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March Madness: College Boxers Seek Tournament Glory of Their Own

Rosenfield_H1.jpg
Rosenfield_H1.jpg


The University of California is an academic institution unlike any other. Located in Berkeley, it is the birthplace of both the free speech movement and the atomic bomb. No other college in America has produced more PhD students or places more academic departments in the top ten of the rankings today. A couple years ago, I strolled through campus and fortuitously ran into NFL star DeSean Jackson and 2009 Nobel Prize co-winner Oliver Williamson on the same day. This Friday, fans clad in blue and gold will support their Pac-10 champion Golden Bears in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

 

So why are a political science/history double major, a graduate student, and a university facilities painter meeting in the dingy dungeon of a basement in the school’s Recreational Sports Facility instead of filling out their brackets? Each of them is an integral member of the Cal Boxing team, which is, incidentally enough, the oldest competitive amateur sport on campus. This weekend, the team will take a 25-minute drive across the Bay Bridge to San Francisco for the Western Regional Finals of the National Collegiate Boxing Association’s version of the “Big Dance.” And scratching beneath the surface, I found that their stories could be just as compelling as the professionals whom they seek to emulate.


THE COACH…

 Jim Riksheim has seen it all. A former fighter himself at Cal, with 27 subsequent years of coaching experience at his alma mater, he’s been around long enough to regale anyone with tales of the days when collegiate boxing thrived with popularity. 

 

“We have a tradition here that goes back to 1916, and we’re the oldest continuous boxing program in the country,” Riksheim informed me. “My first coach, Phil Nemir, was the son of Cal’s longest standing coach, Ed Nemir, who boxed and wrestled at Cal. He actually won a wrestling silver medal in the [1932] Olympics. Early on, I got a sense of how big the legacy was and how important it was.” 

 

Back then, college boxing was held in high standing at a level comparable to amateur sports that have stood the test of time today, such as baseball, basketball, or football. In 1932, responding to the rise in the establishment of boxing as a club sport on campuses across America, the NCAA made it an official sport and started awarding both team and individual national championships. It was at this juncture, sadly, when the ugly side of amateur sports emerged.

 

“In the bygone days, you had a lot of recruiting violations, kind of like football. Ringers pretending to be students. Guys coming in with disguised records. Coaches were doing anything they could to get a win because it was their livelihood. Now coaches aren’t paid like that anymore, and it’s a whole different atmosphere now because the level of skill isn’t that far apart. I really don’t think I could condone what was going on back then.”

 

The NCAA, unfortunately, did not foresee the amount of mismatches that would occur in the ring between well-trained fighters from powerhouse programs and relative novices from other schools. Contrary to a sport like basketball, where a blowout loss inflicted on an outgunned team solely led to bruised egos, such a result in boxing could be literally fatal. As the amount of casualties in the ring gradually multiplied, a movement to abolish the sport from the NCAA became increasingly powerful. It was not until Charlie Mohr, a middleweight from the University of Wisconsin, died as a result of head injuries sustained in the 1960 national championship, when the NCAA ultimately discontinued the sport.

 

The coach chimed in on the Mohr tragedy. “You hope it never gets that late,” he lamented, shaking his head. “I’d rather have [a referee stoppage] a second too early than a second too late. I’m pretty aware of what college boxing used to be, but it’s a lot safer now. But that danger’s always there, and you’ll see that danger in an even fight, too.”

 

In response to athletic departments cutting the funding of programs from coast to coast, the status of boxing soon reverted from varsity sport back to club level. As a result, the National Collegiate Boxing Association (NCBA) was founded in 1976 under the umbrella of USA Boxing. Cal joined the Far West subdivision of the NCBA, which included such schools as neighboring UC Davis, UCLA, the Air Force Academy, and Nevada-Reno, which at one time featured current referee Jay Nady and veteran boxing writer Michael Marley on the same team. 

 

While collegiate boxing never returned to the heights it attained in the earlier part of the century, keepers of the flame like Riksheim were undeterred from continuing to breathe life into the sport. Necessity is the mother of invention, and one way to simultaneously harvest recruits and raise funds came through in the form of holding a boxing class for students.  

