The biggest athletic event in Ann Arbor this weekend didn’t take place at any of the sparkling, million-dollar Division I athletics facilities known nationwide.
While the new and polished fields, tracks and arenas baked in the early-spring sun, thousands of fans flocked to the sweaty, echoing gymnasium of the century-old Intramural Sports Building for the USIBA National Championships. It was, by all accounts, a knockout event.
“We got a lot of compliments about how the tournament was run, from the officials, coaches, to the teams and fighters that came from all over the country,” said Michigan coach Tony Sensoli. “They felt we were very organized and things ran really smoothly.”
With the backing of a home crowd, Michigan earned five individual national championships to claim its first-ever women’s team title. Though it came up short in repeating as national champion in the men’s group, taking second instead, the biggest story of the weekend was the event itself.
Drawing 150 boxers from over 30 teams and attended by thousands of screaming fans, the event showed that college boxing is entering a new age of growth, and Michigan is right in the middle of it.
“It’s fantastic,” Sensoli said. “The line I keep saying is that ‘These are the good ol’ days. These are the peak times we’ve ever had for Michigan boxing.’ It’s going to be hard to top the last two years.”
In most people’s minds, the golden age of boxing was generations ago. A varsity sport until an athlete death ended such competition in 1960, the combative and gory nature of boxing that once made it one of America’s most popular sports was also its downfall. This sentiment returned just a few years ago, when Michigan club boxing was kicked off campus, unable to compete.
Practicing in coaches’ backyards and becoming self-sufficient, the Wolverines not only came back swinging, but with a fresh new look. Joining the newly formed USIBA and emphasizing a female team, Michigan found previously unheard of success, winning more individual national titles (12) in the past two years than in decades of club boxing.
But as this year showed, the rest of the nation is following suit. Newcomer Virginia Military Institute took the men’s title, while numerous other teams made their debuts in Ann Arbor. The increase of teams makes the event a special one in the boxing world.
“I’ve never seen support the teammates have for each other as we have in college boxing, no matter where we go,” said USA Boxing Chief of Officials Mac McCadden. “A lot of it is because these young folks, they’re not going to be professional boxers. They’re going to be doctors, lawyers, take care of my cars. They have all these other aspirations. They do this because they love to do it and it’s fun.
“I can’t tell you how much improvement we’ve seen. The resurgence of college boxing is tremendous for us. You can tell with the increased number of athletes and quality of fights in just a few years. As long as it continues to grow, the sky’s the limit.”
For three days the IMSB gym was constantly filled with bouts of all weight classes and skill levels. But in contrast to college boxing competitions of the past, it was clear that boxing was no longer a boys’ club.
“I remember my Dad coming home a few years ago saying like ‘There’s a girl trying out,’ and we all thought it was kind of weird,” said junior Alec Sensoli, whose father coaches both teams. “Then that one girl blossomed into more, and now it’s just this big thing, and it’s amazing. They went from nothing to team champions.”
Behind the training and leadership of defending champion Kate Johnson, the women’s team not only bested the competition, but obliterated it en route to the team title.
Looking to match, the men sent seven competitors to the finals, including an open bout between senior and team president Kevin Bosma and VMI’s Nick O’Leary that proved to be the apex of the event. But the two-time defending national champion Bosma fell by TKO, leaving the younger Sensoli as the lone male champion.
“Kevin’s OK, (but) that was a rough one,” Tony Sensoli said. “He’s our leader and the backbone of our team, he’s carried us through these last couple years and is a big part of where this team is. He’s the best kid that I’ve ever coached, or as a person. So I hate to see him go out this way, but I know he’ll bounce back, he’s a terrific kid.”
More importantly, both Michigan and college boxing found success on its biggest stage yet, ensuring that it can be a main event for the good ol’ days to come.
“I used to go to practices and fights when I was younger, and it kind of died off,” Alec Sensoli said. “But now it’s getting big again, and it’s just awesome to see. Boxing’s kind of making a little bit of a comeback, but it’s great seeing college boxing where it is today.”
Added McCadden: “The quality of the boxers has improved tremendously in three years. I think a lot of it has to do with the enthusiasm, the camaraderie these teammates have for each other, and the ability to not be envious of each other and share each other and to support each other.”
“That’s something you don’t see in any other level of boxing.”
Following the final bell, fans, athletes and officials were mingling around the area, taking in the final moments of the experience. When a group of elementary-school girls were shadow boxing outside of the building, it was clear that the resurgence of college boxing also marked a clear change in culture around the sport, making it a comeback that just might last.
Source: Zach Shaw, The Michigan Daily