Boubacar Sylla, an 18-year-old boxer from Cincinnati, woke up in a Salt Lake City hotel room on Monday morning eager to discover his opening-round draw in the Golden Gloves National Tournament of Champions at the Salt Palace Convention Center later that night.
Instead, Sylla, who was born in the West African country of Senegal before moving to Ohio with his parents when he was 5 years old, found out he wouldn't be boxing at all this week. The 2012 high school graduate and current Costco Wholesale employee was disqualified from the tournament because he is not a United States citizen.
"I am upset about it, but at the same time, it is kind of my fault," Sylla said. "I just didn't know the rule had changed. And, I should have gotten my citizenship way back when I was young. It is not their fault. It is my fault. I take the blame."
Sylla checked the correct box on his passbook saying he was not a citizen, but Cincinnati officials didn't catch it and allowed him to fly to Utah on Sunday for the event. However, James Beasley, Golden Gloves of America executive director, caught it on Monday morning and had the unpleasant task of informing the young man that he couldn't participate.
"I feel bad about it. There are a lot of kids in the United States who don't even know if they are a citizen or not," Beasley said. "They go to grammar school, go to middle school, go to high school, and go to college, and join the military, and come back and they can't box in national championships because they don't have citizenship. But that's the rule, and that's the way it is."
Sylla was incorrectly allowed to box in the nationals last year in Mesquite, Nev., adding to the confusion. He has a green card and is in no danger of being deported.
Sylla is a victim of a 2010 Golden Gloves rule change that has also kept a Utahn, 123-pounder Alan Leyba, from competing at the tournament, which runs nightly through Saturday in Salt Lake City.
After defeating Isaac Aguilar for the state title on April 13 and going unopposed in the Rocky Mountain regional on April 27, Leyba was given a two-day deadline by state officials to prove he is a citizen. When Leyba couldn't do so, Aguilar was given the spot in the nationals' 123-pound weight division and will box on Wednesday night.
Attempts to reach Leyba for comment were unsuccessful.
Larry Fullmer, president of the Rocky Mountain Golden Gloves franchise and this week's tournament director, said it is a complicated and confusing issue that boxing officials in every state, every franchise, have dealt with since 2010. He acknowledged that state officials made a mistake in allowing Leyba to compete at the state tournament, but said Leyba has been competing in Utah amateur boxing events for several years and officials just assumed he could prove citizenship.
"We will have to see documentation now [before the state tournament]," Fullmer said. "We just assumed, because we had seen him so often, that he was good to go. ... He kept promising us that he had papers. He kept saying, 'I've got them, I've got them.' All I know is that he didn't get his papers in before the deadline we set for him. I still don't know [if he has papers or not], but he's a good kid and has represented the state well, including at nationals a few years ago."
Beasley said the citizenship issue is a problem in some franchises, such as California, Texas and Florida, but not so much in others. He knew of just one other case since 2010 where a boxer was disqualified for lack of citizenship proof.
"It happens in every state, and I think it is a big problem," Fullmer said. "But at the same time, I support [the notion] that they should be a citizen to box for our country. How can you represent the U.S. in the Olympics and not be a citizen?"
Before 2010, Golden Gloves allowed non-citizens who were legal, permanent residents to participate in its annual national championship, unless it was an Olympic year because a national Golden Gloves title usually led to a spot in the U.S. Olympic Trials.
That's why alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, a non-citizen, was allowed to compete in the 2009 Golden Gloves tournament here in Salt Lake City, but was told no in 2010 after he won the New England championship. According to a New York Times profile of the deceased boxer, Tsarnaev veered toward his terrorist path "only after his more secular dreams [of winning a national Golden Gloves title] were dashed in 2010 and he was left adrift."
Beasley adamantly disputes that characterization, saying there are dozens of boxers out there such as Sylla who have accepted the rule change with a good attitude and are working toward citizenship.
Indeed, Sylla vowed Monday evening that he will be back at nationals next year, with citizenship papers in hand.
"I was shocked [Monday morning], because I have been training real hard for four months," he said. "I was planning on winning it, but my dreams were kinda shattered, so I have to wait until next year. I am working [on citizenship] now, and I should have it in a couple of months."
Utahns at National Golden Gloves
132 lbs. Francisco Lopez, Taylorsville, vs. Joshua Jones, Pennsylvania, Ring Two
152 lbs. Larry Gomez, West Jordan, vs. Deandre Harris, Iowa, Ring Two
Utahns scheduled to compete Wednesday
123 lbs. Isaac Aguilar, West Valley City
201+ lbs. Jesse West, Fruit Heights
Utahns eliminated Monday
165 lbs. Daniel Galloway, Salt Lake City
201 lbs. Andrew Scott, Alpine
O What • Tournament of Champions
When • 6 p.m. nightly through Saturday
Where • The Salt Palace