Tom Suddes embodies message of Bengal Bouts
Daniel O'Boyle | Tuesday, March 1, 2016
Over the 86 years of the Bengal Bouts program, countless Notre Dame students have trained for months to fight. For many, it has sent them halfway across the world to visit Bangladesh, where the proceeds from the annual competition go to help Holy Cross missions. For Tom Suddes, who was honored during Sunday’s finals, the Bouts sent him back to Notre Dame, every year, as a coach, trainer and referee.
Suddes received an honorary monogram for his work with the program in 2014, but just months later, he was diagnosed with ALS. Suddes is no longer able to coach, but he was able to attend the Bouts once more this year to be recognized for his commitment to the program.
Suddes’ story with the program started, like many Notre Dame students, in his freshman year. His brother, Mike, said his devotion to the program was clear from his time as a student.
“Tom was a freshman here in September of 1967,” Mike Suddes said. “How he got introduced, I don’t know, but he started working with the novice program as a freshman, and then he fought in the Bengal Bouts as a freshman, and he fought all four years. He was the president of the club his fourth year, and he won two championships, in his sophomore and his junior year.”
After two years in the U.S. Army, Suddes returned to Notre Dame to work in the development office and returned to the program he cherished as a student. When he left South Bend to found a fundraising company, he could have been forgiven for leaving the program, but each year, without fail, Suddes returned to coach the boxers. Mike Suddes said the camaraderie and charity of the Bouts always ensured Tom would stay connected.
“He just got an association with the program, it’s just an outstanding program,” Mike Suddes said. “It was extremely physically challenging, the vast majority of guys that fight — and the women that fight in the Baraka Bouts — have very little or no experience in boxing before they come here. It’s a club sport; somehow a roommate or someone else in the dorm says you should come out and do it, and the next thing you know, guys are doing exactly what you saw out there.
“And if you want to see why this sport is unique and why this program is unique even within the sport, watch the way these guys hug after a fight. It’s pretty sincere. Tom and I sparred together for many, many years; obviously boxing is a full-contact sport, and the relationships you develop within the Bengal Bouts program, you’re hugging guys you haven’t seen for 15 years: He may have bloodied my nose 20 years ago, I don’t know. It’s an interesting program. And it’s a worthwhile program because every year all the proceeds get sent to the Holy Cross missions down in Bangladesh. When I was here in 1973, we donated about $15,000, and now I think last year, they donated $125,000, or at least $100,000. It’s been a good program — probably close to a million dollars have been donated to the program, where a dollar goes a long way towards food, education and things like that. It’s a worthwhile program, and it’s a great program to be associated with.”
Terry Johnson, another long-time Notre Dame boxing coach, said he was inspired by Suddes to stay involved with the program as well.
“I first met Tom Suddes when I was a freshman at Notre Dame starting at the boxing program, and he was a senior captain,” Johnson said. “So he was kind of our idol. That was 45 years ago. He then came back and became a boxing coach, I went to law school, and we kind of starting this avocation of trying to help out with the Bengal Bouts. So for the last 45 years, we’ve been down here together, and he’s just been such an inspiration and such a great guy.”
Suddes’ illness may have made him unable to continue coaching, but he remains a popular figure with current and former boxers, with many excited to see him after the fights.
Mike Suddes said Tom’s status among the boxers is best reflected in an anecdote from his senior year.
“He’s had some great positive memories as far as the fights, the relationships, and things like that,” Mike Suddes said. “When he was a senior, I was a sophomore, and in the semifinal fight, he fought a fellow named Dave Pemberton, and Tom won the fight. But in doing so, his left eye was black and blue and completely closed. But it was also that time when we had the 45th anniversary of the Bengal Bouts, so we had a banquet in the monogram room, [Dominic Napolitano] and different members of the faculty and staff, a lot of faculty and a lot of alumni, and Tom was the president of the club. So Tom was the emcee of the night with one eye closed. And then he fought two nights later, and he lost in the final.
That was a very memorable, gutsy presentation, and he did a good job.”