BAKU (Reuters) - Formula One has taken over the city streets but for Cuban Olympic boxing champion Robeisy Ramirez, being in Baku is all about the road to Rio.
Azerbaijan’s first grand prix may have got all the attention but, away from the fenced-off track and the television cameras, hundreds of amateur boxers from around the world are also in town and fighting to qualify for the Olympics.
Ramirez, flyweight gold medalist at London 2012, is among 469 boxers from 105 nations hoping that the tournament will open the door to Brazil.
For most, it is the last chance.
“It’s a strong tournament. I’ve got to do what I’ve always done,” the 22-year-old, now fighting at bantamweight, told Reuters as he wiped away the sweat after beating Finnish teenager Arslan Khataev 3-0 in his opening bout.
“It’s the way it is and I have to succeed.”
Those placed in the top five in the flyweight, bantamweight, lightweight, light-welterweight, welterweight, middleweight and light-heavyweight categories in Baku will be sure of going to Brazil.
Light flyweight finalists and the heavyweight and super-heavy champions also qualify in the event that runs to June 25 with 39 places up for grabs.
Umar Sadiq, a Nigerian-born graduate accountant from Ilford in northeast London, was one of those hopeful of finally securing his ticket for Brazil.
The light-heavyweight’s journey has so far taken him to Lagos, where he won five fights to earn the right to represent Nigeria, and on to Yaounde in Cameroon for the African qualifiers.
He failed to get beyond the quarter-finals there so Baku’s Sarhadchi Olympic sports center, out to the east past car repair workshops and high-rise apartment blocks, became his next destination.
In front of a small audience mainly consisting of other boxers and officials, he beat Kenya’s Elly Ochola in a preliminary bout.
“It was Lagos, Yaounde, back to London and back to the drawing board. And now I’m in Baku. I’m hoping to go back to Nigeria again and then on to Rio,” he told Reuters.
He has funded the trip himself, although his City employers have given him time off from the finance department.
“I’ve got three more fights to win to qualify,” said Sadiq.
“I guess it adds to the prestige of being in an Olympics because not only have you got to make your national team but also make the best of the world. I’m alright with it. I like traveling anyway.”
U.S. light-heavyweight Jonathan Esquivel agreed.
“It’s only going to make me better along the way,” he said of a qualifying system that has brought him from Anaheim in California to the edge of Europe.
“This is my second qualifier. I placed third in the American qualifiers but it was top two (who go to Rio), not top three so I came to this.”
There is one final qualifying event for those who have fought professionally, or in AIBA’s semi-pro series, in Venezuela in July which Esquivel would also be eligible for. He is not planning to go, however.
“We’re going to make this one the last one,” he said.
Editing by Sudipto Ganguly