LAKE CHARLES, La. – We don’t know yet who will win the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Boxing in the 69 kg. weight class, but we’re certain of his date of birth: Aug. 13, 1998.
The last two men standing are top-seeded Freudis Rojas Jr. and No. 2 seed Delante “Tiger” Johnson, who were born on the same day. Each claims to be older by a few hours.
“We call each other twins,” said Rojas, who goes by “Freddy.” “We started off on the team together. He’s like my little brother, but this is boxing. I wish the best of luck to him as well as to me, and whoever comes out prosperous that day I know we’ll both be happy about it.”
They’ll fight Sunday in the finals of the trials at the Golden Nugget Hotel and Casino. If Johnson wins, he’ll be the champion. If Rojas wins, they’ll meet again Monday in the double-elimination tournament.
And here’s the best part: No matter who prevails, both will continue on the Road to Tokyo. They will advance to a Colorado Springs, Colorado, training camp next month and an international tournament in Bulgaria. A complicated points system will determine the ultimate Team USA representative, who then must qualify internationally for the Olympic field.
“We’re cool after everything is done,” said Johnson said, whose father nicknamed him “Tiger” because he was born with a birthmark that looked like a tiger’s stripe, “but as of now, everything’s just about business. It’s just got to be like that sometimes.”
Their eventual showdown hit an early roadblock.
Rojas had to fight his way back through the challengers bracket after losing his first bout on Monday to the No. 8 seed, Lavars Carter, whom he defeated in their rematch Friday.
“My battle isn’t over,” said Rojas, who admitted he let his nerves get the best of him in his opening match. “I’m here to show somebody that even though I lost the first day, I’m still in the tournament and I’m going to make the biggest comeback right now in boxing history.”
On Saturday, Rojas defeated Kelvin Davis by a 3-2 split decision. Davis had dropped into the challengers bracket after losing to Johnson in a 4-1 decision on Friday.
Even though his surname means “red” in Spanish, Rojas fought out of the blue corner and wore that color against Davis, who was hoping to join his real little brother, Keyshawn, in Sunday’s finals.
The two tall southpaws tangled like wrestlers trying to put each other into headlocks.
“We’re not used to fighting tall people, so it was a little awkward for us throughout the fight,” said Rojas. “Lefties usually always fight right-handed people, and we never fight southpaw, so for both of us it took us a while to adjust.”
Rojas kept putting the pressure on Davis to earn the victory.
However, he has much more wear and tear on his body than Johnson. Going into the championship final, Rojas, from Garland, Texas, has fought five times while Johnson, from Cleveland Heights, Ohio, has been in the ring only three times and had Saturday off.
“It’s difficult,” Rojas said. “You’re fighting a lot of great fighters, and you’re fighting more than the first place. You’re always going to be the underdog under the judges’ eyes, so you’ve always got to show a little bit more and push harder than the rest."
When Rojas and Johnson started out in boxing, they were in different weight classes.
As Rojas remembers it, they were signing papers on their first day at camp when he noticed that Johnson had the same birthday.
“That’s how we started becoming friends,” he said, noting that they have been roommates and PlayStation rivals on the road.
The way Johnson remembers it, “We were on a youth team and our flights were confusing to book because we had the same birthday so that’s how we found out.”
Although they joke about being twins, Rojas said they could actually be distantly related. He said both have roots in Cuba.
“My great, great, great grandpa’s last name used to be Johnson before he changed it to Rojas,” he said.
Rojas said that his ancestor was originally from London and moved to Cuba, where he met his wife. Because his parents were not in favor of the marriage, he stayed in Cuba and took the name of a close friend, while adding a flourish. His name became Rojas Londres, which means Red London.
“That’s kind of a little coincidence there that we might be family,” Rojas said, “but I still look at him as my little brother and family.”
Wait, who’s he calling “little brother?” Johnson insists he was born at exactly midnight, making him older, and besides, Ohio is in a later time zone than Nevada, where Rojas was born.
“We discuss it all the time,” Rojas said. “I was born at 10:51 am. We called his mom and she said 3 p.m., so I still say little brother.”
They fought in different weight classes at the 2017 world championships in Germany, with Rojas winning a bronze medal as a light welterweight, while Johnson fought one weight class below, as a lightweight.
Because there are now two fewer weight classes for men at the Olympic Games to accommodate two more for women (now eight for men and five for women), both landed as welterweights.
Facing each other at the last two national championships, Johnson won in 2017 and Rojas won in 2018.
Rojas, who is 6-foot-3, is taller than Johnson, by a few inches, so he feels that is an advantage, while Johnson said his style has been called “confusing,” which gives him an edge.
But under the 2020 selection system, the pressure is off after simply making the final.
“It’s a really big relief,” Rojas said. “I’m just happy that I won today and I’m going to the finals. This is my dream and I’m ready to make my dreams come true.”
Although he started boxing at age 10, his dream didn’t start until he was 14.
“I disliked boxing so much when I first started,” Rojas said.
He wanted to be a baseball player, but his father, also named Freudis Rojas, put him into boxing, the sport he practiced as a youth in Cuba and as a pro boxer in the United States.
“I’m grateful that he did because, I’m not going to lie, I wasn’t too good at baseball,” said Freddy, who was a good pitcher, but not as proficient at first base. “(With boxing) I found something I’m pretty good at.”
When he was 14, Rojas went to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs for the first time.
“I saw the opportunities and the benefits that come from it,” he said. “I got so happy and that’s when I really started liking boxing.
Now he is also living out his father’s dream. Freddy Sr. made the Cuban national team as a super featherweight but was not allowed to compete internationally because his stepfather opposed Fidel Castro’s government.
After coming to the United States at age 16, he eventually turned pro, retiring in 2009.
“It’s a dream that a father has, not only to see him get where he is, but to know that he follows in daddy’s steps, and doing better than his daddy,” said the senior Rojas. “Honest, I believe 100 percent he’s doing 20 times way better than what I did.
“I thought I killed his dream because he wanted to do baseball, but at the same time, look where he is today.”