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Bengal Bouts: An unlikely president

Kate Gales | Friday, March 2, 2007

Driving away from Zahm’s freshman orientation, Andrew McGill’s father’s last words were about the Bengal Bouts.

They were an admonition to his son not to compete in the boxing tournament.

“One of the last things he said to me when he was leaving campus was that he didn’t want me to join Bengal Bouts,” the senior president and captain recalled. “He thought I would join the club and break my nose, hurt myself all the time – that it wouldn’t be good physically for me.”

McGill had already expressed an interest in the Bouts thanks to a fellow Erie, Pa., native – Rob Joyce, who had boxed at Notre Dame before McGill enrolled in the University.

At the first activities night, despite his father’s stern warning, McGill decided to join the boxing club.

“A couple of my friends and I decided we would sign up and join the club, but we never really planned on actually boxing in the tournament,” he said. “I originally wanted to get in shape and learn how to box, but I thought I’d actually just get beaten up by all the people who were part of the program.”

McGill now finds himself leading more than 200 amateur boxers through grueling workouts, fighting techniques and fundraising activities as well as organizing the event with other leaders.

He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I realized these guys weren’t that much better than I was”

McGill had played soccer and golf and skied prior to his Bengal Bouts experience. But nothing prepared him for the first punches and that inaugural trip into the ring.

His freshman year was an eye-opening experience, as he joined the squad to get in shape and learn to box as a workout, not as competition.

“Once we started throwing punches [in practice] and learning how to block them, I realized these guys weren’t that much better than I was,” he said, recalling his first boxing practices. “They had more skill, but I could compete with them – and if I committed myself to the program, I would be able to do well in the program.”

McGill threw himself into training.

“That was the turning point when I decided that I was going to do it and would work to winning [the tournament] eventually,” he said.

After months of work, McGill entered the tournament seeded third in the 140-pound weight class after a first-round bye.

His opponent was a veteran fighter who had already won his preliminary fight.

“Getting in the ring, stepping in there under the lights, hearing the crowd and knowing that every single pair of eyes is looking right at you … it really changes all the dimensions of the fight,” he said.

Adjusting from training in the basement with your teammates to fighting in front of arena crowds was difficult – a common experience for beginners.

“It’s really exciting but it also makes you incredibly nervous to be in that environment and experience those people watching you,” McGill said. “You have a tendency to forget what you’ve learned – a lot of guys will step into that ring and get overwhelmed with their emotions.”

McGill lost to his more experienced opponent in a split decision. His opponent went on to win the weight class, but that didn’t console McGill. Looking back, he said he was frustrated that he forgot his style of boxing once he got into the ring and didn’t fight as well as he could have.

“One of the big obstacles I learned [to adapt to] was not to let the whole environment take over you,” he said. “You have to step into that ring and acclimate yourself to the environment but also remember everything you’ve learned. You have to take that rush and use it to build up the adrenaline.”

Those months of training had gone for just a few minutes in the ring. For McGill, it was disheartening at first, but eventually, he used the fight as motivation to train even harder for the next year.

“I had worked so hard to achieve something, and I didn’t get there,” he said.

As a sophomore, McGill made it to the semifinals before losing, again to the eventual champion.

Finally, last year, he won his weight class. Going into senior year, however, his focus wasn’t just on fighting and winning again. He was named president, and that brought a whole new set of duties into his ring.

“As president, your tasks increase enormously”

Devotion to the Bengal Bouts program has been key for McGill.

“Boxing – especially with Bengal Bouts, and especially as captain and president, it’s really about commitment,” McGill said. “You have to be really committed to the program and to the training. You may win a match, but you won’t win the tournament.”

The long-term goals of Bengal Bouts especially resonate with its fundraising aspect. This year’s tournament, according to McGill, had raised over $100,000 before expenses. McGill has been involved with various service organizations for years. In high school, he was in the Key Club and did other volunteer work. As president of the Bengal Bouts, he recognizes the importance of raising money for the Holy Cross mission in Bangladesh and has used his leadership role to educate others about this.

“You only realize this when you get to be a senior – all the money that’s raised goes such a long way,” McGill said. “We’ve done a huge amount of fundraising so far. Knowing that all this money is going toward such a great cause really inspires you to go out and encouraged me to keep putting in all this time to help these people.”

In Bangladesh, the Holy Cross mission runs a university, hospital and shelter for women, among other projects.

“It’s such an extensive mission and without the Bengal Bouts they wouldn’t be able to accomplish half as much as it does right now,” McGill said. “That’s very rewarding.”

The goal itself was also rewarding for McGill. He said that as a freshman, he set a goal of being president of the Bengal Bouts.

“My favorite memory of the Bouts was when I first found out I was going to be president,” he said. “It was a goal I had committed myself to when I decided I was really going to do boxing. … I always looked up to the guys, my freshman and sophomore year and junior years. I was amazed at how they could juggle all the different tasks that went into Bengal Bouts as well as have a social life and do well in school. They’ve been such great boxers, such great people.”

As president, McGill has invested a huge amount of time in the Bouts, describing his job as “making sure it works as smoothly as possible.”

He said he trains for about three hours every day, and spends several more hours working with the managers, captains, coaches, RecSports and other boxers to coordinate the tournament.

For example, during the tournament it is imperative to have EMTs present and to ensure that both boxers in the ring have someone in their corner to offer water, advice and encouragement.

There’s always something for McGill to be working on – but he manages to keep it going by being organized.

“[Bengal Bouts] really helps you with time management,” he said. “I have to organize my entire life around being down in the boxing gym. I have to make sure I can do well in school but still spend a few hours every day in the gym working on technique or helping other guys, and also working on the logistics of the tournament.”

Do all those hours of responsibility pay off? For McGill, it’s an unconditional yes.

“It’s a huge responsibility, but its well worth it,” he said. “You see how much money you’ve raised and you can help out so many people.”

Moving on

After this year, McGill will join the thousands of Bengal Bouts alumni around the country.

“Each person who’s been part of the Bengal Bouts is willing to go completely out of their way to help you out,” he said. “Joining that community is such a great group of people, it’s neat to be a part of that.”

Two alumni have been particularly influential to him: Tom Suddes, who travels to campus from his hometown of Dublin, Ohio, to help train boxers, and Terry Johnson, a lawyer from Chicago who helps finance and organize the tournament.

“They really support the captains and take a lot of the workload off us,” McGill said. “Without these two guys, the Bengal Bouts would definitely not be as successful as it has been.”

When McGill took a job with British Petroleum in Chicago, he knew he would be able to come back for the Bouts – something he said was a factor in the decision.

For McGill, the memories of Bengal Bouts are something he will take with him forever, and he looks forward to coming back and helping as an alumnus.

“I couldn’t even really tell you what classes I took or who the professors were for each class [freshman year],” he said. “But I can tell you minute-by-minute the first time I stepped into the boxing ring and how that felt and the emotions that were involved with that. I look down the road ten years from now, and I know I had a great time at Notre Dame and that I challenged myself academically, but some of my fondest memories will be goofing out down in the gym and stepping into the ring and boxing.”

And what about his dad, who will be in the stands with other family members this week?

“He’s come to be very comfortable with me in the ring every day boxing other guys,” McGill said. “He agrees that joining Bengal Bouts is the best thing I could have done at Notre Dame with the people I’ve met and the things I’ve been able to accomplish.”