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Bengal Bouts: ‘Building a bridge’

Matt Gamber | Friday, February 27, 2009

Not many college seniors can pinpoint the day their life’s purpose became clear, but Mark Weber can.

It was last summer, halfway around the world in Bangladesh – a place where no Notre Dame student had been before. A place Bengal Bouts participants had for 79 years helped financially but had never actually seen. A place Weber found not weakness, pain and despair, but strength, love and hope.

“We had just visited a school that had been built and was funded by the Bengal Bouts, and these girls had sang for us and almost all of us cried,” said Weber, the boxing club president who, along with one former and three current Notre Dame boxers, spent two weeks in Bangladesh last summer.

“We were back in our room, taking it all in, and [former boxer] Pat Ryan turned to me and said, ‘Dude, the entire purpose of my existence in this world changed today. That’s big.’ And I felt the same thing,” Weber said. “It’s a reorientation of the way you look at life, and that permeates into every day we spend here.

“Having a daily awareness of that helps us not only to be better boxers, but to be better people and better citizens of the global family, rather than just students at the University of Notre Dame who are boxing.”

‘Strong Bodies Fight’

Notre Dame’s Bengal Bouts program, in partnership with the Holy Cross missions, has been making significant financial contributions to the impoverished country of Bangladesh (formerly Bengal) since 1931.

Now, though, the results of those efforts have a face, a heart, a soul.

“I’m most proud of building this bridge to Bangladesh from the Bengal Bouts,” said Weber, a Grand Rapids, Mich. native. “Our relationship with Bangladesh is no longer just a check that gets sent over every year. It is a relationship, a friendship and a tie that we want to live on.”

The program annually sends upwards of $50,000 to Bangladesh, primarily to fund educational initiatives – an investment, Weber said, not a donation.

“We’re investing in the children there so that they can be empowered to have a better life,” Weber said. “We’re not just giving them a handout, we’re giving them an opportunity to better themselves. Knowing that your time in the Bengal Bouts is an investment both in yourself and in somebody all the way across the world, that’s what makes it truly special and truly unique.”

As a member of the boxing club, and as a Film, Television and Theatre (FTT) major, Weber said he saw “the opportunity to do something new and special with the Bengal Bouts.”

During his sophomore year, he began to envision a documentary detailing the missions in Bangladesh. Acting on the advice of a friend, who told him not to wait but rather to make the idea a reality, Weber stayed on campus over fall break of his junior year to establish contact with several Holy Cross priests about his idea – which was originally to travel alone with a camera, but soon evolved into something much larger.

“I realized this was something so big that I wanted to do justice to this film,” Weber said. “I didn’t want it to be a student film – I wanted it to be a professional documentary.”

Weber, with help from longtime Bengal Bouts coach and businessman Tom Suddes, used the program’s strong alumni base to raise the money necessary to fund the trip.

“I think [the alumni’s] generosity says something about the program,” Weber said. “That the four years, or even one year, they did Bengal Bouts at Notre Dame was one of the most impactful experiences of their entire life.”

So Weber, Ryan and four current Notre Dame boxers – seniors Leo Rubinkowski, Tomas Castillo and Patrick Martin – headed to Bangladesh with FTT professor William Donaruma and a professional film crew to shoot documentary footage and experience first-hand the fruits of the program’s labor for the first time.

The film’s title, “Strong Bodies Fight”, is derived from a quote that defines the Bengal Bouts’ mission:?”Strong bodies fight, that weak bodies may be nourished.”

But Weber said his interpretation of that quote, from director emeritus Dominic “Nappy”?Napolitano, was changed after his time in Bangladesh.

“It’s easy for us to go into a place like that and think, ‘I am the one who has everything to give. I am the strong body fighting for the weak,'” Weber said. “But when you go there, you realize they’re strong, too. They have something to offer, and you have to be willing to listen to the people.”

Weber said that message is one that can only be conveyed through a continued student presence in Bangladesh.

“There needs to be that connection to Bangladesh that stays with the program, and it can only be through the students,” Weber said. “Every year there’s got to be boxers coming back saying, ‘Look, we’ve been there, we know what it’s like. We’ve seen how what we do over here has a positive impact over there.'”

Spreading the message

The film will broadcast that positive impact beginning with its premiere on campus next November.

“The film is going to be a tremendous vehicle for positive change,” Weber said. “We see an opportunity to tell a story about people having made a difference in the world, in hopes of inspiring others to make a difference.”

The documentary, which is currently in post-production, will be released on DVD and submitted to various film festivals, Weber said.

A current Student International Business Council (SIBC) project is also dedicated to marketing the film. The project’s primary goal is to convince the university to run a spot for the film as one of its institutional commercials during an Irish football game on NBC this fall.

The institutionals are typically research-focused, but Weber said the University would show one that portrays “the essential Notre Dame.”

“There’s very few things, I think, that illustrate ‘the essential Notre Dame’ more than Bengal Bouts,” Weber said. “It’s tradition, athletics, service, brotherhood. All those things that we love about Notre Dame the most are really epitomized in the Bengal Bouts, and I think that’s why it’s so special.”

The SIBC team also hopes to convince NBC that airing the full documentary would be profitable for the network. The group is finalizing surveys for Notre Dame alumni and students of other universities to prove there exists a significant potential viewing audience for the documentary.

“Our goal is exposure for the film, and getting that out to millions of people would be great for our program,” Weber said. “It’s not about any single one of us – it’s not about me or the current captains. It’s about this brotherhood of people who, for 80 years, have sought to make the world a better place.”

Leaving a legacy

Weber’s time with the Bengal Bouts, both in the ring and across the world, have certainly shaped his Notre Dame experience. He’s made two trips to Bangladesh – last summer, and in December on a grant for his senior thesis – and has given presentations, written papers and, of course, made a film about those experiences.

But Weber’s work as president has, just as greatly, changed the culture of the program.

His work with the missions helped the Center for Social Concerns establish an annual International Summer Service Learning Program that will send four boxers to Bangladesh each summer for six weeks. That program, along with the film – not the outcome of his title bout Saturday – will be his legacy.

“That’s what I wanted to leave this program with,” Weber said. “I’m proud of it, but it’s also something that our program needed, and something I’m glad I was able to help foster.”

One quote from Aristotle, written on a piece of paper his mother gave him after his high school graduation, has defined Weber’s time at Notre Dame: “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation.”

For Weber, that was in Bangladesh.

“If there’s one thing I’ve really tried to do here at Notre Dame, it’s to use my talents to whatever I find the needs of the world to be,” Weber said. “I certainly don’t think I’ve solved all the world’s problems, but I think it’s important that Notre Dame, through the Bengal Bouts, offers a way to make the world a better place.

“The small efforts we can make here do have a big impact on somebody else’s life.”