SPOKANE, Wash. — The United States has had its share of out-of-nowhere Olympic heroes.
Can Patrick Ferguson insinuate himself into that conversation?
The Spokane heavyweight boxer is the longest of shots — but he’s already shown an indifference to daunting odds.
At last week’s USA Boxing National Championships in his hometown, the 23-year-old Ferguson simply out-Rockyed “Rocky.” Not just unregarded but unknown, he entered the event with the minimum requirement of 10 amateur bouts — and proceeded to sledgehammer his way not only to the gold medal, but to unanimous acclaim as the tournament’s Outstanding Male Boxer.
And if he found it even the tiniest bit unreal, he couldn’t bring himself to admit it.
“Nobody could convince me that it couldn’t happen,” he said.
In winning the title, Ferguson also won the qualifying berth to next year’s U.S. Olympic Team Trials that went to all 10 men’s weight class champions. The road will only get tougher, of course. Joshua Temple of St. Louis, the 2014 national champion, did not return to Spokane to defend his title. A good portion of USA Boxing’s top 10 in the division’s rankings skipped the event.
But Ferguson decisively outpointed 2014 runner-up Sardius Simmons of Flint, Michigan, in the quarterfinals, and after an opening split decision was dominant in all his fights, including his win over Vardan Khachatrian of Los Angeles in the finals.
And now the Olympic Games “is looking a little more realistic,” Ferguson said.
Even if it sounds improbable.
It was barely 20 months ago that Ferguson walked into Chauncy Welliver’s BoxFit gym on Spokane’s north side. A Lewis and Clark High School student who graduated from the district’s Skill Center, he worked as a home care aide and was looking “for some structure and discipline in my life. Chauncy put me through a workout that was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.”
In fact, Ferguson had virtually no athletic background beyond putting the shot in a few middle school track meets. A native of Florida, he’d bounced around to a dozen schools as a youngster before his mother relocated the family to Spokane.
Welliver, a former World Boxing Council ranked heavyweight, didn’t see greatness in his new protégé. All he saw was willingness — and something else.
“He gets stronger when he gets hit,” Welliver said. “When you hit Pat, he’ll hit you 10 times — and harder. He’s a little stubborn that way. He has to get in the last punch. It’s almost like he takes offense.”
But Ferguson was hardly an instant success. In his first fight in October 2013, he was knocked out.
“It was very motivating,” he said. “I’d been working hard, but I felt so behind, that there was so much I had to do.”
Welliver acknowledged he had second thoughts about even entering his fighter in the nationals, unsure if he had enough experience. When Ferguson took a couple of shots from hard-hitting Manuel Contreras in the opening bout, those doubts seemed more than reasonable. But Ferguson gained confidence in every punch he landed in the sloppy, wild, crowd-pleasing brawl — and by the finals was unstoppable.
Now Ferguson has a specific, tangible goal for his training. And some pressure, because he’s not going to sneak up on anyone from now on.
Not that he particularly cares.
“I wanted to do this for myself,” he said. “I’m not trying to prove it to anybody else. I push the limits because I have to know it — that I can do it for me.
“I believe I have a career in boxing now, and, if anything, boxing is helping me shape the rest of my life, to know that I can do anything. It teaches you that everything else is not such a big deal. It makes every other goal and mountain you have to climb seem that much smaller.”
Even Welliver, who has been around the hard knocks of boxing for more than two decades, can’t help but get caught up in the storybook aspect of his boxer’s rise.
“It almost feels like the beginning of a movie,” he said, “and then he goes out and beats (Wladimir) Klitschko for the world championship or something.”
But for now, the dream of the Olympic Games will do.