 

But first, Riksheim had to cast his line and find an audience. “When I started coaching in 1983, I had to crank out hundreds of stinky copies of fliers by hand. It’s made our job attracting students a lot easier.  What’s really interesting now with the speed of communication, whether it’s Facebook or e-mail, we can reach 500 people online overnight.”

 

However, while the means of marketing have evolved, some things never change. “For all of that, the game is pretty much the same because, for all of the 200 kids we go through in the class, there may be 10% of them that would be interested in fighting, and then maybe half of those that end up on the team.  And that’s the way it’s always been, even in my day where a lot of kids would go through the program and only a few would stick,” continued Riksheim.

 

Only a handful of pugilists are left after the scores of students are pared down to the team that competes in the NCBA, but those who earn the right to wear the blue and gold uniform are often successful. Five fighters have earned national championships and over 50 have earned All-America recognition under Riksheim’s watch. Nonetheless, don’t ask him to single any of them out for special mention, especially since he’s kept in contact with so many former students for almost three decades.

 

“If I think of one fighter, then I think of another and another and another,” declared the coach, sporting an ear-to-ear grin at the thought of his former pupils. “It’s like family. The great thing about the internet is that it’s easy to find each other. I get calls from old fighters wanting to touch base and see how things are, and it’s a good feeling.”

 

Riksheim’s dedication to his fighters is evident, and while he would like nothing more than to paint a masterpiece with each blank canvas that dares to step in his dungeon, he understands the amateur nature of a club sport where student-athletes resemble more of the former than the latter.

 

“My hope is that [my fighters] have the time and the drive to go as far as they can. There’s a lot of limiting factors, and the first thing I tell my guys is that the only time you’ll ever be 100% is the first day you walk into the gym, because you’re going to be dinged up, sore, or recuperating from an injury. Maybe you’ll have school, you might be sick, or you might miss practice because of work. You might have a hundred things that could happen.” 

 

Regardless, he remains steadfast in requiring his fighters to refrain from making excuses. “What it comes down to is that when the fight is upon you, you still have to fight. If you have 70%, you want to use that 70%. But don’t let those shortcomings hold you back. You have to give all you got at any given time and you’ll have nothing to be ashamed of or feel sorry for. That’s all I want to see out of my kids. That’s probably the biggest lesson.”

 

Coaching is Riksheim’s passion, but due to the budget cuts, the main portion of his salary is derived from another source. The university employs him full-time as a painter in the facilities department. 

 

“I have a family to support now. I just got married two years ago and have a two-year-old son, Everett, so I’ve had a lot happen in my life in a short amount of time. Also, it turns out that my boss is Mike Huff, who was actually my second boxing coach when I was at Cal, which is great when I need time for coaching or when the team travels.” Such is the case this Thursday.

 

This season, the team is going through a quasi-rebuilding mode. I use this term because while the roster is filled with inexperience, the final chapter has yet to be written about the 2010 Golden Bears as they prepare for the postseason. Six male and three female boxers will make the trip to “The City.” Those who advance from this weekend’s tournament will fight in the national championships at the United States Military Academy on April 8-10 in West Point, New York.

 

“There’s a punching chance that two or three of them could make it back east,” opines Riksheim, taking a breath to make his next point. “And then, it’s really the luck of the draw. Maybe you could pull a great fight out or someone gets injured. This is boxing. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

 

Sounds a lot like the upcoming mayhem on the hardwood.

 

THE CAPTAIN…

 

David Rosenfield disobeyed a golden rule of boxing, and he dearly paid the price.

 

“I had lowered my hands. He got on my inside and hit me with a right cross. Then it happened.”

 

The 132-pounder was competing in his third-ever fight last season against a fellow lightweight from the University of San Francisco. The result of that sequence was the graphic image you see above, the explosion of Rosenfield’s nose and the consequent splash of red hue decorating the golden “California” printed on his chest.

 

“My opponent was from USF and he counter-punched me,” David continued, seemingly enjoying every moment of this anecdote. “I didn’t bring my hands back quick enough and my defense slipped a little bit.  Hey, if I wanted to look good, I would’ve picked a different sport.”

