College boxing, decades removed from the days when fedora-clad fans filled smoky arenas to watch the sport, is making a comeback.
It looks very different from its heyday in the 1930s and ’40s. Most student-run boxing clubs are now coed, and women are taking on leadership positions. The clubs are attracting mixed-martial-arts fans, people who want to learn protective skills, and fitness enthusiasts, including those who don’t actually want to fight.
“The majority of people are there just to exercise,” says Courtney Miller, president of the University of Wisconsin boxing club. “It’s a fun way to get in shape.”
Boxing, abandoned by the NCAA in the mid-1960s, is suddenly having another moment on college campuses.
Boxing returned to her campus in 2014 after being discontinued as a varsity sport in 1960, following the death of a Wisconsin boxer after a fight. The Badgers had been a powerhouse, winning eight National Collegiate Athletic Association team titles between 1939 and 1956.
The NCAA stopped sanctioning boxing shortly thereafter, so college boxing now exists through clubs. They typically receive little or no school funding, have volunteer coaches, award no scholarships and are organized by students rather than administrators.
At Wisconsin, club members must spend a semester learning basic skills before they can spar with teammates, as Ms. Miller does. Most of the roughly 65 active members have yet to compete in a fight.
“I want to make sure we have our people ready before I put them out there,” she says. Wisconsin’s boxers work out in a humid room lined with heavy bags—but without a boxing ring—in the school’s swimming center.
The University of Michigan’s Kate Johnson defeated Gaby Barrera Gutierrez of the U.S. Military Academy in the 119-pound female division at the USIBA 2015 national championships in Ann Arbor, Mich., in April.
Two groups govern college boxing. The National Collegiate Boxing Association, founded in 1976, counts 32 clubs and held its first women’s championships in 2014. The United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association formed in 2012. Its national championships in April drew 149 boxers from 23 teams.
In competitions boxers wear mouth guards, heavily padded gloves and headgear that appears thicker than the leather versions of decades ago. Boxers are matched up by weight and experience, and bouts are three rounds of two minutes each. Referees are certified by USA Boxing, the sport’s governing body, and call for eight-second pauses after a hard punch or punches.
On some campuses, boxing used to be a staple of young manhood. Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy boxed at Harvard, and Gerald Ford briefly coached boxing at Yale. But only about 18 boxing teams remained in the sport’s final NCAA season in 1960, an NCAA spokesman estimates.
College boxing’s decline in the 1950s followed faculty concerns about safety and the public’s association of it with professional boxing, says Doug Moe, author of the book Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Teamon the history of Wisconsin boxing.
Penn State University’s longtime boxing team has seen a surge of interest, with 200 people showing up on the first day of practice this semester—50 more than last fall, club president Taylor Varner says.
“In the past, we’ve had mostly students without any experience whatsoever,” says Ms. Varner, one of two women from Penn State who boxed at the NCBA’s national championships last season.
“In more recent years, people are like, ‘Oh, I’ve been training at a gym two or three years.’ ”
Schools, including the University of Missouri, pictured, have offered more boxing-themed training in specialized studios. Schools, including the University of Missouri, have offered more boxing-themed training in specialized studios.
This year, 253 people have signed up for boxing at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the most in Coach Josh Sokal’s eight-year tenure. The majority of the students aren’t interested in fighting others, but seek a physical challenge, he says.
“We very much advertise it as the hardest training on campus,” he says. “I think all these kids are real stressed out, and getting it out of their system is one of the draws, too.”
Out of more than 110 core club members last season, only seven actually had bouts, Mr. Sokal says.
“I really like the fact that I’m building a skill,” says Devon Genua, a UNC junior who helps lead twice-a-week noncontact workouts that include nearly two hours of cardio, body-weight exercises and technique drills. “I feel very powerful and very capable when I’m working out like this.”
She hasn’t sparred yet, because she’s also training for her first marathon. “I don’t think it’s wise to get hit in the face and run far at the same time,” she says.
The first practice of the West Virginia University boxing club drew 75 people, up from 50 at the first practice last year, team president Dan Gibson says. Some want to learn self-defense skills.
“They say, ‘I don’t have any interest in fighting, but if I get into a situation like that, I want to know how to dodge a punch and how to throw a punch,’ ” he says.
The highly publicized professional fight between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao in May increased interest in boxing, as did the summer movie “Southpaw” and the coming spinoff of “Rocky” called “Creed,” Mr. Gibson says.
Women make up about 20% of West Virginia’s boxing club. Participation of women varies from school to school, but a few report turnouts nearing 50%.
Overall in the U.S., more than five million people participated in boxing for fitness in 2014, up 7% from 2010, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Fewer participated in boxing for competition, 1.3 million, but the group grew faster: 49% from 2010 to 2014.
The boxing club at Iowa State University offers a three-nights-a-week class each semester to introduce students to the basics of the sport. The class has grown from about 60 people three years ago to 90 people this year, says senior Olivia Meyer, club president and two-time NCBA women’s champion at 147 pounds.
Of the people who turn out for the class, “maybe 10 people come in and do mitt drills and spar,” she says. “From those, we see maybe one person who wants to compete, which is understandable. It’s a scary sport. It’s a violent sport.”
Worries about boxing’s potential for concussions—medical experts at Wisconsin expressed concern about the sport’s return—have made some students opt for boxing-style exercise outside of a team. Pugilist-inspired workouts are part of campus recreation centers’ expanded offerings, especially for students seeking intense exercise.
The University of Missouri’s department of recreation services and facilities opened a boxing studio at its recreation center in January. The 200 memberships made available last spring sold out in two weeks, says Diane Dahlmann, executive director of MizzouRec services and facilities. The studio sold 300 memberships this semester.
The University of Oregon opened a remodeled boxing studio in January that is busy with drop-ins and classes, says Chantelle Russell, Oregon’s assistant director of fitness.
The revamped studio “is much more popular and much more used by a diversity of participants,” Ms. Russell says. “Whereas before, it was your much more hard-core people.”
Many college clubs remain focused on competition. The University of Michigan hosted the USIBA championships last spring, with its women’s team finishing first and its men’s team second. The club holds tryouts and takes only students who aim to represent the school in fights.
But club president Yaz El-Baba says students—some of them close friends—often ask him about boxing for fitness and the confidence to walk home alone at night.
“I wish we could accommodate those people, too,” he says.
Source: Rachel Bachman, WSJ