PLANT CITY - The father and son have been through this ritual before.
The gentle shake at 3 a.m. as Sammy Valentin wakes up Sammy Jr. The packing up of the equipment. Driving for hours in the dark to the next tournament.
It's another day in the life of a 9-year-old boxer.
This one begins with four hours in a rented Chevy Impala, arriving early on a Friday morning in April at a Holiday Inn in Boca Raton. There they find good news and bad. Because Sammy Jr. is the top seed in his 70-pound weight class, he has a bye. But that means he must wait another day for a real meal. He weighed 76 pounds at the beginning of the week and has eaten salad for dinner every night since. So he limits Friday night's meal to a chicken breast and applesauce. He weighs in Saturday morning at 69 pounds and proceeds to gorge himself on eggs, bacon, sausage, oatmeal, Raisin Bran, pudding and juice.
While he waits for his turn in the ring, Sammy Jr. watches a few fights inside the crowded, windowless warehouse with his father. But he spends most of his time napping in the car with the air conditioning on and Latin music on the radio. Sammy Sr. comes out to pray with him just before slipping the boy into a homemade top and trunks, a matching robe, headband and shoes.
It's a tedious, exhausting lead-in to a fight that would be over in five minutes, but the two Sammys have done it dozens of times in the past year. The drives, the talks, the starving, the eating, the sparring, the napping, the clothes, the prayers.
Everything has to be just right, all for a single purpose:
make young Sammy the best.
Sammy Jr. was born prematurely at Tampa's University Community Hospital, beginning his life in critical condition, weighing in at 3 pounds. It was not a new experience for Sammy and Wanda Valentin, whose other children, Darlene and Elaine (8 and 7 when Sammy was born) also were premature.
This was Sammy and Wanda's final attempt for a son, something they wanted badly. Sammy's birth seemed to come at just the right time for his father, who was at a turning point. He struggled with head seizures and a mild heart attack, he said. Plus, he and Wanda were having problems that made him feel like he was drifting away.
"I had a big encounter with God when Sammy was born," Sammy Sr. said. "Seeing him so little and seeing his life turn around in just days. ... Sammy is a gift from God."
No one can remember precisely when boxing began to take over the Valentin household, but it must have been around the time Sammy Jr. started school.
"I used to be bad in kindergarten," he said. "Mostly I used to be good, but sometimes I would color on the walls. When girls played with blocks, I would knock the blocks over. And I used to talk a lot."
Sammy Jr.'s teacher called his parents to discuss his behavior, and they decided he needed more discipline. Sammy Sr., a former kickboxer in Puerto Rico who dreamed of opening a boxing gym one day, saw it as an opportunity. He couldn't help his son with his school work, but he could teach him how to fight.
Young Sammy caught on quickly, and his father was thrilled by how well he picked up the basics. But if Sammy wanted to quit boxing, his father said, he could have. If he wants to quit now, he can.
That's hard to imagine. Sammy Jr. has spent most of his life training to fight, and it has become a fascination for him, just as other 9-year-old boys fall in love with football or baseball cards or computer games. That has been reinforced over the years by people around him who tell him he has a gift.
In his bedroom are pictures of his boxing idols: Roy Jones Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard, Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad. In his closet are the boxing outfits his father designed and sewed for him: the leopard print velour suit; the shiny, satin number with a Puerto Rican flag design; the suede top and shorts with faux fur trim; the matching robes and size-6 boxing shoes.
He has other interests, like any of his fourth-grade classmates at Cork Elementary in Plant City. He likes Spider-Man and owns a pair of foam Hulk hands. He loves phys ed class and is a whiz at remembering people's birthdays. His sisters have doted on him since he was a baby and marvel at how well he can hold conversations with adults.
He makes good grades, mostly A's, and must maintain them if he wants to keep boxing, Sammy Sr. said.
"When I retire from boxing, I want to be a doctor or a psychiatrist," Sammy Jr. said. "I want to help kids, and maybe be a nutritionist or a paramedic so I can deliver babies. I'd like to teach at a college, to help people learn Spanish."
But at the end of each day, when his ambitions give way to dreams, he climbs through the ropes and settles into the sturdy frame that his father built for him.
His bed is a miniature boxing ring.
Sammy Sr. has worked a string of odd jobs throughout his life, and the 37-year-old would love to provide some financial stability for his family. In the past six months, he changed jobs three times.
"She's really left her dreams aside," Sammy said of his wife. "She's had to follow my instincts, my love, my passion."
In February 2003, he opened Hurricane Sammy's Boxing Gym in Plant City and began training about 20 boys, mostly children of migrant farm workers. He struggled each month to pay the $750 rent.
Things got harder in November when Sammy and Wanda lost their jobs working for an apartment complex they lived in, so they moved into another home and used their savings to pay bills. They were unemployed for almost four months.
Sammy said he made some money on a boxing tournament he hosted in January, but even with that, he couldn't keep up with rent on Hurricane Sammy's Boxing Gym. In March, he arrived to find that the landlord had changed the locks.
