College boxing gets off the canvas

Sport returns after UW-Madison boxer's death

Sometime last fall I got a note from a man I didn’t know, inviting me to a place I’d never been, asking if I’d tell a story nobody wanted to hear.

Naturally, I said, “Yes.”

All credit to Luke Runion, the young man who extended the invitation to me to come to Lexington, Virginia, and talk to a bunch of college boxers about how their sport ended more than half a century ago.

It ended as a varsity sport, anyway, after the April 1960 death of University of Wisconsin–Madison boxer Charlie Mohr following an NCAA tournament bout at the Field House.

It turned out that at least some of the boxers who gathered late last month at the Virginia Military Institute for the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association (USIBA) national championships did want to hear about the glory days of varsity college boxing, and its tragic end.

I spoke to a group of about 40 of them on a Friday morning, the second day of the three-day tournament that drew some 200 boxers, men and women, from about 30 schools.

College boxing exists today as a club sport, unsanctioned by the NCAA. But it has made a robust comeback on campuses in recent years, and the USIBA is one of two organizations which host a national college tournament. The other is the National Collegiate Boxing Association.

There is a club on the UW-Madison campus, though no Badgers were at the tournament last month in Virginia. A UW student from California named Chandler Davis navigated a lengthy application process and got boxing approved as a club sport in late 2013. The first practices were the following February at the Natatorium. While Davis has moved on, the club is still going.

The return of boxing to the Madison campus was a big deal, both because of UW’s prominence in the sport from the mid-1930s through the 1950s, and because Mohr’s death, after his Field House bout, effectively brought down the curtain on varsity college boxing.

The story was compelling enough that a dozen years ago I wrote a book about it, called “Lords of the Ring,” which Luke Runion read when he was at the University of Maryland.

Runion helped organize a boxing club on the Maryland campus, later coached the team, and in 2012 was one of the founders of the USIBA. He recently reread the book, and that prompted his invitation for me to speak in Lexington.

The young boxers were incredulous when I told them that for two decades the Badgers drew up to 15,000 fans for matches at the Field House. Led by their legendary coach, John Walsh, Wisconsin won eight NCAA team championships, and more than 30 individual titles.

But for all its success in Madison, the varsity program was controversial. Several professors spoke against it, arguing that a sport in which the intent is to injure your opponent did not belong on a college campus.

Proponents argued that the college approach to boxing stressed safety, required headgear, padded gloves, and emphasized points for defense as well as offense, and bouts were short, consisting of three, two-minute rounds. Of course, there was no denying that boxing was violent—just as football is violent.

But Mohr’s death changed everything. The sport had been in decline on campuses—in 1959, Sports Illustrated did a story on its problems, titled “You Could Blame It on the Moms.” Mohr’s death, after a week in a coma at University Hospital, gave opponents the final straw they needed. The faculty senate in Madison voted to abolish the sport and the NCAA discontinued its tournament—citing the diminished number of schools participating—not long after.

Some in the boxing community tried to claim Mohr had a pre-existing condition, such as an aneurysm, that might have contributed to his death. That wasn’t true. For my book I interviewed Manucher Javid, the neurosurgeon who operated on Mohr, and Javid assured me the boxer’s death was the result of a blow to the head.

Dr. Javid called me a few years ago when he heard about boxing coming back as a club sport at UW–Madison. “Boxing is a dangerous sport,” he said. “The risk of head injury is always a possibility.”

I understood his position But I understand, too, there are those who believe that the benefits of boxing, which include physical conditioning, self-reliance and self-confidence, should be weighed against the risk. After all, two UW football players died on the field in Madison, the last, in the 1970s, with a brain injury almost identical to Mohr’s. Should football have been banned? It’s a complicated question.

I’d never seen a live boxing match until I went to Virginia last month. After watching several bouts that Friday night, I can’t say I’m a fan of the sport. But I am a big fan of the boxers I spoke to, who were enthusiastic and welcoming. And I’m a fan of my new friend, Luke Runion, whose passion for his sport is inspiring. 

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. See his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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