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Bouts’ gloves up for 76th year in the ring

Marcela Berrios | Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Bengal Bouts, the annual amateur Notre Dame boxing tournament that raises tens of thousands of dollars for the Holy Cross Mission in Bangladesh, began Tuesday night as more than 50 contenders met in the ring in the Joyce Center.

Now in their 76th year, the Bengal Bouts are a staple of Notre Dame athletic tradition. Proceeds from the Bengal Bouts have been donated to the Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh – formerly known as the East Bengal province of India – every year since 1931.

The Bengal Bouts brought in $500 in 1931, a number that had grown to $100,000 by last year. The money raised has helped build several elementary and secondary schools in Bangladesh and also has launched several medical care and nutritional programs in the region.

Senior Michael Schmitt returned to the Bengal Bouts ring Tuesday night after a yearlong absence, since he spent a semester abroad. He won the 140-pound weight division two years ago.

“I think the competition is much more challenging this time around,” Schmitt said. “There are just a lot of really talented kids in the program this year.”

Most of the Bengal Bouts contenders enter the program without any prior experience in boxing, according to the Bouts’ Web site.

Junior and senior captains assist the coaches in leading the students’ fitness drills and introduction to basic boxing techniques – such as how to throw and block punches – and footwork.

Junior captain Andrew McGill, a winner Tuesday night, said the training is intense, often demanding three or four hours every day.

Aspiring champions must perform more than 300 push-ups, 500 sit-ups and 1,000 jumping jacks every day before the training matches even begin, McGill said.

Though the program is physically demanding and time consuming, McGill said the Bengal Bouts offer a team-like experience that attracts students.

“This is the only program I’ve ever heard about where guys that will eventually have to fight each other spend a month and a half as a group, doing drills and training together, and becoming friends,” he said. “When the championships finally begin, you fight each other and it’s intense, but when it’s over, as soon as you step out of the ring, you’re immediately friends again.”

Freshman Joey Leary, a winner Tuesday night in the 150-pound division, said it was the program’s seriousness and intensity he found appealing.

“I was a pretty committed athlete in high school, but I’m not currently in any varsity team, so Bengal Bouts really caught my attention and gave me an opportunity to stay involved in a serious sport,” he said.

Some years, the crowds the fights draw are surpassed only by those at football games. The 1999 finals were the second most attended athletic event of the year, the Bouts’ Web site said.

“I used to box, so I know from experience there is nothing more invigorating while you’re fighting than the crowd’s energy,” Bouts announcer and law student Jeff Robinson said.

Junior Katherine Coba said she has a friend competing this year and is looking forward to cheering him on.

“I never thought I’d like boxing, but the Bengal Bouts have a really noble purpose, and since you know the guys who are boxing, it’s really exciting to watch,” Coba said.

The Bouts’ Web site gives a detailed history of the event’s presence at Notre Dame.

Irish football coach Knute Rockne first brought boxing to South Bend in the 1920s with the intention of keeping his players in shape during the spring semester.

The program was taken over in 1931 and expanded by a boxer from New York, Dominic “Nappy” Napolitano, who directed and coached the Bengal Bouts for 55 years.

Napolitano introduced an Olympic boxing style to the Bouts in which fights are scored by the number of punches landed, as opposed to professional boxing, where the strength and impact of the punches often determine the winner.

Knockdowns in the Bengal Bouts’ ring are not a common sight, as Notre Dame boxers learn instead a style of boxing that focuses on technique, agility and movement.

And the Bouts go beyond the Notre Dame community. The celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Bengal Bouts in 2000 brought boxing legend Muhammad Ali to South Bend to receive a special Bengal Bout Award, given every year to an outstanding figure in boxing and humanitarian causes.

Other recipients of the award include Father Ned Joyce and two-time world middleweight champion Tony Zale, “the Gary Man of Steel.”