Rau'shee Warren is making American boxing history in London because nobody tells him what to do.
He proved it four years ago at Workers Gymnasium in Beijing when he didn't listen to his Olympic coaches encouraging him to attack South Korea's Lee Ok-sung in the final round. Warren danced and circled with his hands at his waist in the final seconds of a one-point loss, weeping when he finally realized he had lost his opening bout in his second straight Olympics.
Three months after that defeat, Warren again proved his independence when he decided to become the first three-time Olympian in U.S. boxing history.
"I feel like in boxing, your mind has to be strong," Warren said. "If you have a weak mind, you'll let the outside distract you, because in the Olympics, there's a lot of pressure. People are telling you to do this or this, and there's a lot on your back. So mentally, you have to block that stuff out to get to what you want to achieve."
Family, friends and the boxing world just assumed Warren would chase professional riches after another Olympic disappointment. Warren gambled on himself, realizing an unimpressive bit of money in 2008 would be a pittance compared to the fame and satisfaction of accomplishing something no American had ever done.
"They felt this was my last chance – I had to go professional," Warren said. "That's what made me go a different way."
Few fighters from any country have ever waited this long to monetize their fleeting bit of Olympic boxing fame – but the 5-foot-4 flyweight nicknamed "Nuke" couldn't shake his desire to hang a gold medal around the neck of his mother, Paulette.
"It shows you how hungry I am," Warren said. "I could be a world champion and have money and stuff like that, but this is my dream. I've been thinking about this my whole life. ... In the end, it came down to me. It was up to me, my decision."
And Warren just doesn't do what other people think is proper, expected or inevitable. Eight years after the wide-eyed teenager was the youngest boxer at the Athens Olympics, he has emerged as a remarkable leader and the captain of the U.S. team – yet his independent streak is wider than that inexplicable dyed-red strip of hair on the very top of his head, a year-old addition that he says is "like the red devil coming out of me."
Warren's transition from a teenage star to a veteran leader appears to be remarkably smooth. Jamel Herring, the 26-year-old Marine who will fight at light welterweight for the U.S. team, makes sure to partner with Warren during training sessions.
"His experience is huge for this team," Herring said. "He knows what it takes to get to the Olympics, because it's so hard just to get to that stage before you even fight. His energy is a big example to everybody, and we try to follow him."
The youngest of four brothers from a rough part of Cincinnati has emphatically avoided the perils of street life that have kept two of his siblings in prison since he was a teenager. Now a father of two with another on the way, he joined the Los Angeles team in the World Series of Boxing, the International Boxing Association's (AIBA) professional league, to earn a little money while pursuing his Olympic obsession.
And this time around, he got more help than the infamously fractured USA Boxing could give him.
"My mom, she was pretty cool with my decision, and my coach (Mike Stafford)," Warren said. "But my coach was the one who told me, 'This time, we have to take it to another level. We have to work with people who are going to take it to another level.' And that's what we've been doing lately, training with the pros."
Maybe somebody can tell him what to do after all: Warren works closely with Stafford and Adrien Broner, his good friend and the unbeaten WBO 130-pound champion out of Stafford's camp in Cincinnati. He has worked out at Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s gym in Las Vegas, and he worked with Freddie Roach last year during the U.S. team's association with the celebrated trainer.
Warren and several fighters chafed under USA Boxing's year-round residency program before Beijing, separating them from their families and fostering the resentment that was probably reflected in Warren's reluctance to listen to his coaches during his defeat. Current U.S. coach Basheer Abdullah was only appointed a few weeks ago, but he worked with Warren as the head coach in Athens.
Warren is taking care of himself this time around, including work on his mental preparation for high-stakes fights. He is among the flyweight medal favorites, but he's not the strong gold-medal pick many made him in Beijing after his world championship in 2007.
"I normally get to a tournament, and I'll be fighting Ukraine first, then I have Russia down in the quarterfinals," Warren said. "I'm worrying about Russia instead of my own fighter in front of me. I'm taking each fighter day by day, instead of jumping the gun so much."
Nearly four years later, Warren is still certain he made the right decision, no matter what happens in London. There's not much money to be made from an Olympic association for American boxers these days, but his unmatched amateur credentials should amount to something – particularly for a small fighter like Warren who won't immediately draw huge crowds when he finally does turn pro.
And Warren won't listen to anybody who tells him a gold medal won't draw a crowd.
"I feel like everybody has their time to shine," Warren said. "I feel like my light is about to shine."
AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta contributed to this report.