COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- Al Mitchell remembers the reaction when he brought Dana Rucker to one of his boxing camps for beginners at Northern Michigan University.
It, like the Baltimore fighter's form, was not pretty.
"People laughed at him," said Mitchell, who'll be the head coach for the U.S. boxing team at next summer's Olympic Games. "They asked me, 'Why is he here?' All they knew was that he was a former kick boxer."
They are not laughing at Rucker anymore, unless it's at the jokes the 24-year-old middleweight likes to crack when he's outside the ring. But inside the ropes, Rucker is far removed from the clumsy kid who showed up at the Marquette, Mich., school two years ago.
Rucker also is much different from the way he was at Southern High School, where he was expelled during his junior year for missing too many days of class. Or the kid who worked at a deli on Greenmount Avenue not knowing what he was going to do with his life.
"I'm mature, I'm dealing with my life and my well-being," Rucker said Sunday, a day after he beat local favorite Shane Swartz of Fort Collins, Colo., in the semifinals of the U.S. Olympic Festival. "I want to finish my education. Then I'll decide what I want to do."
Rucker's education is taking on a variety of
forms these days. After finishing high school at Fairmont Harford Institute in 1989, Rucker is going into his second year on a U.S. Olympic Committee-funded boxing scholarship at Northern Michigan.
As far as he's come as a person, Rucker has developed nearly as much as a fighter. And tonight at the Cadet Field House on the campus of the Air Force Academy, Rucker will have the most important bout of his career when he faces Ronald Simms for the Festival's gold medal in the 165-pound weight class.
"The last time we boxed, he took a lot of things I wanted," Rucker said of a decision in the final of this year's Pan Am trials. "He took away a trip to Argentina [for the Pan Am Games]. He took a lovely jacket that they gave to the winner, and he took away the trophy."
Now, Rucker said, he is ready to take something even more important from Simms, a 31-year-old military policeman at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. Simms is ranked No. 1 in the country, according to USA Boxing.
The victory over Swartz, a 12-9 decision that Rucker won with a strong final round, was an important step. It likely put Rucker back on the U.S. National Select Team after he was dropped by his loss to Simms.
It also made up for last year's defeat to Swartz in the U.S. championships, a few months after Rucker won the national Golden Gloves.
"What's the definition of redemption?" asked Rucker, currently ranked fifth. "That's what it was. Every match is important, but this one coming up Tuesday is the most important."
A victory over Simms not only would give Rucker the country's No. 1 ranking -- he has been ranked as high as second -- but it also would put him back on track to make the 1996 Olympic team in Atlanta.
Asked what the No. 1 ranking would mean to him, Rucker said: "It would mean the journey has just begun. It would let me know that the work I put in this summer was worth it. It would tell me that I'm not wasting my time."
Considering how far Rucker has come, few would say he is wasting his time. Even if he should lose to Simms, Rucker's progress has been nothing short of remarkable. The father of a 5-year-old son who lives with his mother back in Baltimore, Rucker finally seems to have direction in what was once a rudderless existence.
Rucker started boxing by chance, as a way to improve his technique as a kick boxer. But with the help of his coaches at home, Billy Richardson and Alvin Anderson, Rucker eventually found his way to Mitchell and the program at Northern Michigan that has given 18 boxers a chance to go to college.
"I've learned a lot," said Rucker, speaking as much for his burgeoning career in boxing as for his newfound appreciation of academia. "Experience is what we call an accumulation of one's mistakes. That's why I feel I'm ready to take the next step. I've made a lot of mistakes in my life, and I've learned from them."
One thing Rucker has learned is not to take an opponent lightly. During a second-round match in this year's Golden Gloves, Rucker was knocked down after he started to feel a tad overconfident. He doesn't remember his opponent, whom he later beat, but he does recall how embarrassed he felt.
"I got stupid. I'm in the ring looking at my opponent, and I'm saying to myself, 'He doesn't have anything to hurt me,' " recalled Rucker. "Just as I think that, I felt myself being lifted off the ground. I never saw the punch coming."
Mitchell is rooting for Rucker to make it to Atlanta, and not just to prove the early skeptics wrong. Mitchell has far more than a professional interest in the former kick boxer from Baltimore.
"He's my heart," said Mitchell. "I wish I had 20 like Dana. He appreciates what he has more than others I've seen. Dana comes into the gym and works hard all the time. Sometimes, I have to go in there and get him out. He's getting the experience he needs. He's still learning."
In and out of the ring.