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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane’s Pat Ferguson claims improbable heavyweight title

Pat Ferguson delivers a hit to Vardan Khachatrian during the finals of the heavyweight division at Northern Quest Casino. (Tyler Tjomsland)

What once had an implausible ring for Pat Ferguson is now a done thing.

The Spokane heavyweight is national champion.

But his journey is just starting – and, indeed, so it is for all the medalists at the USA Boxing National Championships, which concluded a week-long stay in Spokane.

Ferguson capped a storybook week by slugging out a unanimous decision over Vardan Khachatrian of Los Angeles in the tournament’s final bout, much to the delight of an estimated 2,000 witnesses at Northern Quest Resort’s pavilion.

And for good measure, the 23-year-old was named the event’s outstanding male boxer for his four-fight run through the 201-pound division.

“In the back of my head, yeah, I did believe I could do this,” said Ferguson, who just met the 10-fight minimum required to enter the tournament. “Nobody could convince me that it couldn’t happen.”

Far less of a surprise was another coronation for the 2012 U.S. Olympic women’s team – Claressa Shields, Marlen Esparza and Queen Underwood all winning decisions, though Underwood stepped out of the 132-pound Olympic weight to compete at 141.

That left the Olympic Trials qualifying spots in that division for Mikaela Mayer and Lisa Porter, whose finals showdown at 132 ended in a 3-0 decision for Mayer. The top two women in the Olympic weights and male champions in all 10 divisions earned berths in the U.S. trials, the sites and dates of which have yet to be determined.

For Shields, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist at 165 pounds, the tournament was a reminder of the target she wears.

Both of her bouts here ended in split decisions, though the final against 2012 world silver medalist Raquel Miller was considerably less of a wrestling match than her shaky semifinal win. And she was surprised at the narrow margin in the final.

“I don’t know what they want from me,” complained the 19-year-old from Flint, Michigan.

But she knows exactly what her competition wants.

“I’m not just No. 1 in the country, I’m No. 1 in the world,” Shields said. “I’ve already won the Olympics and I’m trying to do it again. The girls are really training, but it’s not just about them going, but being a gold medalist – that’s a life-changer for them.

“I’m ready for whatever they’ve got.”

It took Esparza a couple of rounds in the 112 final to find a rhythm against fellow Texan Virginia Fuchs, a left-hander with a longer reach. Nonetheless, the judges awarded Esparza a unanimous decision for her ninth national title – and now the 2012 bronze medalist feels she’s on track for an upgrade in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

“Before, I wanted to win,” said the tourney’s outstanding female boxer, “but I don’t know if I was ready to win. I am now.”

Underwood’s move up to 141 pounds “seemed to get everybody riled up for some reason,” she said. But after winning four of her seven national titles at 132, she wanted a tournament “without all that pressure” – and she mostly got it in the final, stopping Nakarri Jones on a TKO in the fourth round.

There were a couple upsets – Chordelle Booker knocking off two-time 165-pound men’s champ Leshawn Rodriguez, and Hector Tanajara dethroning Genaro Gamez at 132. And perennials Christina Cruz (119) and Franchon Crews (178) each won their sixth national women’s titles.

But the night belonged to Ferguson, who knocked Khachatrian down in the third round after the Californian took a standing eight count in the second.

“But he was different (than previous opponents) because he wanted it more,” Ferguson said. “When I hit him, he wanted to hit back. The other guys eventually broke, but he didn’t.”

So what’s next?

“I’m going to take a couple of days rest,” Ferguson said, “and get back to it.”