 for the AIBA World Championships, where 2008 Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming, a veteran of 500-plus amateur bouts, awaits in Cartagena's weight class.

Further down the road is the AIBA President's Cup beginning Nov. 30 in Baku, Azerbaijan, and, eventually, an opportunity to qualify for the U.S. Olympic boxing team that will compete in 2012 in London. Given the hot streak Cartagena is on now, his Olympic vision comes into sharper focus on a nearly weekly basis.

Javier Varela, who has trained Cartagena the past 6 years, said he can imagine Cartagena upsetting Lee and returning home as a world titlist. Hey, hasn't he shocked the amateur boxing establishment twice already?

"I have a lot of faith in Miguel. I know what he can do," Varela said. "But I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned about his age. The open division goes up to 35. Zou Shiming is 28; that's a grown man, with tons of experience. At that level of competition, everybody's good.

"But you know what? I was just as concerned when he fought [Michael] Benedosso, and he did pretty well."

Benedosso, a 22-year-old second lieutenant in the Army, was the second of three older opponents Cartagena defeated en route to the gold medal and championship belt in the U.S. National Championships that concluded Saturday in Denver. He began the tournament with a 15-9, electronically scored victory over Arizona's Marco Rangel and followed that up with a 17-11 decision over Benedosso and a 7-5 edging of Hawaii's Garen Rabellizsa in the final.

Among those who were impressed by the unseeded Cartagena's feat was Cartagena himself.

"I'm pretty proud to have done what I've done already," said Cartagena, who is of Puerto Rican descent. "I don't know if I was the youngest boxer in the tournament [open class], but I was the youngest one on the [East Central region] team."

Less than a year ago, Cartagena was just another very good Junior Olympic boxer, a category reserved for younger teenagers not ready for elite status. He took a silver medal at the JO Nationals in 2008, and a silver medal in the Silver Gloves tournament.

"I was ranked No. 2 in the country, but it usually takes a while for a JO moving up to open to develop," Cartagena said.

Eligible for the open class only since January - a boxer has to turn 17 during the same calendar year to be eligible - Cartagena gained attention when he won the National Golden Gloves tournament in Salt Lake City, again defeating a series of older, more experienced opponents.

What he did at the U.S. Nationals confirmed that his success at the National Golden Gloves was hardly a fluke.

"I'd like to think I'm a smart fighter," Cartagena said. "I'm an accurate puncher. I pinpoint my shots pretty well. And I'm pretty strong for my age. People always underestimate my power."

One such miscalculation was made by Rangel, who refused to believe he had been beaten by a kid 8 years his junior.

"He was very upset," Cartagena said. "I don't think older boxers like losing to someone my age."

When Cartagena was little - well, more little than he is now - his father, Jose Cartagena, a boxing fan, suggested he go to a gym and give the sport a try.

"I think I was 7," Cartagena said. "Anyway, I tried it. I liked it. I still like it."

He intends to keep on liking it at least for the next few years, although he isn't sure if a slew of amateur championships, or even an Olympic gold medal, will be enough to make him go pro.

"I don't think about turning professional because that's not my main concern right now," Cartagena said. "It's early . . . way too early to look that far ahead. Maybe it'll happen, maybe it won't.

"What I'd really like is to go to college and become a veterinarian. I love animals. And I'd like to think I won't have to get punched in the face to make a decent living."

Another Philadelphian advancing to the final round was middleweight Jesse Hart, son of former middleweight contender Eugene "Cyclone" Hart who was docked four penalty points in losing a disputed decision to Cleveland's Terrell Gausha. *