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Cal Boxing Alums Share Much More Than War Stories at 95th Reunion

Guest post by Ryan Maquiñana

Ryan Maquiñana writes a weekly column for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area (CSNBayArea.com). He’s also a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and Ring Magazine’s Ratings Panel. E-mail him at rmaquinana@gmail.com, check out his blog at norcalboxing.net or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.

BERKELEY, CA – The other day, I talked to a guy who once had Big George Foreman down for the count.

Really, I did!

“We fought in the finals of the 1967 Golden Gloves junior division,” recalled the towering Bob Winter ’63, my hand vanishing inside his upon greeting me.  “I told my brother that Foreman was going to stick that cornball left jab because he would leave it out there.  At the beginning of the fight, he jabbed once, jabbed the second time, and just like I planned, I hit him with a counter straight right hand.  It actually lifted him off his feet and put him straight on his back.”

Cal boxing reunion emcee Phil Nemir ’69
Photo Dale Jeong ’71

So did Bob pull off the upset?

“He got up and they gave him a split decision,” Winter replied, shaking his head while he grinned.  “But he was a tough kid, and I ended up with this story.”

That conversation in the Haas Pavilion Club Room marked the beginning of my day as a guest of the University of California boxing program for their 95th Reunion, and it wouldn’t be the last to raise an eyebrow or two.

Where else but Berkeley would you find an eclectic mix of judges and oncologists, authors and bright-eyed current collegians, discussing their jolly exploits bashing in their opponents’ skulls as well as sharing their professional accomplishments?  Sifting through the myriad albums and scrapbooks felt like immersing myself in a time machine.

“I think it’s great that I can be a graduate student in computer science and yet, have so much in common with everyone else after hearing their war stories,” said Bonnie Kirkpatrick ’11.

In all, the head count administered by Master of Ceremonies Phil Nemir ‘69 tallied close to 90, an attendance figure that ranged from the class of 2011 all the way back to the 1940s.  He emphasized the importance of renewing the bonds between the boxers.

“Since I moved out of Berkeley, I’m not there as much as I used to be,” said Nemir, who followed in his legendary father’s footsteps as head coach in 1977.  “The camaraderie among fighters is something that we had when I was there, and some of my closest friends are former Cal boxers.”

After a hearty lunch where the participants ate their fill, fighters from a diverse range of eras took the blue and gold robe from Nemir and spoke their respective pieces at the podium, regaling us with nostalgia that elicited both laughs and longing sighs from the crowd.

“Personally it’s been great to see all the old boxers meet the new kids and for us to share stories,” opined the spirited Floyd Salas ‘56, whose life outside the ring has led him from juvenile hall in his early years to several accolades as an author and teacher at Cal.

Besides drinking water out of the toilets at the infamous old training facility near the track stadium, or recalling the measures taken to boil every last pound off their bodies to make weight, an underlying theme in many memories encircled the impact the elder Nemir, a Cal Hall of Famer and coach for 35 years, had on their lives.

“Ed Nemir was my lifesaver and (Ed’s) Mother Nemir adopted me,” said Ed Farris ’49, the former welterweight spry as ever in his classic blue and gold knitted sweater. “Fighting in the Navy in World War II, he was tough as nails and led by example.  I remember some hoodlums in Berkeley challenged him on the corner of University and Shattuck [Avenues] and he ended up beating all of them up!”

“Being on the Cal boxing team under the guidance of Ed Nemir taught me that hard work and perseverance pay off in the long run,” added Herb Davis ’58, whose taste for the pugilistic tangle long after college had him trading friendly blows in the ring with longtime friend Art Twain on the former’s 50th birthday.  “The experience also gave me wonderful memories and great friendships.”

Paul Rein ‘65, who has plied his trade in Oakland as a pioneer in the field of disability law, emphasized the punching pride that comes with fighting for California.

“When people ask me what I did in college, I rarely say I was a political science major or that I was Phi Betta Kappa or pre-law,” said Rein, a gregarious national titlist at middleweight who was a teammate of three-time collegiate champ and Cal Hall of Fame inductee Tom Gioseffi.  “I say that I was a Cal boxer.”

Another man who earned national championship honors almost two decades later spoke fondly of his time as a ringside warrior and the tinge of bravado it entailed.

