This is the Green Bay of college boxing," exulted Al McChesney, the coach at West Chester (Pa.) State. McChesney had just heard that the second annual National Collegiate Boxing Association championships, to be held in Hollinger Field House Saturday night, had drawn the biggest advance sale in the history of the college, topping even rock groups.
On Saturday a sell-out crowd of 3,500 jammed the field house for the 13 title bouts between teams representing the East and the West, and the home folks cheered until the end. Six of the seven West Chester boxers on the winning East team won championships. The West, which took only two bouts, might have done slightly better were it not that a couple of close decisions went the other way, notably the loss by Jim Krtinich of the University of Nevada at Reno to Gary Woodring of West Chester in the 172-pound class.
But then, many a boxing bout is likely to prompt some disagreement. The fact is that last Saturday night was a triumph for collegiate boxing and for West Chester and McChesney, fittingly so because both coach and college have done so much not only to reestablish the sport but also to put it on a rare high level of pure student involvement.
None of the tournament boxers—who were from the University of Toronto, Lehigh, Villanova, California, Nevada at Reno, Temple, Penn State, Western State in Colorado and West Chester—had been recruited or was attending college on a boxing scholarship. Most of them had never even laced on a pair of gloves until they went out for the sport at school, and one of the most impressive winners, Timmy Murphy, a West Chester sophomore, did not start boxing for the college club until the swimming season ended six weeks ago.
College boxing once was extremely popular. The sport began in 1919 with matches between the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, and it flourished through the years, the first NCAA tournament being held in 1937. In 1940, on the same night that Joe Louis drew 11,000 to Madison Square Garden for his title fight with Johnny Paycheck, the University of Wisconsin attracted 15,000 fans in Madison for a match against Washington State. During the '50s, more than 200 schools were involved with the sport. But even though college boxing then, as now, called for strict adherence to safety measures, with padded headgear, 12-ounce gloves and thickly padded canvas rings, it fell into decline. One reason was that a couple of schools, Wisconsin and Idaho State, dominated competition by giving scholarships to experienced amateur boxers. In addition, many critics denounced college boxing because of the sordidness prevalent in the professional sport. The knockout blow came in 1960 when Charlie Mohr of Wisconsin died in the hospital after being floored in the NCAA championships. It is possible that Mohr died from an aneurysm, an inherent defect that could have caused him to die of a cerebral hemorrhage while just walking down the street; nonetheless the NCAA dropped boxing. Only four West Coast schools, led by Cal, continued the sport. Banded together as the California Collegiate Boxing Conference, they staged their bouts in near obscurity.
Enter Martin Watkins, a professor of English at West Chester, and Alexander Zdrok, a football dropout and pre-law student who has since become an attorney. Watkins and Zdrok founded a boxing club at the school in 1969. "I just liked contact sports," says Zdrok. One night in 1971, after reading a newspaper item about a workout in the basement in the old library, McChesney, an architect who had boxed at Penn State in the '50s, and Dean Plemmons, president of a chemical company who had boxed for Wisconsin at the same time and had won the 112-pound championship, decided to stop by. Neither man knew the other, but from the way they punched the bags and worked out, it was obvious they knew what they were doing. The awed West Chester students asked them to coach, and both agreed to do so without pay. Both have since spent several thousand dollars of their own money to get the sport rolling. Plemmons, who stopped coaching three years ago after moving his company to Winston-Salem, N.C., has kept up his interest as much as possible and was on hand Saturday to referee some of the bouts.
In 1972 McChesney and Plemmons arranged for the West Chester club to box Lehigh. The match, which West Chester won 5-2, was the first of its kind in the East since 1960. In 1973 the two coaches founded the Eastern Collegiate Boxing Association, and six nearby schools competed in the championships. In 1974 West Chester won all seven of its scheduled matches, including an exhibition at the University of Michigan. West Chester also took the second ECBA championships, the first of four it has won.
In 1976, McChesney and Plemmons, with the help of Jimmy Olivas, the veteran coach of Nevada at Reno, founded the National Collegiate Boxing Association. The first championships were held at Reno, and the highlights were televised, as they were last week, by NBC. The West, led by Nevada, won.
More than 20 colleges are now members of the NCBA and, to assure continued success and even distribution of talent, the NCBA prohibits recruiting and scholarships. In fact, no one who has ever boxed in a public contest after reaching the age of 16, except for inter-school bouts, is eligible to compete.
Going into the championships Saturday night, McChesney figured that Nevada probably would be rated the top college team and West Chester second. "But then, don't forget that we try harder," he said.
The first West Chester boxer on the card, Keith Refsnider, who had won the 139-pound Eastern title at South Carolina the week before, entered the ring to cheers. His opponent was Billy Sandoval of Cal. In the corner, McChesney told Refsnider to move, be straight with his punches and get off the first good left and the first good right. "Sandoval's a classic boxer when he's in the middle of the ring," McChesney said later, "and we wanted Keith to get good position by getting him in the corner." The crowd roared with delight when Refsnider won the decision.
Steve Zembsch of Cal dampened the enthusiasm by defeating Terry Coyne of West Chester, a replacement for the injured Eastern champion, Billy McNulty of South Carolina, for the 147-pound title, but almost immediately Timmy Murphy had the field house fans chanting his name as he went against Doug Paul of Nevada in the 156-pound class. "When I heard the crowd, it really got me up," said Murphy. After the first round, McChesney told Murphy to cut off the ring. The strategy worked as Murphy staggered Paul in the second round for a stand-up knockdown and then stopped him in 1:56 of the third on a TKO.
Given the success of the two NCBA championships and the enthusiasm of the boxers and coaches involved, more schools are expected to take up the sport next year. "There's no question college boxing is coming back," said Phil Nimir, the bearded Cal coach, "but we have to keep our eye on it and avoid overemphasis on winning. If you talk to the young men we work with, they're what it's all about. They're students."