Shortly after that, Sammy Sr. bought a sandwich shop in a Foodtown convenience store. He worked there during the day, and Wanda and Elaine took over in the evening while he held training sessions in the family's back yard.
Too much crime in the area, including a few shootings, eventually forced them to close the shop and find something else, Sammy Sr. said.
Last month he found work at Gold's Gym as part-handyman, part-trainer. He's among the people working with pro boxer Moises Droz. The job has also given young Sammy a better training home.
And that's the one constant for Sammy Sr., his real full-time job - training children (including his son) to fight.
It's not always pretty. Not all the fights have the niceties, such as seedings and sanctioned officials.
Last summer, Sammy Sr. arranged an exhibition between his son and a friend in a ring during Plant City's Bike Fest. The unsanctioned fight drew an enthusiastic crowd and got a little bloody. Afterward, the two boys hugged and several folks congratulated them. Sammy Sr. said he received more than 40 calls asking when the next fight would be.
Sammy Jr. knows a lot about nutrition for a 9-year-old, listing fruits, vegetables and seafood as his diet staples to keep him in shape. He also loves Apple Jacks, saying he could eat a whole box if his parents let him.
He drinks protein smoothies and eats light when he must make weight, but his parents don't keep him from eating the occasional candy bar.
Sammy's training schedule is regimented, usually taking place after school every day, sometimes as long as five hours straight. He gets the odd day or two off, but when he trains, he trains hard. He jumps rope, runs and does crabcrawls to work his abdominal muscles. He says he typically does 250 pushups a day.
"I work on my stomach to try and get a six-pack," Sammy said. "But I can't build it up since I get so hungry."
Boys his age can't build that kind of physique anyway, said Dr. Reginald Washington, a Denver-based pediatrician who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on sports medicine and fitness.
Washington never has encountered or treated a boxer as young as Sammy Jr., but he has seen plenty of marathon runners that age who work out up to five hours a day. The AAP doesn't endorse that kind of training, he said.
"Mentally, he's not doing things that other kids would normally do, and that could affect his social life," Washington said. "Then, of course, there's the risk of injury."
Washington pointed out that the AAP discourages boxing as a children's sport, even though USA Boxing insists it is the safest among contact sports such as football and wrestling.
"The primary goal, unlike the other sports you mentioned, is to injure your opponent," Washington said. "Usually, that involves head injuries, and the Academy does not endorse any sport that involves head injuries."
Observers of Sammy Jr's career say the little boy and his father have accomplished quite a bit in a short time.
He is quicker, tougher and has shown far more skill than most boys in his weight class. Among the 20 or so boxers in his division, he has the best record, which unofficially ranks him No. 1 (there are no official rankings kept on boxers that young in Florida). Entering the Boca Raton tournament, his record was 19-1.
His only loss, in the championship bout of a national tournament in Kansas City last year, left Sammy Jr. distraught and his father angry with the officials' decision.
"Sammy outboxed him and outmoved him," Sammy Sr. said. "He came back and said, "How could I have lost that?' "I told him no more decisions. He thought he had it. He could have knocked (his opponent) out, but he didn't want to. From now on, we have to make sure there's no more decisions."
Sunshine State Games officials named Sammy Jr. their Male Athlete of the Year with his two wins at last year's Games.
"He was a big hit with the crowd," Sunshine State Games communications director Nick Gandy said. "One day he was in all powder blue, the next day he was in all leopard print, even over his boots. That kind of made a lasting impression."
Gandy said the Sunshine State officials try to name athletes of the year that they believe will go on to become big names. He recalled that Roy Jones Jr. and Antonio Tarver, who fought last month for the light heavyweight championship, battled as 13-year-olds in the 90-pound division of the Games in the early 1980s.
USA Boxing official Franchot Moore is among those who have noticed unusual traits in Sammy Jr.
"When his father speaks to him, he doesn't blink. That tells me he's in a trance and he is so focused, which is unusual in boys his age," said Moore, who has spent 36 years working around amateurs and professionals and is a former inspector for the Nevada State Athletic Commission.
Moore has watched champions such as De La Hoya and Floyd Merriweather come up through the amateur ranks. He can't recall any who were as advanced as Sammy at his age.
"What is most remarkable about Sammy is his intelligence," Moore said. "And he has the amazing gift of presence in the ring, which makes him stand out.
"You watch. He will be one of the future boxing champions of the world."
The Boca Raton Police Athletic League tournament is like any other youth sporting event, with fathers standing on chairs with video cameras, mothers carrying snacks and juice, lots of screaming and cheering. Small children play on the floor with each other, oblivious to the main attraction of the room: older boys and girls throwing punches in a raised boxing ring.
Most of the fighters, including six girls, wear similar getups: plain trunks and tank jerseys, solid-colored shoes. The required wear is expensive enough. Flashy, custom-made apparel is rarely seen in the amateurs.