Chris Morales ’84
Photo Dale Jeong ’71

“I remember fighting this guy from USC who had more experience than me and wanted to take my head off,” stated Chris Morales ‘84, who incidentally enough continues to do combat in the courtroom today as a defense attorney.  “When I went to my corner after a tough first round, I was looking to sit down, but my coach Mike Huff told me, ‘You’re a Cal fighter.  We don’t use stools.’ ”

Sure enough, Morales heeded Huff’s words of wisdom and ended up victorious, unequivocally learning about the value of testing one’s limits in the process.

Speaking of alums with juris doctorate degrees, Terence “Kayo” and Patrick “Butch” Hallinan, a pair of Bay Area legends in law, were in attendance as well.  The brotherly tandem fought valiantly for the Bears and will be remembered for their actions in 1959 regarding African-American teammate Bill Holliman, the target of racial discrimination at a Reno hotel.

“As the story goes, after Bill was told he wasn’t welcome, the Hallinan brothers made phone calls to the governors of Nevada and California, and then to Earl Warren, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and within an hour the hotel retracted from its racist policy with apologies!” exclaimed Rein.

Terence, the former district attorney of San Francisco who proudly embraced his nickname of “Kayo,” drew parallels between lacing up the gloves in the squared circle and verbally duking it out before a judge.

“Being a Cal boxer was perfect for a job as a D.A. because you were coming from a public school and you had to be tough to stand up to anything,” he said, steadfast to the art of the scrap even at the tender age of 74.

Of course, while remembering the past is one of the key functions of a reunion, what transpired in the Club Room also served to build a bridge to both the present and future.  In the midst of statewide budget cuts, Cal Boxing has stayed afloat as a club sport due to the ingenuity of the student-athletes and generosity of the alumni.

“For years, we had an intercollegiate model that was me doing all the work top-down,” said current head coach Jim Riksheim ‘80, whose tireless efforts on behalf of the program as both a fighter and cornerman have spanned 34 years.  “Now our students have taken an interest and ownership in the program to give their time and input.  It’s all one team and I’m just one person in a long line of people, and it’s great to be part of something that special.”

Last year’s team captain, David Rosenfield ’10, implemented the first steps for an endowment, a task he passed along to Mike Hastings ’11 this season.  Unfortunately, the 2010 All-American lightweight was unable to attend the reunion but felt compelled to chime in via telephone.

“During my time, I helped triple the team budget, doubled the club size, and led the team to nationals under Jim,” said Rosenfield, who is currently entrenched in the Marine Corps Infantry Officer Course in Quantico, Va.  “But really, what I will remember above all is that Cal boxing was here before me, and I feel honored that I was able to keep it going during my time here.”

Cal boxing coach Jim Riksheim ’80
Photo Dale Jeong ’71

Fiduciary duties aside, there’s a more compelling, intangible reason why the program has survived after almost a century in existence, and the reunion was a testament to the men and women in the room who have kept the fiery soul of the program ablaze beyond the wins and losses throughout the decades.

“When you get in the ring, you have to face your fears,” said Nemir, “and so in life, sometimes you experience times where you have to keep a clear head.  You can’t let your fears take control of you.  You just develop a certain sense of confidence that helps you accomplish anything.  The thing is I’ve had boxers come up to me that didn’t have the best record but they all say how valuable the experience has been to them.”

The day concluded with a rousing speech from next year’s team captain, lightweight Jean Carlo Oviedo ’12, who later reflected on the day’s events with an anecdote of his own.

“When I told my dad I joined the boxing team, he didn’t like it because he thought that boxing was going to mess up my brain.  He gave me the ultimatum of quitting or he was going to cut me off,” said the bioengineering major from Peru who made it all the way to the national quarterfinals this past spring.

With the prospect of burning a bridge with his own father, Oviedo made his choice.

“I knew what made me happy,” he declared.  “I told him I’m not quitting.  I hang out with my teammates so much they’re like my brothers and sisters, and when we bleed or get injured, we’re always going through it together.  Eventually, my dad started to support me.  He respected me in a different way.  At first, he thought I was just doing it for the moment, but I wake up at five in the morning everyday just to train.  It’s not a thrill.  He learned that it’s my passion.”

Nemir best summed up the festivities.

“It was impressive to listen to [Jean Carlo’s] story and all the other ones,” he said, beaming.  “My dad coached for 35 years, the alums stepped in during difficult times, and Jim Riksheim’s been keeping it going today.  I just know how valuable it’s been personally for me, and I’m glad other young people have the opportunity to experience that.  I hope it continues for another 95 years.”

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