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Motivated by mission, senior captains ready to lead way at Bengal Bouts

| Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Joining Notre Dame’s men’s boxing club as a freshman with no combat sports background can be an overwhelming experience. It’s one that each of the club’s senior captains went through four years ago.

“I started boxing my freshman year because someone just said to do it,” said Evan “Milk” Molka, an aerospace engineering major from Keough Hall. “At first I was like, ’I don’t really want to, I don’t want to get punched in the face,’ but my friend pressured me on.”

Courtesy of Bengal Bouts
The senior captains serve as leaders of the club, promoters of its mission and as mentors to underclassmen.

In the days leading up to their final Bengal Bouts tournament, Molka and the team’s other captains have never regretted their decision to step out of their comfort zone and give boxing a try.

“Sooner rather than later, I fell in love with the club and I stuck with it,” Molka said.

For young, inexperienced boxers, their time in the club is heavily influenced by the upperclassmen, who serve as leaders, coaches and mentors. That was certainly the case for Greg “The Hitman” DeFalco, an electrical engineering major from Alumni Hall who was taken under the wing of the veteran boxers from his dorm.

“I was like, ’yeah, I want to challenge myself and do something like this.’ So I showed up my freshman year with some friends,” DeFalco said. “I have to give it up to some of the captains my freshman year who really inspired me.”

Fast forward to today, and the boxers who were once novices now have the opportunity to pass their experience forward and inspire the current freshman. It’s a responsibility that they take seriously and have gotten a lot out of.

“It was a great honor to have the opportunity to be a captain,” said Josh Williams, a finance and ACMS major who serves as a resident assistant in St. Edward’s Hall. “To be able to lead workouts and set an example for guys, be the people they go to for advice and hold mitts for them, was an awesome experience.”

For Williams, who competes under the nickname “More of a Lover than a Fighter” (he feels that it encapsulates his spirit), a key aspect of being a captain is ensuring that everyone feels welcome in the club, regardless of ability.

“Most of the kids in the club don’t have any experience coming in, so you really build a good base here with boxing. Every year, we start all the guys from the beginning, so everyone feels like they can join the club,” Williams said. “It’s a very welcoming atmosphere, a lot of like-minded guys who want to get after it in workouts.”

After having spent the last three years focused on improving their own skills in the ring, it took an adjustment to serve in a more hands-off role, coaching other boxers from the sideline.

“I think a lot of times when you’re coaching for somebody, you wish you could just get in the ring and do it yourself, but you can’t do that,” Molka said. “A true leader doesn’t have to do it yourself, you’re able to influence others to do the job correctly. It’s really rewarding to see someone put in a lot of hard work when you’re working with them every day, and to see them put that finished product in the ring.”

DeFalco considers seeing the improvement of the boxers that he’s trained with to be one of the most rewarding experiences he’s had in the club.

“I’ve had guys who have asked to spar me at the beginning of the year and then I’ll spar them a month later and I’m like, ‘wow, this guy’s a lot better’,” DeFalco said. “It’s great to see. It makes me happy.”

Through all of the practices, workouts and sparring sessions, the mission of the club never strays far from the front of its members’ minds. The Bengal Bouts raise money for the Congregation of the Holy Cross in Bangladesh, a group that works to provide education and health care in the poorest parts of the country. The 2022 Bengal Bouts raised over $250,000 for the Holy Cross mission. Having the opportunity to make that kind of impact helps the boxers put their own lives in perspective, they said.

“At the end of the day, the reason we do this is for people who have so few opportunities,” DeFalco said. “This stuff is hard. Boxing is hard, school is hard, we’re Notre Dame students, everything seems hard. But we have a million opportunities. In Bangladesh, the people we serve, they have no opportunities, or a lot of their opportunities come from funds that we need to raise for them. When you’re dead tired and the other guy’s strong and he’s beating you up, you really try to dig deep and think about what you’re doing this for. I think it helps to stay grounded. Because this is a team, and our end goal is to send money to people who need it a lot more than us.”

Over the course of their four years in the club, the senior captains’ appreciation for and understanding of the mission has only grown. Luke “Mantequilla” Slahor, a Dallas native and Duncan Hall resident, discussed an experience that opened his eyes to the impact of the club.

“Every Monday, the captains give an excerpt about the mission to the guys, a five-minute talk before practice,” Slahor said. “I found these letters from 2012 that kids from Bangladesh schools that were supported by our program, the Holy Cross missions over there, wrote thanking all the boxers.”

The letters thanked the boxers for their hard work and explained how many lives they’ve impacted in Bangladesh. The kids wrote about what they wanted to be when they grew up, professions that included doctors and nurses.

“We’re not just sending money over there, we’re sending money to educate kids, who are in turn going to make a difference throughout their lives and hopefully make their communities a better place,” Slahor said. “That was kind of the moment where everything came together for me, in terms of thinking about the mission and feeling good about what we’re doing here.”

United in their dedication to boxing and service of that important cause, the club is a strong community of friends who support each other and enjoy spending time together, in the ring and out.

“We’re a team first, and we may compete against each other in the ring, but we’re always here for each other, help train with each other,” Molka said. “It’s a great team.”

“Some of my best friends are here. The other captains, other vets and even new guys I met this year. We just have a ton of fun down here, learning a really difficult sport and doing good charity work,” DeFalco added.

“They’re all great guys, great to work with. We have a lot of fun outside of boxing too,” said Williams.

But the recent focus for the club, and the captains, has been on boxing in advance of the seniors’ final Bengal Bouts.

“I feel really confident in how my skills have progressed over the past four years to be the best I can today,” Slahor said. “Last tournament here, definitely going to be my last boxing match ever, so it’s kind of bittersweet, but I want to go out on top.”

Each of the four captains will be gunning to take home a title, but their leadership roles have shifted their priorities. Seeing great performances from their teammates is just as meaningful as winning bouts themselves.

“I want to see all the guys do great,” Slahor said. “I’m really excited to coach a lot of my friends.”

Training for Bengal Bouts requires a great deal of time and sacrifice that often goes unseen. For DeFalco, part of what makes the competition so special is that it gives the boxers a chance to showcase their hard work.

“When your friends and your family come watch, [they think], ’okay, this guy’s been working hard for months,’” DeFalco said. “You want that to show.”

The senior captains have spent the last four years growing as boxers, guiding their teammates and supporting the club’s mission. Now they’re ready to make their last Bengal Bouts one to remember.

“Being in the ring, under the lights, there’s no other feeling like that,” Molka said. “I played football in high school, Friday Night Lights, but that pales in comparison. It’s a crazy feeling.”

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