From the Archives: Bengal Bouts
This Thursday, Feb. 16, the 93rd annual Bengal Bouts will begin its preliminary rounds. A men’s boxing tournament that benefits the Holy Cross Mission in Bangladesh, Bengal Bouts seems to perfectly combine two integral aspects of Notre Dame’s identity: a passion for sports and a commitment to social impact.
This week, From the Archives takes a long overdue look at the history of Bengal Bouts. While this tournament predates the Observer by nearly four decades, we uncovered a selection of stories that capture at least a part of the rich history of this Notre Dame tradition. The following stories about the founder behind the bouts, some famous fighters from over the years and the recent rise to national prominence paint a picture of an event that has made a significant cultural and social impact at Notre Dame and around the world.
The legacy of Dominick “Nappy” Napolitano
A Notre Dame tradition now in its 93rd year, Bengal Bouts can attribute much of its longstanding prominence on campus to one man: Dominick “Nappy” Napolitano.
Napolitano entered the University as a student in 1928 but could not afford to continue his education. Realizing it would be a shame to see someone with such extensive boxing knowledge go, Fr. Mooney helped Napolitano secure a position as a physical education instructor.
While boxing was introduced to Notre Dame by legendary football coach Knute Rockne in the 1920s, Napolitano was the one who created the Bengal Bouts tournament in 1931 as a fundraising event for the Holy Cross Mission in Bangladesh. Nappy’s commitment to service and passion for boxing prompted increasing fervor for the program, which grew over the next 50 years under his guidance.
“‘Nappy’ seems to have a heart that fills up his diminutive frame and he cares a great deal about boxing and about the young men that participate in the intramural boxing program,” Jim Donaldson (‘73) wrote in a 1972 article for The Observer.
At the 49-year anniversary of Bengal Bouts in 1979, it was estimated that Napolitano and his boxers had helped raise over $300,000, but the recognition of the program’s success became bittersweet as Napolitano announced his retirement.
“This is a special year for both Nappy and the Bengal Bouts. It is special for ‘Nappy’ because last week he retired from his position as the university’s director of non-varsity sports. It is special for Nappy’s Bouts because NBC-TV plans to televise the 49th edition of this boxing extravaganza on its Sportsworld program,” Observer sportswriter Leo Latz (‘80) wrote.
The man who built Bengal Bouts ensured that he would still be around as a consultant, but boxers at the time knew that it wouldn’t be the same without Nappy.
Over the years, Napolitano trained over 10,000 students who revered him for teaching not only how to improve their skills in the ring, but also life skills of sportsmanship and discipline.
“Even for the guys who work hard but lose in the first round, being associated with ‘Nappy’ makes the effort all worthwhile,” boxer Gary Canori (‘72) said.
Napolitano was also widely respected in the professional boxing community, with champion fighters like Carmen Basile, Kid Gavilan, Rocky Marciano and Tony Zale acting as referees for the Bengal Bouts fights because of their connection with Nappy.
Napolitano passed away in 1986, devastating the boxing community.
The following year, Bengal Bouts was fought in Napolitano’s honor, and boxers to this day continue to fight with his motto in mind: “The strong fight, that the weak may be nourished.”
From football players to full-grown men: Famous fighters in the history of Bengal Bouts
Bengal Bouts long and storied history at Notre Dame stems from its competitive nature and altruistic cause. While each installment of the tournament has its own victors, the prevailing memories are the excitement surrounding the event and the money raised for the Holy Cross Mission in Bangladesh.
Yet, some fighters rise above the rest in status and naturally draw more attention. Such was the case in 1976, when two of the final bouts featured nationally regarded football players.
Doug Becker and Jim Browner, both Notre Dame football players that would go on to play in the NFL, squared off in an intense 200-pound final. Becker emerged victorious, yet still admitted “[Browner’s] a good boxer … He beat the hell out of my face.”
Later that same evening, Ross Browner and Ken MacAfee, also both Notre Dame football standouts with future NFL careers, highlighted the heavyweight class with a barrage of massive blows. Browner would eventually prevail but both enjoyed the experience. Jokingly, MacAfee commented, “That definitely puts football to shame.”
Another football player, though lesser known at the time, also competed in the 1976 Bengals Bouts: Daniel ‘Rudy’ Ruettiger. The future movie hero fought in the 175-pound weight class final and won via split decision.
In 2010 Bengals Bouts saw its oldest competitor ever step in the ring. Terrence Rogers, a 55-year-old graduate student who received his bachelor’s degree from Notre Dame in 1979, retained a final fourth year of eligibility as he had only fought three times as an undergraduate.
After applying to graduate school at Notre Dame 11 times, Rogers was admitted to the Master of Law in International Human Rights program, paving the way for him to fight one last time.
“This isn’t some clown show,” Rogers asserted. “I fully expect to win.”
On Sunday, Feb. 13 — three decades after a crushing defeat via split decision in the Bengal Bouts finals — “The Relentless” Rogers stepped into the ring and officially became the oldest fighter in the history of the tournament. He was defeated by fellow grad student David “Mountain Man” Gray via unanimous decision. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Observer noted that Gray’s youth appeared to give him an advantage.
These stories remind the Notre Dame community not only of the long history of Bengal Bouts, but of the skillful and fascinating competitors. While Bengal Bouts is about something much larger than those who don the gloves, their stories are certainly part of the lore.
Nine decades and counting: The rising prominence of Bengal Bouts
As set up by Dominic Napolitano in 1931, Bengal Bouts not only offers a unique experience to its participants but also makes a direct impact on saving lives. The program derived its name from the fact that all proceeds go towards supporting the Holy Cross Bengal missions in Bangladesh.
Archbishop Lawrence Leo Graner of Dacca, East Bengal wrote to the Notre Dame student body after the 1994 donation of $13,000 to express his admiration for the program and its purpose, stating, “I wonder how many know just what the purpose of the Bouts is [and] what this program means to a small, but solid, group of Notre Dame men on the other side of the world, who are carrying on the tradition of Notre Dame in its truest form.”
In 2001, the Bengal Bouts gathered on the front porch of Corby Hall to announce its largest donation yet, amounting to $77,000. The largest donation total coincided with Muhammad Ali’s special appearance at the 2000 Bengal Bouts finals, again showing the Bengal Bouts’ rising platform for fundraising and attracting attention.
Further evidence of the Bengal Bouts’ success lies in its first-ever live broadcasting in 2012 on UND.com. The following year, ESPN joined the effort and partnered with UND.com to stream the final round of Bengal Bouts. According to senior captain and president Alex Oloriz, the head of boxing for ESPN3, Doug Loughrey, reached out to him in mid-October and expressed interest in a partnership.
“Loughrey said he has been interested in doing [Bengal Bouts] in years past, but hasn’t been able to get enough momentum to get it done,” said Oloriz. “This year, he wanted to get a head start and really wanted to make it happen. I thought it would be a great thing for ESPN to pick up and help produce and lift up the promotional value.”
Oloriz and senior marketing vice president and captain Jeff Ulrich (‘13) believed that this partnership with ESPN had great potential, especially for the missions in Bangladesh.
“The biggest possibility [for partnering with ESPN], is getting the mission aspect of Bengal Bouts out there,” said Oloriz.
Beginning with Knute Rockne’s interest in an off-season fitness activity for his football team, Bengal Bouts has grown in both participants and purpose. After nearly a century of competition and sportsmanship, Bengal Bouts has cemented itself a strong legacy at Notre Dame — across the country and even around the world.