INSIDER: Willis builds on growing tradition
Dominic Iannelli | Friday, February 26, 2016
Bengal Bouts captain senior Brian Willis’s journey to boxing dates back nearly 70 years.
In fact, Willis credits a Notre Dame alumnus for leading him to the ring and introducing him to the club that ultimately shaped his college experience.
“My freshman summer, I ended up working for a guy who was a 1953 [graduate],” Willis explained. “He had done Bengal Bouts all four years. He totally convinced me over the course of the summer. He sold me on it well.
“Later on, he told me that from his time at Notre Dame, the three things he cherished most were the friends he made, his Bengal Bouts jacket and his diploma. Now that I’m sitting here just about done, I look back at the full picture and I couldn’t agree more.”
For the Duncan Hall resident and Rutherford, New Jersey, native, Bengal Bouts has become one of the highlights of Willis’ time at Notre Dame, he said. He emphasized his thankfulness first and foremost for the lifelong friends he has met through the club.
“I have enjoyed getting to know the guys,” Willis said. “That’s always the best part — the people you meet. These guys have become some of my best friends.”
In addition to the camaraderie he built through grueling workouts four times a week, Willis said he is particularly proud of the positive impact he and his fellow boxers are able to make on the Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh, the beneficiary of all Bengal Bouts ticket sales and fundraisers.
“What I’ve enjoyed is being able to leverage our physical abilities to give back to Bangladesh,” Willis said. “I always joke around with my family that I can use my innate ability to get punched in the face to raise money for missionaries.
“A lot of guys look at charitable work and say ‘okay, I’m gonna make a difference until I start making X amount of dollars and I can donate and give back.’ We’re not in that position to really be that charitable at our age. We don’t have much to give away. But these are very real contributions. It’s not some petty $5,000 check that shows we’re trying to help things but in reality just doing a boxing tournament. This is extremely tangible impact, not some little thing. That’s my favorite part: being able to make a big impact.”
In fact, Willis said the club plans to raise over $100,000 for the cause through ticket sales, fundraising, and donations. Last year, Bengal Bouts raised upwards of $130,000, a record total, Willis said.
As for the actual tournament, Willis said one memory in particular that stands out. His sophomore year, he lost to senior Brett Sassetti, a two-time Bengal Bouts champion who, according to Willis, would have been a 3-time winner were it not for a concussion he suffered his junior year. Willis said the fight in the 180 pound weight class quarterfinals was a grueling one.
“He pounded me,” Willis said. “I put up a good fight and did my best as a sophomore novice. There was no shame in the way that I lost, but I got beat up pretty good. There was a mutual respect between us. It always happens whenever you meet someone in the ring — you always become friends afterward.”
The real meaning of this match came a year later, after Sassetti graduated, and Willis had just won the 184 pound title as a junior.
“When I won last year, he was there watching me in the stands,” Willis said. “So I’m coming out to see my family, and he’s one of the first guys I see. He got out of his chair, came over to me, congratulated me, and started talking to me. I thought that was so cool that there was this guy I had never really known until we fought, like five minutes before we got into the ring.
“The way I describe it is that a guy who I had not met until he beat me up in front of all my friends and family became an advocate for me and really pulled for me in the fight and I thought that was so cool.”
In less than a week, Willis’ Bengal Bouts career will be over. Having led workouts, coached underclassmen, spearheaded fundraising and promoted the Bouts as a captain, he will conclude his term, potentially with a second consecutive title. And though he nears the end of his Bengal Bouts career, Willis said the impact of the Bouts will never leave him.
“Getting back to those three things: friends, Bengal Bouts, diploma,” Willis said. “It’s a fraternity that I’ll always be a part of. This has undoubtedly become a stamp on my life. This is not going to leave me anytime soon. I’m always going to come back every year and follow the Bengal Bouts in some capacity. I know 15-20 years from now I’ll find myself down in The Pit helping some guys out when I come to campus.
“It’s always going to be be a part of me. It will always be a cherished memory from my time at Notre Dame, knowing it will be there annually. I’m always going to be involved to some extent.”