‘It’s kind of like a cult:’ Bengal Bouts kick off Sunday at Joyce Center
Benjamin Padanilam | Friday, February 12, 2016
When the boxers in Bengal Bouts take the ring Sunday, it will be the culmination of more than four months of training and sacrifice for every fighter in the program.
The competitors started their training in the first week of October and took over the Pit after Baraka Bouts finished in early November. Each day of practice since has focused on developing both the physical endurance necessary to compete and the technique required to succeed, senior captain Mike Grasso said.
“A lot of our practicing focuses on high-endurance, very intense, but not long workouts,” Grasso said. “Our workouts can be as short as 12 minutes and never more than 20 minutes. We might do two rounds of those workouts, but the individual set of workouts will not be longer than 20 minutes because they are so high intensity … and we’ll keep our rest intervals very short.
“ … The main part of technique that we focus on is precision. If you do everything perfectly, then you’re not going to get hit, and you’re going to score more points, so we really focus on breaking down all of our movements so that there’s no wasted energy and all of your punches and movements are as small and direct and compact as possible, but you’re also getting that full extension on your punches.”
When they are in the gym, the boxers are put through the most difficult workouts their coaches can dream up, with the goal of developing mental toughness. Senior captain Sean Himel said one of the toughest workouts the team does is called the ton-up.
“Coach [Neil MacDonald] is absurd,” Himel said. “He has the craziest workouts, and one of them is called a ton-up. It’s whenever you do 10 different exercises, and you only do them 10 times. But then you run 10 sprints in between them, and then you knock off one every time and you keep going. It’s absurd, and it just teaches you the intense amount of mental toughness that you need, and I think that’s one of the biggest things that boxing teaches you.”
Perhaps the most difficult workout, however, is the annual “1,000 pushup day” that the team is put through, junior captain Alex Alcantara said.
“We have a day every year where we don’t really tell people when we’re going to have this event, and basically it’s as bad as it sounds. You do 1,000 pushups in one day. So that’s one of the workouts that people really kinda feel for a couple days after.”
In the end, the level of the training the boxers are put through enables them to reach their peak physical and mental shape, Grasso said.
“[In practice], we focus on breaking through that initial mental breakdown of saying ‘I wanna quit, I don’t have anymore,’” Grasso said.
Training goes beyond the fighters’ designated practice, however. The team has morning workouts every Monday and Wednesday leading up to the Bouts, and fighters will often come in to work the bags and develop punching endurance, Grasso said. Ultimately, many fighters work out three to four hours each day, six days per week, from October up until the Bouts.
“Outside of practice time, a lot of people have to work on their boxing endurance because being in great physical shape is one thing, but you also need to be able to punch for two minutes straight,” Grasso said. “Your shoulders need to be able to have that endurance to punch for two minutes, so a lot of guys will work the bag for example for like a two-minute round, and they’ll do that for up to 10 rounds.”
While getting into the proper physical and mental shape is a responsibility the competitors take on outside the ring, the development of technique comes from the program’s coaching staff.
“I would define my role as coach is to instruct, evaluate and provide a constructive and safe environment for our boxers to help them reach their full potential in and outside the ring,” head coach Nathan Walker, who has been with the program since 2010, said. “Through group and individual instruction, we are focused on the principles of amateur boxing to develop skills needed to compete in the bouts.”
Skill development begins with grasping the defensive techniques, Walker said.
“Coach Chad Harms states it the best: ‘The object is to not get hit,’” Walker said. “Once they have a good grasp on the defensive principles, we will evaluate each boxer, usually on an individual basis, to promote and develop their strengths. For example, if there is a boxer that has a great fundamental jab, we will coach them on how to use the jab more effectively though movement and timing.”
One of the greatest challenges each year for the coaches is helping the novices who join the program get up to speed, Walker said. It is also one of the most rewarding parts of his job, because he gets to watch each young man grow over the course of the few months he works with them, Walker said.
“The uniqueness and beauty of the boxing programs at Notre Dame is that the majority of students have no prior experience with boxing,” Walker said. “Whether it is our storied workouts or a ‘bucket list’ item, each year we have around 100 individuals new to boxing. The most gratifying [thing] as a coach is to see the development of the boxers in technique and to see their fitness level change to have the stamina to last three rounds.
“I am always so proud of those individuals that get into the ring, because there are no timeouts and there is no backdoor. Preparing yourself and having the fortitude to step in the ring is an experience that all boxers can feel a great sense of accomplishment.”
Perhaps the most difficult adjustment for these novices is the level of commitment required. Both physically and mentally, the training has pushed many of them in ways they’ve never been pushed before, freshman Cam Nolan said.
“The training is definitely hard, and it’s more painful than I expected,” Nolan said. “ … [MacDonald] always tells us that, ‘When you think you can’t give anymore, you’ve only given 60 percent,’ and it’s all a mental thing. It’s really what I’ve realized: Pain is what you want it to be. It’s just another thing, [and] it doesn’t necessarily have to stop you. It was amazing how all of us were able to keep on going even though it hurt, and then eventually it just stopped hurting.
“ … It’s [also] amazing how much of a technique sport it is, that you just have to put in hours and hours and hours to get good at it, so that’s really what surprised me.”
The program’s captains place a special emphasis on taking time to work with novices and help them improve throughout the training process. This aspect of the program is unique to Notre Dame, Grasso said.
“When I go up to them and correct them on something they’re doing wrong with their boxing or encourage them in a workout, I would always ask them their name and introduce myself, so they would know my name and I would know their name, really open that line of communication,” Grasso said. “I think that not only fostered that good relationship and team building that we’re talking about, but it really helped people excel as boxers because people are always willing to help other people.”
Now, as the months of training comes to an end, Himel said the boxers are ready to take the ring and display the end product of all of their hard work when the preliminary round gets underway at 3 p.m. Sunday in the JACC. However, it is also important the fighters do not forget the journey they have undertaken to get to this point, he added.
“I’m beyond excited,” Himel said. “I’m about to jump through the roof. But the sad part about the whole experience is that if you don’t enjoy the journey, you know, half of us won’t make it past the preliminary rounds. That’s just the nature of the beast, so the great thing about the team aspect of our program is that we’re able to just grow with one another.
“It’s kind of like a cult. We’ll do anything for each other, and we really do love each other.”