So there I was, clad in gold, nervously chewing on my mouthguard as I waited for the referee to invite us into the center of the ring. There he was across from me, strong and towering at 6’9”. He was Mike Broghammer, a former forward on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team who took his talents to the boxing ring for his senior year. I was...me, 19 years old, fresh-faced and about twenty pounds overweight despite my best efforts to train. Common sense be damned, I was about to fight this man. How did I get here?
The answer to that question starts a hundred years ago, when Knute Rockne organized an offseason boxing tournament to condition his football players. Under the leadership of Dominic Napolitano, a Notre Dame P.E. instructor, the tournament was expanded to the entire student body and became a fundraising event to support Holy Cross missions in Bangladesh in 1931. “Nappy,” as he was known, summed up the ethos of the club with a quote that has been immortalized among its members: “Strong bodies fight, so that weak bodies may be nourished.”
That tournament, the Bengal Bouts, is set to close its 90th season with final-round bouts this Saturday, Feb. 29 at the Purcell Pavilion. By the end of that night, the club will have crowned champions in twelve divisions and raised over $150,000 in support of their worthy cause.
I participated in the 83rd, 84th, and 86th Bengal Bouts tournaments, suffering early defeats in my freshman and sophomore years before winning in my senior year. It’s my pleasure to give OFD readers a look inside this unique Notre Dame sporting event.
Training usually begins in October, immediately after students return to campus from fall break. At this peak of the fall season in South Bend, the weather is still nice enough for the first few weeks of practice to take place outside, in the fields next to Stepan Center on the north end of campus. Every now and then a rainy day requires practice to be moved inside the Center, which is Soviet in both era and style.
Newcomers to these practices receive a crash course in high-intensity interval and cardiovascular training - highlights include hundreds and hundreds of burpees, carrying one another across muddy fields, and Friday afternoon “fun runs” which are decidedly not fun - followed by the basics of boxing technique. Returning veterans, who are not required to join practices until January, generally still return at this point to start getting back in shape and receive additional coaching.
When I first wandered over to one of these practices in the fall of 2012, I was forty pounds overweight and hadn’t taken part in a serious conditioning program in about three years. My head was aching so badly from the exertion that I thought I was having a migraine; I couldn’t go thirty seconds without taking a break. Captains and returning veterans left me in the dust, but they also kindly and non-judgmentally pushed me and the rest of the new-and-doughy contingent to keep striving until we could keep up. Being a part of this team - and it was a team, the individuality of boxing as a sport aside - was about heart and will, and if you had those, you were welcome here.
Practices moved indoors in November, but the real training began when we returned after the holidays. We were introduced to Mac, a British Army veteran and professional strength and conditioning coach. An energetic fellow with a devilish grin who designed even more devilish workouts, Mac was fond of walking about during training and reminding us of the nature of hard work, specifically that we didn’t know what it was and would have to learn it if we wanted to survive. Imagine Gordon Ramsay following you around while you work out and you have an idea how challenging, amusing and rewarding this was.
Winter conditioning was also when we started sparring, finally putting on gloves and getting in the ring with live opponents. It’s difficult to describe how ludicrous and uncomfortable this is when you do it the first time. You throw wild haymakers that don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of landing, you get spun around, you trip over your own feet. You cover up too often and obscure your vision, leaving you with no choice but to wait for a tie-up. But those mistakes come with consequences - you get hit, hard - and it encourages you to learn quickly.
What’s more, you learn from some incredible coaches, who deserved to get name-checked here: Nate Walker, Matt Gelchion, Chad Harms, Fr. Brian Daley, Kevin Smith, Sweet C. Robinson. I also had the privilege of learning in my first two years from Coach Tom Suddes, who coached the club for over forty years and did more than anyone not named Napolitano or Rockne to make the Bengal Bouts what it is today, and whose tragic passing in 2016 was a blow to everyone who had the pleasure of knowing him. The conditioning taught us how to endure; these guys taught us how to fight.
The tournament begins in mid-February, after everyone weighs in and is sorted into one of twelve weight brackets. The brackets are generally sixteen-seed, with the exception of the heavier classes (I was a heavyweight all three years, and the largest bracket I was part of was an eight-man).
The sheer number of guys who have to fight on any one night precludes the pomp and circumstance that accompany professional boxing matches - Deontay Wilder would have no excuses. You are called up and identified by your name, nickname (I was Matt “Here Comes The” Boomer), year, hometown and dorm. You are called to the center to touch gloves, and the fight starts.
And so it was that in 2013 I found myself, a bit doughy and still learning, stuck inside a patch of canvas with a far-superior athlete who was hungry to leave a mark. I’d love to give a blow-by-blow recap of the match, but a combination of time and the ass-whooping I received has left me with little more than a blur. At some point in the second round, Coach Suddes blew the whistle, came up to me and said something to the effect of “son, you fought hard, but we gotta stop it,” then called a TKO. Mike, an incredibly kind guy who I’ve been happy to run into a few times since then, was magnanimous in victory, and he wasn’t alone - every fight ends in an embrace between the two boxers.
My sophomore year ended with another first-bout exit, but was able to advance to the finals in my senior year. My opponent: a 34-year-old Jesuit priest and Ph.D. candidate, Fr. Nathan “The Exorcist” O’Halloran, another great guy who I’ve been happy to run into in the years since then.
The match that followed was a raucous, messy, bloodstained slugfest. Fr. Nathan’s height advantage (he was 6’5”, I was 6’3”) and trip-hammer jab meant I had to charge inside and throw tight hooks while trying to block or avoid his strong right-hand crosses (I was not always successful). The haymakers rained and points racked up on both sides like in a BVG-era Irish football game, until the final bell rang and the judges went submitted their scorecards. The result was a split decision: 2-1 to the guy in the blue corner.
Believe me, no one was more surprised than I was. As always, the fight ended with an embrace; even in the highest-stakes matches, we were a team first.
Graduating means saying goodbye to many things, and I can honestly say boxing was one of the hardest things to leave behind when I left Notre Dame a few months after that night. It wasn’t just a good way to stay in shape or a fun activity outside the classroom. It was a strong and supportive community that gave me friends I still have today. It forced me to uncover reserves of discipline, resolve, and courage that I may not have otherwise. It taught me to compete with others while supporting them at the same time. When I was going through difficult moments, it was a reminder that I was alive, that I was still strong and that I had plenty to fight for (check out the documentary Strong Bodies Fight to learn more about the impact of the Bouts on the Bangladesh missions).
There are so many more words I could say about how great this event is and what it means. But if you really want to learn about it, check it out on Saturday night: the finals will be streaming live at 7 PM EST on Saturday on ESPN3.
P.S. I would be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to the incredible ladies of Notre Dame’s Women’s Boxing Program. Their tournament, the Baraka Bouts, takes place in the fall and raises money for Holy Cross Missions in East Africa. Check out what they do here!