 

It’s clear that the outgoing senior has a zest for combat, and he decided to prepare himself for his upcoming four-year commitment in the Marine Corps’ Quantico, Virginia-based Officer Candidate School by learning the ways of the square ring. 

 

“I’m a pressure fighter who likes to throw a lot of straight punches. I like to get you in the corner or against the ropes and throw as hard as I can. I like to slip. I’d rather slip and hit than block the punches.” 

 

With four years of Krav Maga (the Israeli hand-to-hand combat system) under his belt, the Cal boxing club immediately appealed to Rosenfield when he arrived on the Berkeley campus last year as a junior college transfer. “Just like in Krav Maga, it’s just you and your opponent, and somehow you have to overcome him.  There’s something basic in boxing that I love about it,” said Rosenfield.

 

However, before any beaks were bloodied or uniforms soiled, David had to first take the class and earn his spot on the team just like everyone else. From learning how to wrap his hands to keeping his poise when sparring in the pocket, he grasped concepts so quickly that by the beginning of the next season, he not only had made the team, he was made team captain.

 

Rosenfield reflected on his new assignment. “Jim saw something in me. I was extremely hungry as a boxer. Jim knew I was going to Officer Candidate School so he thought I had leadership potential and ability.”

 

While a team captain is arguably an extension of the head coach in the ring, David has found himself performing that same role outside of it as well. “It’s a student-based club sport, so I’ve taken on a lot of administrative duties. We really don’t get any support from the university except our little dungeon of a gym because it constantly floods. We get a little bit of money from USA Boxing, but it’s hardly enough.”

 

So where does the money come from? Rosenfield explains. “I’m in charge of finances. We teach [an] eight-to-ten hour class, four days a week, at the beginning of the semester, which is basically a team tryout. We also raised money by painting six sections of the Cal football stadium. It took us four days.” 

 

The Tustin, California, product wasn’t done describing the extent of his tasks. “I have to set up schedules for practices and classes. I myself teach classes and even hire assistant coaches. We have to raise money for travel and equipment. This year, we bought all new bags and purchased the uniforms.” 

 

One would be hard-pressed to find too many student-athletes with those responsibilities, much less one who also finds the time to double major in political science and history. Not bad for someone who has gone through life with two learning disabilities.

 

“I’m dyslexic and dysgraphic, so I’m in the DSP (Disabled Students Program) at Cal. I’m not a very good reader or writer, but I enjoy political science and history so much I’m able to get through it. It’s very difficult. But while boxing has been a “time-suck” on my study time, it brings a relief.”

 

After running through Rosenfield’s transcript, he’s “getting through it” a little more successfully than his words would suggest; he’s currently on track to graduate with a 3.5 GPA.

 

His coach chimed in with an evaluation of his designated team captain. “He’s very strong, he’s a southpaw, and he’s smart. He’s a long-arm standup fighter who likes to brawl, and if I could just get him to sit back and box a little bit more, I think he can be more effective,” noted Riksheim. “But he really just likes to stick his head down and start swinging away, so if I could just take that aggression and polish it up a little, he could go farther [in the tournament] than he did last year.”

 

After taking into account Rosenfield’s experience at the 2009 Western Regional Finals, it’s clear that he wants to make amends in San Francisco.

 

“I needed to win my last fight to get to nationals,” Rosenfield sighed. By now his jaw tightened up, almost bracing himself for the end of a story he knew far too well. “After the second round, I had nothing left in my tank, I was in bad shape because I couldn’t breathe through my nose, I was coughing up nasty yellow-brown sh*t, and I had a weird pressure in my head. Even if I had won, I would not have been able to fight at nationals, because I had to get nose surgery immediately. When I came home, I got my infected hematoma drained and my two fractures and separation in my nose fixed.”

 

If David Rosenfield is unable to make the trip to West Point, it won’t be for a lack of motivation.

 

THE “CHAMPION”…

 

Having a conversation with Lauren Pettis in an academic setting is like talking to any vibrant member of the Berkeley student body, one that is historically renowned for social activism.  

 

“My ideal job one day would be as a program evaluator for a substance abuse prevention program,” says the 25-year-old graduate student. “That’s why I’m here.”

 

So did Rosenfield tell me it’s essential that I to talk to her?

