The end of college boxing

Two authors talk after 60th anniversary of the last UW–Madison bout
Wallenfeldt And Boxing Book
Evert Wallenfeldt, left, wrote the first comprehensive book on the history of collegiate boxing.

I had been thinking of writing something this spring to mark a significant anniversary in Madison.

April 9 was the 60th anniversary of the boxing match that prompted — exactly one month later — the University of Wisconsin to discontinue varsity boxing.

In part because UW had the nation’s preeminent collegiate boxing program — eight national team championships, crowds surpassing 14,000 in the Field House in Madison — the NCAA soon discontinued its annual tournament. College boxing, as of spring 1960, was done.

The anniversary dates came and went — there were other things to write about — but then I heard from Evert Wallenfeldt. A somber anniversary became instead a chance to reconnect with an admired acquaintance I hadn’t spoken to in nearly two decades.

Some people think I wrote the book on college boxing. While it’s true I wrote a book on the UW program and the death of Badger boxer Charlie Mohr, Wallenfeldt got there first with his book, “The Six-Minute Fraternity,” so named for college boxing’s three, two-minute rounds. The book is national in scope and covering the years 1932 to 1960.

It was a terrific April 2000 Smithsonian magazine article by Jim Doherty on Charlie Mohr that prompted me to write my own book.

Wallenfeldt’s “Six-Minute Fraternity” was a road map I returned to again and again. After I got in touch, Wallenfeldt offered both encouragement and assistance, including providing interview tapes and correspondence with Badger boxers who were no longer living when I began my work.

Wallenfeldt’s research was exhaustive.

“After ten years of peering at miles of newspaper microfilm,” he wrote in a preface to his book, “writing well over 100 individual letters, conducting lengthy telephone interviews, and traveling throughout the United States to meet with former champions and coaches, I have assembled a narrative from the perspective of the champions, their coaches and other involved and informed persons.”

“I wrote it for the boxers,” Wallenfeldt, now 88, said when we spoke by phone last week.

As a boy growing up on Hollister Avenue in Madison, just blocks from the Field House, he came to greatly admire the dedication and camaraderie of the collegiate boxers. Wallenfeldt himself was a fine athlete, an all-city end in football at West High School and captain of the Regent basketball team that fell one win short at the state tournament his senior year in 1950.

He got his undergraduate degree in education at UW­–Madison, graduate degrees at Iowa and Indiana, was briefly president of Milton College, and spent the last 22 years of his career on the faculty of Kent State University in Ohio. He currently lives in Akron.

Wallenfeldt said he had two reasons for wanting to talk to me last week.

He thinks someone should write a book about the 2014-2015 UW men’s basketball team, which lost to Duke in the NCAA championship game.

Wallenfeldt feels the colorful, tightknit characters on that team brought it a national following, one undiminished by its loss in the final, which he blames on the referees favoring Duke in the second half after being goaded by coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“An absolute injustice,” Wallenfeld says.

More interesting to me — given the anniversary timing — were Ev’s thoughts on college boxing, 25 years after publishing his seminal book.

“I still regard it as a very positive thing,” he says. “Yet you have to look at it with some skepticism because of all the research that’s been done on concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy” or CTE.

That was the other thing Wallenfeldt wanted to talk to me about.

To briefly recap, on April 9, 1960, Badger boxer Charlie Mohr — a beloved figure on campus — fought in the Field House at 165 pounds in the final of the NCAA tournament against Stu Bartell of San Jose State.

A Bartell punch knocked Mohr to the canvas in the second round, and the referee soon stopped the fight. Bartell had won. Minutes later in the locker room, Mohr slipped into a coma. He died eight days later, on Easter Sunday, of a massive brain injury.

On May 9, one month after the Bartell-Mohr bout, the UW faculty met in Music Hall and in a voice vote ended varsity boxing at Wisconsin. “By a huge majority,” wrote Elliott Maraniss in The Capital Times.

Like Wallenfeldt, I admired the boxers I wrote about, and virtually to a man they spoke about how the sport had taught them self-sufficiency, resilience and more. It had been a big positive in their lives.

But for some, if not many, a bill came due later in the form of dementia or CTE. How do you get past that in thinking about boxing? I can’t.

There’s one more thing to consider. In June 1944, a West High kid turned UW Badger freshman quarterback named A. J. Shafer died from hemorrhaging in his lungs two hours after “a violent blow” (according to the Cap Times) during a game against Iowa at Camp Randall.

In April 1979, Badger freshman safety Jay Seiler died after suffering a brain injury on the practice football field in Madison.

The more recent case of former Badger Mike Webster helped bring the scourge of CTE in football players to light.

Should football go the way of college boxing? I don’t have answers — there are no easy ones — and would rather end with a salute to Wallenfeldt and his wonderful “Six Minute-Fraternity,” which celebrates an era for some estimable young men who may have been forgotten if not for his efforts.

“It wasn’t a big seller or anything like that,” Wallenfeldt said. “But I’m sure as heck happy I did it.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.