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Olympic Boxing: Do We Even Care?

As the worst Olympic showing in U.S. history fades in our rear view mirrors, we are struggling to explain what has gone wrong with men’s boxing and how we can fix it. A generation ago the USA ruled; now, after a nearly three-decade nosedive, the program has finally crash-landed. We’ve gone from nine Gold Medals in 1984 to none in 2012; in fact, no men’s medals period.

USA Boxing, the sport’s governing body is broken, shattered into failure’s familiar fragments: ego, politics, self-interest, blame, and ego (did I already say ego? good.). Barring the appointment of an old style boxing dictator, the kind of leader who damns torpedoes, raises funds, and tells prima donna athletes and coaches how it’s done, it won’t get fixed. Yet that’s not apt to happen. Instead, the 2016 Games will likely be one more fiasco that tumbles out of the USA Boxing clown car.

But there’s no point in writing the same column you can find by the dozen through a Google search. There are darker questions fans seem afraid to ask, like do we, as a nation, still care about amateur boxing? Have the sport’s nagging stereotypes permanently muddied over the truth that boxing is still the most wholesome and honorable sport of all?

Youth boxing teaches violence and causes brain damage. Nobody wants these things.

The trouble is, that’s nonsense. Anyone close to the sport knows that amateur boxers are the last to take their skills to the streets. And it doesn’t matter that the National Safety Council ranks amateur boxing dead last among injury producing sports. The sight of someone getting punched in the head trumps the truth. Inveighing against boxing’s barbarity is practically a conversation starter at cocktail parties, alongside the weather.

It wasn’t always this way. Our support of amateur boxing used to be unwavering. The sport was supported by a national infrastructure of community-based organizations like YMCAs, JCCs and city recreation programs. We used to know that boxing promotes youth development and even prevents delinquency.

Now, Albany’s Quail Street Gym is the only entirely municipally funded boxing gym in the country. In its 12-years of operation, it’s produced 11 nationally ranked boxers, two of whom missed spots on Olympic Teams by one point in the Trials. Imagine if every municipality had such a gym. Imagine the effect it would have on the skill level of Team USA.

Now imagine something else, which is what got me writing today’s column in the first place. Somebody asked me last weekend what happened to college boxing. Good question.

A generation ago kids who came out of those community programs were rewarded for their dedication. They went to college on boxing scholarships. College boxing started in 1919, holding its first NCAA tournament in 1937. Three years later, when the University of Wisconsin hosted Washington State University, 15,000 fans dropped by. That same night at Madison Square Garden, only two-thirds as many saw Joe Louis defend his title against Johnny Paycheck. By the 1950s, over 200 colleges had boxing teams.

But it all came crashing down on April 9, 1960. Charlie Mohr, a middleweight from the University of Wisconsin, was dropped in the second round of a national championship bout. Although the referee stopped the contest and Mohr walked to the locker room, he collapsed, dying eight days later of a brain hemorrhage. Yup, bad things happen in boxing, same as in other sports, just not as frequently.

Nonetheless, Sports Illustrated predicted back then that such a tragedy will “doom the sport” (SI, 5/25/60). They were right. Boxing lost its NCAA status. Within a few years it resumed as a club sport here and there, but with no varsity standing, no paid coaches, and no scholarships.

That club sport evolved into the National Collegiate Boxing Association (NCBA). It’s comprised of only 35 schools, but let me tell you, it’s an amazing league. I got to feature it in Ring Magazine a year ago – mature athletes trained by the best coaches you will find.

“We may be the red-headed stepchildren on college campuses,” said Jim McNally, coach at the United States Naval Academy, “but at our brigade championship we’ll get 5,000 people in the arena.”

“What happened to Charley Mohr hasn’t happened in, what, 50 years?” said Dr. Ray Barone, Director of Boxing at West Point. “That says something.”

In fairness, “There was more to the NCAA’s decision than Charlie Mohr’s death,” noted McNally. “Some schools were giving scholarships and some weren’t. We started to see more and more mismatches.” That’s where boxing can become dangerous.

“Colleges started dropping their programs, and people weren’t comfortable with boxing in the first place. They associated it with the stereotypes,” said McNally.

NCBA’s solution was to require that incoming freshmen have no more than 10 amateur bouts, effectively eliminating mismatches. Everyone is a beginner in the NCBA.

But what stops a full return of NCAA college boxing, only with a system to prevent mismatches? As a USA Boxing official, I can tell you that we do that right now and very carefully. No kid with 30 bouts takes on a beginner – ever.

And forget Title IX concerns, the federal legislation mandating gender equality in academic and athletic opportunities. USA women brought home our only boxing hardware from London. Women are gloved up and ready.

So imagine a young person, coming out of Albany’s Quail Street Gym to compete on Siena College’s Boxing Team, on full scholarship of course, not the $2000/year pittance USA Boxing gives its athletes.

And what if this happened at universities throughout the nation? What a feeder program for Team USA.

Make no mistake, folks, we’d be back in the medal business. But do we want it? I asked three college athletic directors if they’d be excited about such an eventuality. Nobody answered the question, but simply referred me to NCAA governance procedures.

Source: Michael Rivest, The Record

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