After more than 40 years in boxing as a trainer and historian, Angelo Merino witnessed two moments at last summer’s London Olympics that he said validated his dedication to pumping new life into college boxing.
The 2012 Olympics were the first to include women’s boxing. Merino, a coach for the University of San Francisco boxing club and a passionate advocate for the women’s sport, not only had ringside seats in London, but he also saw two American women win medals, one bronze and one gold.
“One can only imagine how many more medals the U.S. could have won if the Olympics allowed more weight classes for women,” Merino said.
Men competed in 10 weight classes in London, the women three, yet, for the first time, no American man won an Olympic medal in boxing.
When he returned home, it was with renewed enthusiasm for a proposal he had heard months earlier from Luke Runion, the coach of the University of Maryland boxing club. Runion envisioned a national organization that would improve the status of collegiate and amateur boxing for men and women.
Club boxing, like many college club sports, had risen in popularity in recent years. The two won enough support from like-minded coaches across the country to create the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association, which will soon be a new group member of USA Boxing, the national governing body of amateur boxing. The N.C.A.A. dropped boxing as a sport in 1960.
The association’s goal, Runion said, is to be the pre-eminent competitive intercollegiate amateur boxing league in the country. The National Collegiate Boxing Association is already connected with USA Boxing, but Runion said that his organization would emphasize women’s boxing and allow more boxers at more skill levels to compete in a national championship.
The United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association consists of 28 clubs, most of them coed, at institutions like Syracuse, Ohio State and Miami. The National Collegiate Boxing Association has roughly 36 clubs, and has held a national tournament since 1976. Many of its clubs are also coed.
“I felt like sometimes I was leading sheep to slaughter,” Runion said of the competition that many boxing clubs were up against when they faced off against military schools at tournament time. “Seventy-five percent of organizations would love to participate in a national event, but they can’t compete on the same level. I wanted to allow athletes of all skill levels a chance to compete in year-end tournaments.”
Service academies have won 8 of the last 10 N.C.B.A. championships.
Last month Runion filed a grievance with USA Boxing against members of the National Collegiate Boxing Association, claiming that in response to the formation of the new league, the organization was engaging in unsportsmanlike behavior by not allowing U.S.I.B.A. athletes to participate in collegiate boxing competitions. Runion said that his team had not been invited to two tournaments in February. Ken Cooper, the president of the N.C.B.A., declined to comment on the new league.
“We feel boxing is a lost art, a lost history,” Runion said. “Less than 1 percent of colleges in the U.S. have a boxing club.”
Runion said that that number did not reflect the level of interest he has seen in the sport, especially among women. According to USA Boxing, there were roughly 2,200 female amateur boxers in 2012, up from 1,650 in 2000. Institutions like the University of Michigan and the Military Academy have women-only clubs, and it was a woman, Jennifer Morales, who was responsible for starting the boxing club at Texas Southern, all of which are United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association clubs. West Point also has a male club that is part of the National Collegiate Boxing Association.
“Women are just as motivated for fitness and the competition aspect of the sport as men,” Runion said, adding that popular culture is reflecting the trend. “I see it all the time: big companies using female boxers for marketing. You see beautiful women in boxing gloves in fitness commercials, always portraying a competitive boxer.”
Marlen Esparza, the 2012 Olympic flyweight bronze medalist, recently did campaigns for McDonald’s and Cover Girl, while Under Armour features women’s boxing in its ads and its stores.
As part of a push to showcase female boxers and to establish itself as a legitimate club sport league, the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association is holding its inaugural national championships Thursday through Saturday on the University of San Francisco campus. It is women’s collegiate boxing’s first national championship. About 40 women are scheduled to compete in seven weight classes.
Women come to boxing from a variety of athletic backgrounds: team sports, dance, martial arts, and even cheerleading, often drawn by its fitness benefits. “I started because I heard it was the best workout in Tallahassee,” said Michelle Dominik, a member of the club at Florida State. “The more I trained, the more addictive it became. Boxing is like a high-risk, adrenaline-filled game of chess.”
Few things, Dominik said, compare to the rush of entering the ring to fight for the first time. But the fear that surfaces when facing a real opponent instead of a punching bag, or the pain and disorientation brought on by that first blow to the face, may lead some to give up the sport.
Dominik’s coach, Nathan Crock, said he had seen it many times. “Some girls come, train real hard, get in great shape, and get punched just once and they’re done,” he said. “Some keep coming to the gym but stop sparring. Other girls get hit, though, and their eyes just get more focused for the fight.”
Runion said he believed that coed boxing clubs could create a “symbiotic relationship,” in which male boxers are motivated by their female counterparts to better listen, evaluate and improve their skills.
“Girls seem to be quicker to realize the importance of having finely tuned methods of destruction,” said Catherine Breslin, a junior for the University of Maryland club team. “On the whole, girls aren’t as strong as guys, so they don’t bank as much on overpowering their opponent through the power of their shots alone. I think most guys are, from the get-go, hoping to be able to knock out their opponent with one punch, and then come to realize later on that they need to learn the proper technique before they can get to that point.”
Runion and Merino acknowledged that their efforts to raise boxing’s profile on college campuses faced significant obstacles, including the risks of concussion.
“Our sport is a science,” Runion said. “It has a bad perception. So we want to bring it to a level of perception as a pure, safe sport that teaches values to a lot of people.”
He said that safety is emphasized during training and competitions. “Unlike other sports where concussions can be a part of play that is not anticipated, it is an inherent risk in boxing that coaches and officials actively monitor at every competition,” Runion said. “In addition to two coaches, either boxer, the referee, or ringside physician can stop a bout at any time.”
Recalling the grass-roots origins of the boxing program on his own campus, Merino said he was confident the sport would broaden its appeal and counter negative stereotypes.
“When we introduced boxing at U.S.F., it wasn’t taken with open arms, so we had to have open minds,” he said. “It’s not only about violence. I have seen these misconceptions about boxers and I declare them entirely false. I have trained boxers who are in medical, legal and other white-collar professions. If all boxers were given equal opportunity, then I would have met a lot more.”
Source: John Otis, NYT