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September 30, 2009
Part III: Building confidence, keeping humble
Isaac Cordoza was a formidable foe. In round two, he came out firing, trying to out-muscle and out-hustle Ballard. The contender cornered Ballard, hitting him hard to the body. But Ballard remained calm, continuing to jab and work his opponent's stomach. Midway through the round the two exchanged a flurry of punches, both landing punishing hooks. Right before the buzzer, Cordoza hit Ballard with a big left that left the defender stunned. Still, Ballard wasn't worried. He escaped the ropes and landed two body shots to end the round. Now, the decisive final round.
"After the second round my coach told me that I needed to come out hard and fast," Ballard said. "I had to win the last round. I knew I would win the last round."
Confidence: every successful boxer from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali to Evander Holyfield reeked of it. Now Ballard had it.
Since working with Roach, Ballard has lost a grand total of two fights. He's been so impressive that earlier this year he qualified for the United States team that competed in the World Boxing Championships in Yerevan, Armenia. The event, which is an Olympic stepping-stone, hosted almost 300 15- to 16-year old boxers from 39 different countries. Ballard met some of the best amateur boxers in the world; he called the event a "wonderful experience" and a "great opportunity" for his career.
Ballard won his opening bout against Benjamin Babaei of Iran but fell to Roman Fress of Germany in his next fight. Still, the U.S. coaches were impressed with Ballard's skills. Is London calling?
"In 2012, in London, you're going to see D'Mitrius' name all over the place," Roach said. "He learned from that loss in Armenia and now he's going to complete the mission. He gets better every time he steps in the ring; he keeps gaining more confidence."
Like an angry bull, Ballard charged forward at the start of the final round. He relentlessly pounded Cordoza with a body shot, a right hand, a left hand, a right-left combination. One right hook stunned Cordoza; another sent him flying across the ring; a left hook to the body broke the contender's will. By the end of the round, Ballard had little doubt: Victory was his.
Before he soaked in the moment, Ballard saw his father clapping and smiling just outside the ring.
Ballard's parents, Victor and Angela, attend almost every event he participates in. Angela, however, limits herself to Ballard's football games at Potomac High School; she can't bear to watch her son fight. But Victor never misses a match. When he couldn't make the 20-hour flight to Armenia, he spent his evenings frantically hitting the refresh button on his Internet browser in order to get live scoring updates. Normally, when he's there in person, Victor gets as anxious as a caged dog, often pacing around, muttering to himself.
"I get butterflies all the time," Victor said. "At the start of a game or a fight I can't sit down. But once it starts, I'm like, 'OK, he's got this. He's going to win.'"
That confidence permeates throughout Ballard's small entourage. Like Bundini Brown with Muhammad Ali, no one believes Ballard can be stopped.
But after a fight, Victor Ballard refuses to pump up his son's ego. Humility is an honored virtue in the Ballard household.
"Even though he beats a lot of fighters, I always tell him what he could have done better," Victor said. "That's the only way you improve."
D'Mitrius, for his part, appreciates his father's input.
"He wants me to get better, and he's given me the mindset that I can do anything," Ballard said. "He's pushed me through."
Outside the ring, Ballard does not advertise his boxing accolades, nor does he talk about the Olympics. He's a self-described "clown" who always has a smile on his face. He's polite in school, he hangs out with his friends, he listens to hip-hop and he plays football for the Potomac Wolverines. Some of his teammates don't even know he spars after football practice.
"He's a real nice kid," Roach said. "You would never know he boxed. There's a time to turn the light off, and a time to turn it on. When he's in the ring, he turns it on. Oh man, he's one mean dude in the ring."