Pug Love: Students are falling for boxing all over again.
Pug Love: Students are falling for boxing all over again. Credit: Charles Steck

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Amado Nieto, a Georgetown freshman, took a beating in College Park on Saturday night.

Nieto was punched about the head and face for several minutes in front of hundreds of other college kids, who stood watching, some even cheering. By the time an adult jumped in to protect him, Nieto’s nose, lips, and forehead were bloodied.

But after it was over, he couldn’t stop smiling.

“I love it,” Nieto tells me, laughing through the tampon-like gauze stuffed in his right nostril to stem the blood flow.

College boxing is back. Well, trying to come back, anyway.

Nieto was one of two Hoyas and dozens of other preppy pugs to take part in what was officially called the 2008 University of Maryland Collegiate Boxing Invitational—and unofficially dubbed the Rumble at Ritchie in honor of the historic venue hosting the event, the Ritchie Coliseum.

This was the third year of the Rumble, which was founded more than a half-century after boxing disappeared from the College Park campus.

But there was once a time when fight nights were the hottest thing going at Ritchie Coliseum. Excepting football, in fact, boxing was the most popular pastime among Terrapin sports fans.

Here’s one sign of how big boxing was at Maryland: In the 1930s, the dual meets of the school’s boxing team were part of sporting doubleheaders at Ritchie Coliseum.

The opening act? Terrapin basketball games. (The Washington Post headline from a 1938 basketball-boxing twin bill with Duke at Ritchie: “Marylanders Spring Upset by Beating Blue Devils, 40 to 35, at Basketball and Breaking Even in Ring; 4,000 See Contests.”)

“Boxing was much bigger than basketball when I was there,” says Benny Alperstein, who boxed for Maryland from 1935 to 1939. “Kids would wait outside in the cold and rain for hours to get the good seats. They’d play a basketball game, and right after basketball, they’d set up the seats on the floor and roll out a ring for the boxing. That’s what the kids were waiting for. This was a big deal.”

Maryland at one time had one of the strongest boxing programs in the country, and Alperstein was among the best fighters the school ever had. He says he learned how to fight on the streets of Baltimore. “I guess I had a target on me, because I was Jewish,” he says, laughing. “I had to fight.”

Though he had no formal ring training when he arrived in College Park, he auditioned for the team and impressed the coaches enough to get a scholarship. The school was good to him, and vice versa. Alperstein, fighting as a southpaw in the lightweight division (135 pounds), won several regional boxing titles. And, in April 1937 in Sacramento, Calif., he took the first of his two national collegiate championships wearing Maryland’s colors.

Alperstein is recognized as the first national champion the school ever had, in any sport.

“That was a big deal,” says Alperstein, 93. “Coming back to the school after winning the [1937] championship, I’m not sure if I flew or took a train. But it was a big deal, I remember that.” (Newspaper clippings indicate Alperstein got to Sacramento by plane.)

Catholic University, Georgetown, and the University of Virginia also had strong programs in the 1930s, but schools began dropping boxing out of concern about mismatches between inexperienced students and older returning servicemen or even ringers from the pro ranks. But the sport was still big at Maryland in 1954, when Garry Garber and Vincent Palumbo became the second and third NCAA champions produced by the school.

“Yeah, I guess that made me a big man on campus,” says Garber, 79, who had fought for U.S. Army teams before coming to Maryland. “Everybody knew about that.”

Palumbo repeated as champion at the 1955 NCAA finals. But he knew boxing was in trouble around here. Virginia and Georgetown had dropped the sport that season. And just after he got back to school with the second championship, coaches told him that Maryland had pulled the plug on the boxing program.

“I was the only guy from Maryland to make it to the finals that year,” says Palumbo, “so I’m officially the last guy to ever fight for the University of Maryland.”

The NCAA dropped boxing as a sanctioned sport after the 1960 championships, when Charlie Mohr, a defending national champion from the University of Wisconsin, died from a brain injury suffered in the semifinals.

The NCAA still does not recognize boxing. But several schools, including Notre Dame and the service academies, have held boxing tournaments for students.

Luke Runion brought boxing back to Maryland in 2004, but as a club sport. At the time, Runion was a sophomore in College Park and moving up the national amateur ladder as a heavyweight. He hoped to land a spot on the 2008 Olympic team but lost in the trials.

Rather than turn pro or stick around for the 2012 Olympics, Runion stuck with the sport through coaching. He became the head coach of the clique he’d put together, the Maryland Boxing Club. He went back to the old-time Terps looking for support, and all three national champs—Alperstein, Garber, and Palumbo—were among those who backed Runion’s effort.

They could point to their own successes out of the ring, after their championships in it, to show that boxing helped turn them into model citizens: Alperstein, in addition to running the family furniture business on 7th Street NW, headed the D.C. Boxing Commission in the 1960s; Palumbo became an oral surgeon, and Garber ran youth outreach programs for the D.C. recreation department, including boxing programs, from the mid-1950s through his retirement in the early 1990s.

“We didn’t become thugs because of boxing,” says Palumbo with a big laugh. “In fact, after Maryland Garry Garber spent his whole life keeping kids in D.C. from becoming thugs. He’s one of the best human beings there ever was.”

Garber gives the sport all the credit. “Boxing got me an education,” he says, “and boxing really saved me. Boxing was my omen.”

The Terps champs, who all live in the D.C. area, have attended previous Rumbles at the Ritchie, but they were otherwise engaged for the 2009 rendition.

Runion, a volunteer, was in the corner for the Terps fighters at the latest Rumble. This year’s event served as a tuneup for the national collegiate boxing championships, an event sanctioned by USA Boxing, a national amateur boxing body; it will be held at Ritchie Coliseum early next month. Runion points to the hosting gig as proof of the university administration’s support.

“They were nervous when we started,” Runion says. “But once we demonstrated we’re reasonable students, and that we weren’t organizing some sort of fight club, the school was very supportive. I can understand their fear, but it comes from the pros; boxing is not always clean at that level. But here, it’s the purest level of the sport. Nobody has any prior experience, nobody’s overmatched. Put that college sports atmosphere behind it, and boxing makes for a great, great event.”

The Rumble was certainly great for Mark Shorr. The Fallston, Md., native won the best boxer award after KO’ing his opponent from the Naval Academy in the 185-pound class. Shorr’s father, sitting ringside, told those around him that his kid is also a business major who brought home a 4.0 GPA last semester.

“I don’t think I yelled quite as loud over his report card as I yelled tonight,” Dad tells me.

Nieto, fighting as a 156-pounder for the Georgetown Boxing Club, which was founded this year, didn’t get the cheers during his ring debut. But he’s still in college boxing’s corner.

“I didn’t come to Georgetown to box. My parents think I’m stupid for doing this,” Nieto says. “I’ve never been punched before. I’m a good kid. But this builds character. Right?”