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Bengal Bouts: Boxing coach starting to reach legendary level

Dan Murphy | Friday, February 27, 2009

Bengal Bouts is a well established institution in South Bend.

By now you’ve heard about the 79-year-old amateur boxing tournament. You’ve heard about the lives it changes in Bangladesh and the endless hours each fighter dedicates to training. You may have even heard about the infamous “1,000 day” – the annual dreaded Friday afternoon when each boxer reps out four digits worth of push-ups in a little more than an hour.

What you may not know is the force that drives each and every one of these things. The force that has remained more or less unchanged for the past 40 years. That force is Tom Suddes.

In a tiny, cramped gym, so humid that you can taste the sweat in the air, a couple hundred young men in peak physical condition lay flat on the floor, exhausted. The Bengal Bout fighters have just finished 1,000 Day. It’s no easy task, but Suddes does each one leading the way.

“I decided we were going to do that about 10 or 12 years ago,” he said. “That’s really one of those days you don’t forget.”

Suddes will be 60 years old before the snow melts in South Bend this year, but he can still hang with the athletes a third of his age. He was pounding out push-ups long before any of these guys were born.

In 1968 Suddes began his career with Bengal Bouts as a freshman at Notre Dame. He said the workouts haven’t really changed since then. He won championships in 1969 and 1970. But it was until ’71 that the then-club president began to really make his mark.

In his senior year Suddes became very close to Notre Dame boxing legend Dominic Napolitano. Nappy, as he is lovingly known, had been around since the beginning. He was a close friend of Knute Rockne and the founding father of Bengal Bouts.

“Nappy got really sick my senior year. He had heart problems and really wasn’t around very much because he had all these medical things. I ended up getting really into the whole program that year and I just loved it,” Suddes said.

Nappy recognized the hard work. Suddes spent the next two years serving in the Army, but after that he was right back in the gym. The legend was aging and wanted to pass his torch to Suddes.

The job was far from glorious. Nappy offered his new assistant a salary of $300 a year. Luckily, Suddes landed a job in the campus development office and was able to support his family while still finding time to do what he loved.

The Suddes family lived in the area until 1985 when the coach’s new job forced him to move to Columbus, Ohio. Suddes still lives in Ohio managing the Suddes Group and Full Impact. Both are companies he started to offer training and coaching to non-profit organizations.

“We try to help people change the world,” Suddes said, summing up his work.

Every winter he carves out six weeks from his work schedule to do a little world-changing of his own. Suddes makes the four-hour commute from Columbus to South Bend every week to teach Notre Dame’s fighting Irish about boxing and about life.

Suddes spends Monday through Friday of those weeks in a local hotel room before returning home for the weekends. He spends a lot of that time away from home indulging in his second great passion in life – books.

“Books are just a great place to get ideas,” he said. “They have had a huge impact on my life. I probably read a couple every week.”

It was a book that first got Suddes interested in boxing as a senior in high school. He uses books to teach fighters in and outside of the ring. Suddes has a personal library of over 3,000 books and thinks he has probably given away another thousand along the way. He has even written a few of his own, many of them in his hotel rooms in South Bend.

Along with the six-week training period, the coach also makes the journey four more times a year to referee on fight nights. Suddes has been donning the bow tie since the ’70s. It’s just one more thing that he learned from Nappy over the years.

Suddes said the biggest change that he has seen in his time with the Bouts is the connection to the missions in Bangladesh.

“Back then we knew there were missions in Bangladesh, but that’s about as far as it went,” he said.

This year that connection took a major leap forward. For the first time ever boxers made the trip to the Holy Cross missions to see the effects of the money they were raising. Before that trip the only member of the Notre Dame Boxing club to make it to Bangladesh had been Tom Suddes.

Sitting in the back of a Bob Evan’s in 1996, Suddes read about a contest for micro entrepreneurs in Success Magazine. He jotted his answer to the question on the back of his placemat and sent it in immediately. In the next month’s issue he read that he had won the grand prize, a trip around the world.

The 23-day journey took Suddes all over the globe. When he was in India he managed to sneak into Bangladesh for a couple of days to see these villages he had been helping for three decades.

Before that trip, no one had seen the fruits of the Bengal Bouts labor, not even Nappy.

Despite the decades of hard work and the leaps and bounds he has taken for the program, Suddes shrugs off any comparisons to his predecessor.

“Oh no, I’m not going there,” he said with a laugh.

Well then, allow me.

Tom Suddes is the force that powers arguably the best tradition that Notre Dame has to offer. Suddes has changed more lives and done more for the Bengal Bouts than any single person in the past 40 years, and maybe ever.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily The Observer.

Contact Dan Murphy at dmurphy6@nd.edu