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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Terp Boxing Rumbles at Ritchie

Ed Note: This actually happened about a week ago, but I've been behind. Anticipate a lengthy break during spring break, BTW. - kgoon

Even in the relatively small space of Ritchie Coliseum, there was an electricity about walking in the building for fight night: watching the fighters tape up, take jabs at phantom opponents, seeing the ring, being a part of the pre-bout hubbub. Students turned out in droves to support their friends, and grizzled old vets came out to see the young blood of the sport.

As Dickie V would say, "It's boxing, baby!"

For $5, you could watch 11 fights - all amateur - and get good seats, too. Arriving 10 minutes early, we managed to grab front row spots in the bleachers. There wasn't any smoking or drinking, pretty much no one wore fly threads, and it wasn't terribly glamorous overall (they didn't even turn down the house lights for the matches). But there is something about amateur fights that really brings a purity to the event.

There's not really much trash talking, not much flash, no one is getting paid for the entertainment - it's really just about a bunch of young guns suited up after months and months of training, trying to beat down whoever takes the corner opposite them in the ring. What you see is raw: pure passion, pure fury. Some of the fighters may not have the best form, but you're guaranteed to see something real.

My friend, Andrew "The Bronco" Hallowell, is a boxer, but meeting him, you might not know it. He's a nice guy: he smiles and is quiet when you meet him.

But he is fiercely competitive. Like all members of the UMD boxing club, he wakes up at 5:30 in the morning to go run. He goes to the gym several times a week to spar, hit the bag, do sit-ups, and basically give his body a beating until it can take one and keep going. Before weigh-ins, he'll stare longingly at us as we munch on pizza or burgers, and then he'll look down sadly at his broccoli (even though he apparently claims he loves it).

But to him, it's worth it. The work and the diet pay off the second he steps in the ring, because he knows he's more prepared than his opponent.

So imagine 22 fighters, finally off their diets and workout schedules, ready to pound someone or something into pulp. If you take them two at a time and sic them on each other, essentially, that's Rumble at Ritchie.

And there was a pretty mixed crowd too. It was apparent that some people hadn't been to a fight before, like me, and were just taking it in. But there were also some older gentlemen looking on the festivities with great admiration. I later learned that they were the men who had been there before, in the ring. Great fighters from Maryland from the 50s and 60s still came just to see and perhaps remember.

And how could I forget the crazy fans - the ones with the painted chests and the enormous signs, supporting their various teams and fighters, yelling more loudly and more passionately than anyone in the building. It certainly made the atmosphere more vibrant.

We watched a lot of fights. We watched fights that were close and fights that weren't. The fights last about three rounds, and a lot of bouts lasted the duration. Some did not.

One guy from Maryland (who will remain nameless, bless his heart) got pummeled by a much stronger, quicker fighter. By the end, he was getting back up, but he was bleeding all over himself and clearly disoriented. The fight had to be called. I ran into in the locker room sometime later (during a lengthy search for a bathroom), and tried to say something encouraging.

"Good fight, man."

"Yeah, if you want to call it that," he said. "That's the hardest I've ever been hit in my life."

I was taken aback. I didn't know what to say, and I started wishing I had never said anything in the first place.

It's hard to lose. When you get rocked in boxing, you really get rocked. It's tough to admit defeat after training so hard for victory. The competitive nature of the sport increases tenfold because the participants put a concentrated effort that last for months into a 15-minute fight. Andrew has come back from losses before, and sometimes you have to avoid the subject.

But there is something to be said about the guys who are losing but keep getting up off the mat. There is pride in a man who loses a bout, but goes on to fight another day. Those guys work harder and harder. They have the courage to go back again, even though they know how bitter defeat is. It's a beautiful thing, sort of a microcosm of what it takes to get through life.

I happy to say Maryland did pretty well. I didn't see all of the matches, but I did see at least 3 Terp wins (and one that probably should've been a Terp win).

The big fight for me and my group of friends was just the second bout on the ticket. I was immediately nervous when I saw that Andrew's opponent, a guy from Shippensburg, was taller and had longer arms than he did. But I remained sure that The Bronco wouldn't let down his home crowd.

Andy took the first jab: short. Uh-oh. I sensed that this could be a problem.

But the other guy had a bigger problem - his interior defense was vulnerable. The Bronco seized on this opportunity and took the aggressor role. He pounced in the inside, hitting whatever he could until the other guy backed off. Unfortunately, Andrew also got a few nice shots to the head.

No sweat.

At the end of two rounds, Andrew was clearly in the lead. The audience, led by a chorus of fans from Philly, his hometown, and my own section, started a chant of "Bronco! Bronco!" It was a thrilling moment, and we were only five minutes away from a victory.

The Shippensburg guy started realizing that he would need to take more than a few extra shots to take the lead. He got a little more aggressive. He started taking harder swipes.

Andy wasn't nervous, and neither were we. He handled his business, and we cheered louder than ever when the bell rung. Minutes later, the ref was holding up his arm, and the Bronco had won.

We ran over to the Maryland bench, and everyone gave him sweaty hugs. He was walking on air.

"How does it feel when the ref holds up your arm like that and you know you've won?" I asked.

"Aw man, it's the best feeling in the whole world," he said.

Later that night, where could our boxing champ be found? Over at Panda Buffet, stuffing his face with orange chicken and fried rice. The only reward an amateur boxer really needs and wants after all that broccoli: a full stomach.

Photos courtesy of Mike Brennan

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