So it is no wonder why, when Sammy Jr. enters the room, people are curious. His clothes are red felt, blue-and-white, star-print fabric and white satin. He wears a matching headband, his shoes are covered in the stars and red felt, and he is wrapped in a matching hooded robe. All were sewn by his father.
While he shadowboxes with his taped-up hands at the back of the room, grinning mothers nudge each other and point. Trainers from other clubs come over to wish him luck. Some of the older boxers, the 18- and 19-year-olds, seem impressed.
Even at 9, he has star power.
Nearby, 10-year-old Ezequiel "Zeke" Martinez pounds on punching mitts, warming up to fight Sammy Jr. It is the sixth time the two will meet, and Zeke and his parents are hoping for a different outcome.
"My son is more of a boxer," says Zeke's father, Gilbert. "This kid (Sammy) is a bully." He later clarifies Sammy's style as "power boxing."
The day before, Sammy Jr. was swimming in the hotel pool with Zeke and other little boys he has fought, but tonight, the two barely look at each other.
The boys are called to the ring, with Sammy in the red corner and Zeke in the blue. Their fathers give them last-minute pep talks, and as Sammy is introduced by the announcer, he side-skips around the ring, making a sign of the cross to each side of the room.
When the bell sounds, the boys rush to the middle of the ring, standing off a bit to test each other. Zeke swings and misses, as does Sammy, but soon the two are landing and skimming blows off one another. Their little arms move fast and, surprisingly, Martinez traps Sammy against the ropes a couple of times.
The fight - three one-minute rounds - is closer than many expected.
Between the second and third rounds, Martinez's mother, standing on a chair watching the fight through her video camera, yells for her son to finish Sammy off. Some of the kids who were swimming with Sammy the day before are now clearly pulling for Zeke.
When the last bell sounds, the boys go back to their corners while the spectators roar.
"Whatever happens," Sammy Sr. tells his son, "I'll always love you. Remember that."
The decision comes about two minutes later. Sammy and Zeke go to the middle of the ring with the official, who grasps both of their arms. And the winner is ... The official yanks Zeke's arm into the air.
Sammy's face crumbles. He rushes to Sammy Sr., who looks stunned. He helps a sobbing Sammy Jr. out of the ring, walks him past the celebrations of Sammy Jr.'s peers and takes him out to the parking lot.
Sammy Sr. grapples with the decision, swaying from blaming the officials ("I just wish we had more experienced judges, that's for sure.") to blaming himself ("I told him to ease off, not use so much energy.").
Zeke, with an enormous championship belt balanced on his hips, comes outside to see Sammy Jr., who is inconsolable. Daniel Lozano, who runs Omega Boxing Gym in Wauchula and occasionally trains Sammy Jr., tells the boy: "It's just an experience. You know you'll fight him again. Next time, you'll knock him out."
But for the time being, Sammy Jr. can't think about that. He wants to go back to the hotel and get away from the boys and the boxing. Sammy Sr. helps him out of his clothes and into the car. A few minutes later, some of Sammy Jr.'s friends come out to the parking lot and pile in the back seat of the Impala for the trip back to the hotel.
Sammy Sr. would spend the next few hours, days and perhaps years using the loss as a lesson. What went wrong? What went right? What was out of his control?
As Sammy Sr. wrestled with his thoughts, Sammy Jr. wasted no time forgetting. Outside the hotel, he splashed and laughed in the pool with his buddies.
It didn't matter that some of these boys were rooting against him earlier that day. It didn't matter that some of them toted belts and Sammy didn't. It didn't matter that Sammy lost his fight, and it didn't matter whether he was still No. 1.
For the moment, he was only 9 years old.MEET SAMMY VALENTIN JR.
Favorite athlete: Felix "Tito" Trinidad
Favorite superhero: Spider-Man
Favorite exercise: Sprints
Favorite school subjects: Coloring and math
Favorite food: Oatmeal
Role model: Felix "Tito" Trinidad
Dream vacation: Las Vegas (to see Felix Trinidad) or Puerto Rico (to see grandmother)
Favorite toy: Astro Jax
Last Halloween costume: A boxer
Favorite memory: "When I was a baby. That was the funnest part. I didn't have to go to school. Now, it's hard. I have a lot of stuff to do."
Stance on tattoos: "I had a fake one of a King Cobra. I don't think I'll ever get a real tattoo. My dad doesn't have tattoos."
Biggest regret: "One time my friend wanted me to go to his house. I didn't go, and he didn't have anyone to play with."TALE OF THE TAPE: Sammy Valentin Jr., Record: 19-2
WEIGHT: 70 lbs.
HEIGHT: 4 feet, 8 inches
REACH: 54 inches
CHEST: 28 1/2 inches
CHEST EXPANDED: 29 inches
BICEPS: 9 1/2 inches
FOREARM: 6 1/2 inches
WAIST: 25 1/2 inches
THIGH: 14 1/2 inches
CALF: 11 1/2 inches
NECK: 12 inches
WRIST: 5 1/2 inches
FIST: 10 inches