Sunday, July 22, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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Michael Hunter has had his hopes set on becoming an Olympic boxer since he was a kid; he even promised his dad he would win a gold medal.
The time has come.
His father, former heavyweight champion Mike “The Bounty” Hunter, died in 2006, but that hasn’t released the son of his promise. If he wins the gold medal during the Summer Olympics in London, it would be the first won by a heavyweight boxer on the U.S. team in more than 20 years.
The joy this would have brought his father is immeasurable, says Hunter. His dad was an old-school boxer who prized an Olympic medal over a belt.
The 24-year-old Las Vegan was practically raised at the boxing gym, watching and learning from the Bounty Hunter.
In fact, the elder Hunter tried his hardest to keep his son out of the ring. Boxing is an unkind profession. But once the son strapped on the gloves, his talent was obvious. He dominated opponents with a rare combination of size (he is 6-foot-2 and well over 200 pounds), speed and athletic ability.
While some fathers would have been tempted by the riches of a son’s professional career and hope of a world championship, the elder Hunter insisted his son first become an Olympian.
“It means the world,” Hunter said. “This is something I have been preparing for a long time, and even talking about before I started preparing for it with my dad when I was a young boy. So, this is a dream come true.”
It should have happened four years earlier.
Hunter was a star amateur in the super heavyweight division, twice winning the national title. But he tripped up in the world championships and failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Games. It could have squelched his Olympic dream, given the small window of opportunity to qualify for the games.
Even though he had plenty of time to build a successful professional career, he said his life wouldn’t be complete without the Olympics.
“The Olympics are a big steppingstone. It’s part of my story and something I have been trying to put on my story,” he said. “Everyone has their own story and what they overcame to get here. I’m no different. This is definitely a boost for me as a person and who I am.”
As it turns out, Hunter says he wasn’t ready to be an Olympian. In four years, he’s matured as a person and fighter, dedicated himself to reshape his body and learned not to take his ability for granted. There were days when he entered the ring knowing his speed and punching power were superior but knew he didn’t box his best.
That’s not the case anymore.
He’s lost about 30 pounds — and dropped from the unlimited weight-limit super heavyweight to the 201-pound limit heavyweight — and feels he is better prepared for his one shot at the Olympics. The 16-fighter tournament is single-elimination, meaning Hunter is three fights away from a gold medal and one fight away from boarding a plane back to Las Vegas.
“There would be days when he would just come sit in the gym,” said Keith Hunter, his sparring partner and brother. “He was this fat, chubby kid at 240 pounds. But he was always fast and a big specimen. I’ve really watched him come a long way.”
Michael Hunter took a few weeks off following his failed attempt at Beijing. The following year, he won the super heavyweight national championship.
“It seemed like a long time (from Beijing to London), but it went by quick,” said Kevin Henry, Hunter’s uncle and trainer. “He stayed focused on what he had to do. He stuck to a goal. That is what his father wanted him to do. He was young (four years ago) and had time. And the time is now.”
At the H.I.T. Factory in Las Vegas, where Hunter is training for London, the walls are lined with photographs of his victories. Most show a much heavier version of him — a fighter who still was victorious, and even one of the best amateurs, but not the force he should be in London.
Since trimming the weight and dropping a division, a chiseled Hunter won the 2011 Golden Gloves and Olympic Trials as a heavyweight. He fights with a fearless attitude, looking to exchange contact in the middle of the ring because he knows his punches are faster and more powerful.
Last month, he was a sparring partner for the imposing heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, gaining more confidence after holding his own against the sport’s best.
“He worked so hard for this,” Henry said. “He knows what the goal is and set his mind to it. This a very determined young man.”
Hunter credits his father’s persistence for helping him blossom.
“There would be days when we would slap box and he would show me some moves and (techniques),” said Hunter, who wears a gold tongue ring as one of several reminders of his ultimate goal. “When I grew up and started to perfect my craft, those are moves I still use today.”
Hunter says the accomplishment of stepping into the ring in London would have made his father proud, but there’s still one more goal to achieve.
“My dad would always say, ‘I don’t care about a title. I want a gold medal.’ ”