 

“She’s the defending national champion at welterweight,” replied the captain.

 

Pettis is currently pursuing her master’s degree in the School of Social Welfare, but she has decided to pack her schedule with a daily dose of boxing. Even she gets tired reciting it. “At 6:30 AM, I’ll wake up. From 7:00 until about 8:30, I’m at Edwards Track Stadium doing roadwork. Then I’m on campus taking classes until 5:00. Training with the team goes from 5:00 to 7:30. Maybe I’ll lift weights and then do an ab workout for an hour after that. After that, I head home to do whatever homework I’ve been assigned.”

 

So when is sleep? “Midnight,” Pettis laughs. “And then I’ll do it all over again tomorrow.”

 

Having roots in the Bay Area, L.A., and Phoenix, boxing became more than an outlet for Lauren. “It’s a great sport. I’ve played basketball, soccer, and tennis, but boxing isn’t necessarily a team sport because you have no team to rely on in the ring. It’s the heart that makes it great.” 

 

It was in the Valley of the Sun (the Metropolitan Phoenix area) when she learned her craft at the Rodriguez Boxing Club. However, Lauren’s initial days in the gym weren’t exactly ideal. “As a girl learning to box, it’s tough because on one end, I had relatives telling me things like, they didn’t want me to lose brain cells, and, on the other hand, I had people telling me I was too pretty to fight.”

 

Pettis decided to break through those stereotypes by letting her actions speak volumes about her character. “I had to prove my commitment before I could get the training I needed, and I did just that.”

 

After overcoming the obstacles that she faced just trying to pick up the sport, carrying over the knowledge and skills she developed to the college scene afterward seemed easy by comparison. 

 

“She’s one of the best boxers on the team, if not the best,” her coach stated. “She’s very intimidating to get in the ring with because she’s taller than most of her opponents, at 5’11”; she’s faster, and she’s also stronger. The funny thing about her is that she doesn’t believe how good she is, and we have to keep telling her that. She just gets so nervous before her fights. In fact, she wraps herself up to the point where we’re constantly calming her down and cheering her up before her fights. And then, invariably, she just crushes her opponents.”

 

Pettis’ nervous spells are well-documented within her team and, most of all, by the fighter herself. 

 

“Getting in there is nerve-wracking. I’m nervous the whole day leading up to a fight. For one, I have to eat my pre-fight meal of pot stickers and shrimp cocktail. Write that down.” My hand is shaking just putting the pen to paper after listening to her tell me about her routine that day.

 

On the other hand, once she’s in the ring, Pettis’ meek demeanor instantly dissolves in the aroma of sweat and worn leather. Instead, it’s replaced with unbroken focus and a killer instinct, as evidenced by her triumphant run to the de facto national championship at the University of Maryland’s campus last season.

 

Pettis remembers few details from the bout. “They sang the national anthem. I listened for the bell. In the ring, I couldn’t hear anything. In reality, I forgot everything else except the objective, which was beating this girl up for the next nine minutes.”

 

Having a limited number of female collegiate boxers at her weight class works both as a gift and a curse for Lauren.  While she only had to fight twice to reach the final bout of a virtual national championship- a 5-0 shutout of USF’s Renae Santa Cruz- the easy road didn’t get her the extensive ring competition and experience any fighter would like to acquire.   

 

“There aren’t a lot of female fighters at the heavier end of the spectrum [being at 147 pounds].” Pettis admits. “It definitely limits your exposure.”

 

Even though she’s on the brink of receiving her diploma in the near future, the defending “national champion” isn’t quite ready to hang up her gloves. 

 

“I’d love to turn pro some day, if I can get the chance,” added Pettis, “but right now, I’d just like to return to nationals.”

 

If Lauren Pettis and her teammates have their way, the University of California will have another reason to keep dancing until April.

 

 

From March 18-20, the National Collegiate Boxing Association will hold its Western Regional Tournament at the Koret Boxing Room on the University of San Francisco campus (222 Stanyan Street).Tickets are $20 for general admission, $10 for any student with ID, and $5 for USF students with an ID. Tickets can be purchased at the door. For more information, call (415) 422-2773.

 

 

Ryan can be reached at rmaquinana@gmail.com



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