In a nation which accepts a bloody war in Vietnam and which fatalistically awaits the prospect of summer riots, it is paradoxical to discover that, except in four Far Western colleges, we have developed a squeamishness about intercollegiate boxing competition. Too brutal and dangerous, the explanation is, though that is not the full explanation. College boxing used to be a great and respected sport, with benefits to its participants far outweighing its dangers—just like football, lacrosse, hockey and so many others. But now it is done for in the East, the Middle West, the South and the Northwest, in all of which it once flourished. Its prospects for national revival, perhaps for survival, are just about nil.
The four U.S. colleges in which intercollegiate boxing still survives are the University of California at Berkeley, Chico (Calif.) State, Nevada and Stanford. Last weekend, after a season of dual meets, they participated, almost self-consciously, in the California Collegiate Boxing Conference Championships at Cal's Harmon Gymnasium and drew a total of 1,000 enthusiasts for the two nights of competition. This is not to be compared to football attendance, to be sure, but at Chico State and Nevada boxing outdraws basketball, attracting capacity crowds of 3,500 to their matches.
Boxing is a fully accepted and respectable sport at all four schools at which it persists on an intercollegiate basis. The conference was formed in 1959, in part because of discontent among the founders about the way intercollegiate boxing was being conducted nationally and because of a well-founded prescience that the sport was headed for disaster if certain practices were continued. (Nevada was not an original member but was invited in about the same time that California Polytech, the University of Santa Clara and the University of San Francisco dropped out. The word "California" nevertheless stayed in the title.)
Before the fall of national college boxing, signs of impending disaster were there, all right, though mostly ignored. It is hard to put a brake to the momentum of high-level competition. As boxing advanced in popularity and gates increased, ambitious coaches began to recruit highly experienced amateurs from the Golden Gloves and AAU clubs, some of the boxers with as many as 50 bouts or more behind them. Result: kids who wanted to take up boxing only after they entered college were sadly outclassed by the semiprofessionals—many of whom wanted to become full professionals after graduation.
Art Lentz, now executive director of the U.S. Olympic Committee, was once sports-news director at the University of Wisconsin, where boxing was very big a decade ago and now is discontinued. Lentz has this to say about the decline of intercollegiate boxing: "The pool room element had come in and changed the atmosphere of college boxing. People talked about going to see the fights, not bouts, when they went to college matches."
To counteract this trend, the CCBC effectively eliminated recruiting by adopting a rule that no student could compete in intercollegiate boxing who, after his 16th birthday, engaged in competitive bouts under auspices other than those of his school. Today a CCBC boxer may be awarded a grant-in-aid, amounting to $81.25 a quarter at the University of California, to pay his registration fees, but that is just about it. The grant is never promised as an inducement to go out for boxing. Instead, the varsity is chosen from the ranks of intramural boxers, all novices who box for the fun of it. College boxing nowadays is among the very purest of sports.
The rest of the college-boxing world was not impressed by dangers inherent in the situation until 1960, the year after CCBC got started, when Charlie Mohr, a star member of the University of Wisconsin boxing team, collapsed in his dressing room during the finals of the 23rd annual National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament at Madison. Eight days later he died of a brain hemorrhage.
Mohr and his opponent, Stu Bartell of San Jose State, wore padded headgear and the requisite 12-ounce gloves, which are supposed to be protective. In the eyes of those present, Bartell's punch, which landed on Mohr's left temple, was not a particularly good one, though it knocked Mohr down. He was up at the count of two, considered to be a good sign, and the referee found his eyes clear. He told the referee he felt all right. He moved around well for about half a minute. Then, as Bartell began to punch him once more, the referee moved in and stopped the bout, partly on the principle that Mohr had little or no chance to win. No one suspected that he was seriously hurt. But he was, and when he died college coaches saw what was coming. "I think college boxing is now finished," one said, and another chimed in with the prediction that "this will kill college boxing."
It pretty well did, even on an intramural scale. Daryl Talken, Chico State heavyweight of those days, now a high school English teacher at Fremont, Calif., recently undertook a national survey to find out what had happened to college boxing. He discovered that less than one-third of colleges have even an intramural program.
Nor is there any indication that the condition will improve. None of the four college coaches still functioning in intercollege boxing—Ed Nemir of California, who has been at it for 35 years, all at Cal, of which he is a graduate; Willie Simmons of Chico State; Jim Olivas of Nevada; and Ray Lunny of Stanford—has much hope that in their career time the sport will revert to its former glory. "Nobody will listen," said Nemir. "We don't try anymore."
Representatives of two Eastern universities where boxing once was big agree with Nemir. Roy Simmons, for 30 years the boxing coach at Syracuse, whose teams compiled a 107-49-14 won-lost record, has, at the request of Eddie Dooley, New York State's boxing commissioner, tried to revive the sport—with no takers. And William W. Cobey, director of athletics at the University of Maryland, says, "All in all, there is no talk of bringing boxing back, and I have no desire to see it come back."
It is all true and all too bad. The CCBC championships last weekend at California were both exciting to watch and a credit to those who conducted the program—with every possible protection for the athletes. At the same time it was no sissy exhibition. There were four knockouts in the 21 bouts of the finals and semifinals, but no one was seriously hurt. The victims, indeed, invariably walked out of the ring grinning sheepishly.
In the Olympic fashion, the meet does not recognize—officially, that is—a team winner, and only individual victors are honored with trophies. But it may as well be noted that Cal scored four victories in the finals, as did Nevada, and Chico had one. Stanford, which brought only three boxers to the tournament, went winless.
Despite the pessimism of intercollegiate boxing's adherents, the colleges might consider the wishes of their students in regard to the sport. At Nevada, when it was proposed to give up boxing, the question was put to a student vote. Boxing won 885 to 87, and some of the 87 said later that the question was phrased ambiguously or they would have voted otherwise. The faculty voted for it, too.
But at the University of Wisconsin where Charlie Mohr died, the faculty stand has not changed. Athletic Director Ivy Williamson says, "There have been no pressures or interest to restore boxing here. I have not even heard any interest recently expressed among other colleges."
It will take more interest and effort than seems extant to get college boxing off the canvas.
A diehard crowd of 500 watches as the home team takes four of the title bouts in Harmon Gymnasium at the University of California at Berkeley.