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BENGAL BOUTS: From Nappy to Now

Eric Retter | Friday, March 18, 2005

Knute Rockne would never have guessed it. The Notre Dame Boxing Club, a team he founded in 1923 for the primary purpose of keeping his football squad conditioned in the off-season, is now the largest collegiate boxing club in the country outside of the military academies, and arguably the most famous and visible intramural athletic program in America.

This year, the club celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Bengal Bouts, the annual boxing tournament first started in 1931 by Dominic “Nappy” Napolitano, a name deserving the same respect as Rockne, Parseghian and Leahy in the lore of Notre Dame athletic history for his efforts with the Bengal Bouts and the Boxing Club. In the half century spanning their inception in 1931 through his retirement as coach in 1980, Napolitano put all his energy into the Bengal Bouts, and he came to personify the Notre Dame tradition he created.

“Nappy was the guy and the coach for almost 50 years,” current boxing coach Tom Suddes said. “This was his life at Notre Dame.”

In his passion for and dedication to the program and to the young men who fought in it, the childless Napolitano turned a countless number of fighters into his surrogate sons over the years.

“He was a great coach and a wonderful man,” Suddes said. “He was literally a father figure to so many kids coming through.”

Suddes should know. He was not only one of those sons, but has been the coach and the man, along with Terry Johnson, most responsible for continuing the program since Napolitano’s death in 1986.

“I got very close with him my freshman year [1967],” he said. “I came back to be in the development office in ’73 so I was able to be there when he tried the transition in the coaching.”

While he was the mentor to many of them, Napolitano was always their coach, and under his tutelage, numerous noteworthy accomplishments took place in the boxing ring. The most impressive of these achievements is also the rarest: in the history of the program, only 9 fighters have won the championship for four straight years, the first of these, Bill “Zip” Roemer, won his titles in the early 1940s.

These achievements become even more impressive when one realizes that, especially in more recent years, they exactly match the length of the champion’s boxing careers.

“Very few people who have gone through this program have had any boxing experience before,” Suddes said. “You come in, its new, you learn it, you throw yourself into it, and sometimes you only fight one year and sometimes you fight all four.”

However, champion or not, every boxer has made a serious physical commitment in return for membership and the right to compete in the Bengal Bouts. Each year, boxers have typically gone through 6 weeks of intense training and preparation leading in to the tournament.

The Bengal Bouts serve as the culmination of up to a half-semester’s worth of pushups, situps, sparring and conditioning.

“The boxing reputation as one of the most demanding sports holds true, especially here in the boxing club,” current Boxing Club president Galen Loughrey said.

Throughout these 75 years, thousands of young fighters have willingly traded countless hours of sweat and practice time for the opportunity to fight in the Bouts – an opportunity that ends each year in 4-and-a-half minutes or less for exactly half of them.

Why then, have so many men committed so much of their time and energy for a guarantee of 1 match that might not even last as long as the time it takes to dress for it?

Maybe it’s because the Bengal Bouts represent something bigger than a chance to win a championship.

The tournament derived its name from the Holy Cross Mission compound in Daka, Bangladesh, a city that was formerly called Bengal. The mission, which has been in Daka for 150 years, is made up a school, college, seminary, orphanage and hospital, all of which depend heavily upon donations.

Each year, after covering expenses, the Boxing Club donates 100 percent of the money raised from the Bengal Bouts to the mission. Annually, the Boxing Club’s contribution is the highest single contribution the missions receive. In 1931, the missions received $500 from the Boxing Club.

This year, the fundraising goal is $75,000.

“A dollar here is ten dollars there. We send over 50, 60, 70 thousand dollars. That’s like a half a million dollars over there, so you can actually buy an awful lot of stuff and take care of an awful lot of people,” Suddes said.

The charitable aspect of the program is what set it apart in its foundation and continues to set it apart today.

Napolitano’s slogan “Strong bodies fight so that weak bodies may be nourished” has become the mantra of the Bengal Bouts. However, even in defeat, the program has shown to have enriching qualities for the boxers just through their participation.

“I’ve gotten a bunch of e-mails from guys who just said, ‘my gosh, it was the best thing that ever happened to me at Notre Dame, and I use the stuff I learned in boxing every single day,'” Suddes said.

Because their time is dedicated to the well-being of others, boxers come away with an intensely personal sense of achievement. This enables the Bengal Bouts to forge a unique status.

“I think that’s what kept it alive so long, the passion behind it, to be able to be part of something that’s greater than you’ll ever be,” Loughrey said.

The Boxing Club has been growing recently, and this year 135 people participated in the bouts. At the 75th anniversary of the Bengal Bouts, there has been much reflection and recommitment to the values of the club. This year, the Nappy Legacy Society was founded, celebrating Napolitano’s contribution and also raising money for the missions by inviting Boxing Club Alums to make a $750 dollar donation.

However, now is also a time to look forward.

“Where will this program be in 25 years? I could easily see this on TV, a little more coverage of the fights then,” Suddes said. “I think this will be one of those great programs at Notre Dame that celebrates its 100th anniversary with a great night of fights and great kids coming through.”

In all his years with the Bengal Bouts, one night from 1976 stands out clearly for Suddes, specifically the fight between linebackers Jimmy Browner and Doug Becker.

“It was the best fight I’ve ever seen in all these years. Those guys went at it toe-to-toe for three rounds. There were 10,000 people in the ACC who just stood up the whole time. Those guys just never gave an inch,” he recalled.

However, some details have been lost by memory.

“I honestly don’t even remember who won. I’m not even sure anyone who was there remembers. People were just standing and yelling and cheering,” Suddes said.

And that’s why they’re still putting on the gloves.