Guts and glory on display at the White Collar Boxing Tournament

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By: 
Matt Geiger

Just before the fights began on Saturday night, a grandmother who was about to see her granddaughter get rocked by several hard right hands was at the breaking point. “I’m so damned nervous!” she cried out amid the din of the Red Mouse sports bar in Cross Plains.

As it turned out, she had nothing to worry about. Because boxing is a sport in which even the losers emerge with their honor glinting beneath the bright lights. Her granddaughter lost the fight, but she gained the crowd’s respect when she refused to go down, and refused to quit, even after a flurry of punches turned her knees to Jell-O.

This was the second annual White Collar Boxing Tournament, a fundraiser for the esteemed Bob Lynch Boxing Foundation. Twenty people entered the ring. Half of them won. Half of them lost. All of them learned what they were made of. They went home proud of their trophies and their various hematomas.

In a society where everyone is divided over everything, right down to the very nature of truth, this is the kind of honesty for which people ache. Two people, standing toe-to-toe. It is arguably the most brutal and most beautiful, and inarguably the most honest of endeavors.

While the fights were amateur, this was anything but “Fight Club” style brawling. They didn’t just throw people into a ring. They spent months training for their matches, learning from Andrea Nelson, a retired pro, and Marcus Robert Johnson, a boxer and trainer. They ran, worked the heavy bag, and sparred for somewhere between three months and a full year. The sweat and fat fell off their frames, and they became, according to one boxer, “like family.”

Each has his or her own reasons for doing it. Some wanted to get in shape. Others wanted to be tested.

One boxer, just before the first bell rang, said it’s a chance to see if you could “do what you know” under pressure. To see if you can fight with discipline when flight had been removed from the table as an option.

When the boxers lost their composure and forgot the fundamentals, the bouts sometimes looked like a Looney Tunes fight, with elbows, ampersands and exclamation points swirling around an enormous tornado of motion. But for most of the evening, the fights elevated to become the  fabled “Sweet Science.” It was the kind of spectacle that reminded those present why boxing has always attracted writers; because it’s the kind of poetry you compose right in front of a crowd, while someone tries to smack you in the mouth.

Nelson, whose successful career was cut short by injury, has been teaching and coaching boxing for more than a decade now. In 2003, Bob Lynch invited her to help him teach classes, coaching and overseeing the sparring at Ford’s Gym in the Atwood neighborhood of Madison. In 2014 Lynch officially handed over the reins for the amateur boxing program to Nelson.

On Saturday, Lynch was seated quietly in the back, watching the action with interest, but from afar. He deflected the praise tossed his way by those present. He is, according to one man in the crowd, both “the man” and “the king.” His only input for this story was a warm smile, a hearty handshake, and a promise that “any good journalists can go anywhere they want” to tell the night’s story.

“If anyone gives you any trouble,” he says cordially, “send them to me.”

It wasn’t necessary. The fighters, the officials, the trainers and the fans were all eager to have the story told.

Nelson, a former lightweight who ran the Red Team’s corner on Saturday night, looks like the kind of person by whom you don’t want to get punched. Due to the time she clearly still spends in the gym, she even looks like punching her might be perilous to one’s hand.

Most of the fights lasted for three, two-minute rounds. During those windows of combat, Nelson was silent, calmly bobbing and weaving so she could keep her eyes on her fighters through the ropes. All of her movements were characterized by calmness; while she didn’t display any of the frenetic motions of someone in a hurry, everyone around her seemed to be moving in slow motion. Time, for her, seemed more pliable, and the result was grace under pressure. Between rounds, she removed mouth guards, shot water into their panting mouths, and offered reminders to move, keep their guards up, and use their jabs. When Eddie “Jersey No-Foot” Kenrick had trouble with his prosthetic foot mid-fight, she flew from her seat in the corner to the edge of the ring, where she deftly adjusted the fitting before sending her eager fighter back into the action.

Not everyone is game for this kind of thing.

“A lot of people look really good on the bags,” she explains before the fights begin.  “But then they get punched in the face.”

Boxing, at its core, is simple. Nelson teaches students “how to punch, how to move, and how to defend themselves.” But it takes a lifetime to master.

“For me, getting in the ring is like facing your demons,” she says. “It’s scary, but not the other person. You are facing something else in there.”

When one of her boxers approaches her for last minute tips, she says to jab.

“It’ll be over before you know it,” she adds.

Boxing, she says just before the first bell rings, is proof that applying yourself yields results.

Running the Blue Team’s corner, Johnson is 27 and has been fighting for the past decade.

“I was new in Madison and I needed something to do,” he says. “I loved to fight, but I needed to learn to do it in the right way. My dad fought. So did my grandfather.”

Today, he coaches the University of Wisconsin boxing club and participates in national tournaments. He says a trainer is “an extra set of eyes” during the fight, and his style is the complete opposite of Nelson’s. Through the buzz of the crowd and the smack of the gloves, you hear Johnson throughout the evening, moving up and down, back and forth, and calling out a stream of advice intended to keep his fighters on task. They’ve invested months of blood, sweat and tears, literally, and he wants them to win.

“When people first come to the gym, they all want to learn how to box,” he explains. “Until they start to really sweat or they get hit. If that stops you, then you know it’s not for you. There’s no shame in that.”

But those who keep going, he says, reap enormous rewards.

“The thing about boxing is, you have to deal with it,” he says. “In the moment. It’s right in front of you. You have to deal with it.”

He adds one more note about boxing, something he often says to his fighters: “Someone has to lose, every time.”

Each of the night’s 10 bouts had its own storyline. People entered and exited the ring to various hoots and choruses of applause.

The fourth fight of the evening featured the most dramatic stoppage. “Mighty Micah” Johnson, fighting out of the blue corner, came out aggressively, launching flurries at the Red Corner’s Chris “the Mexicutioner” Morales. But later in the fight, Morales landed a right that sent sound waves bouncing off the high ceiling and shockwaves reverberating through the crowd. Another big punch sent Johnson to the canvass and ended the fight.

Big knockouts are not the primary point of amateur boxing. In fact, they don’t happen as often as many people think.

Perhaps the night’s most memorable moment, one very few people saw, occurred when both trainers, Nelson and Johnson, consoled Johnson, tenderly and in the relative privacy of a spot behind the ring, during a brief intermission later in the evening.

Kenrick seemed to speak for all the fighters when, while watching the competitors after his bout was over, he said he “fell in love with” all of the other combatants during their time together. He was grinning from ear to ear, despite the tough fight he was just in. He said he “didn’t hear a thing” while it was going on – the rest of the world just faded away. He’s so jovial that just one question begs to be asked: Wasn’t he scared to step into the ring?

At that, he manages to smile even wider.

“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Terrified.”

 

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