Intramural Meet Recalls Glory Of the Ghosts of Boxing's Past
(With fond--recollections of the Bruno Sammartino-Shiek title match still titillating their memories, true Harvard sports afficienadoes are trouping to the IAB today for the first round of the intramural boxing tourney. Tuck a six-pack of Bud under your arm, steel yourself with your towniest "Kill de bum!", and join them. Next week, it's roller derby in Providence.)
You've probably seen the history book picture of Teddy Roosevelt in his Harvard days, the one where he's looking leonine, dukes held high, sporting a silky pair of crimson-hued boxers.
T.R., class of '80, is Harvard's one famous boxer. For years he was the one name Harvard men could hold up to taunts that Cambridge was a nest of "Haavaad fairies." And today, two pairs of his gloves hang immortalized over in Henry Lamar's office in the IAB above some pictures of the boxing teams Henry coached here.
But there's more to the story of boxing at Harvard than T.R., who did his jabbing when boxing here was still a manly art for young aristocrats. In fact, boxing was once the second most popular spectator sport at Harvard (behind football) before being decked by a reactionary right hook in the late 30's.
The status of boxing at Harvard officially changed from intramural to intercollegiate in 1929. But Harvard became a serious challenger to the college powers--Army, Navy, and Penn State--only after Lamar took over as coach in 1931.
"Something to Do"
When Lamar came to Cambridge, he was a ranking world heavyweight, with a 38-1 professional record. He had started boxing in high school in Virginia, "just to have something to do between football and basketball seasons," and boxed throughout his college days at the University of Virginia, from which he graduated in 1928.
He chuckles when he remembers the first real test of his manliness, at the Junior National Championships in Baltimore in 1921.
In the title bout, Henry faced a slugger from Philadelphia who had already acquired a name and a reputation as the "Quaker City Blacksmith." During the pre-bout weigh-in, the pride of Philly warned Henry, "Don't nobody mess with the Quaker City Blacksmith," but later Henry decided to mess and a hard right to the stomach put an end to the B.S.
From there, Lamar's career in the ring became a series of successes. He was national AAU light-heavyweight champion for two years running, 1926-27, boxed in the Pan-Americans, and finally turned pro.
Lamar suffered only one defeat in his ring career, in the quarterfinals of a tournament to decide the new World Champion after Gene Tunney retired from the ring. He was TKO'd by Jim Maloney, who then lost to the eventual winner, Jack Sharkey.
Lamar retired from the ring soon after he began coaching at Harvard. "I decided that professional boxing and Harvard didn't go together," he says. But Lamar didn't abandon the pros altogether. He was boxing commissioner for the Commonwealth from 1956 to 1963, and simultaneously served as executive secretary of the National Boxing Association.
Under Lamar's guiding hand, intercollegiate boxing became successful and immensely popular at Harvard. A bout between Harvard and the U.S. Military Academy in 1936 drew an estimated 3000 enthusiasts, the largest crowd ever to attend an athletic event in the Indoor Athletic Building.
Harvard was undefeated so far that year. But Army, boasting several of the East's finest boxers and a coach named Kid Glover, in itself intimidating, was expected to win handily. Two Harvard upsets, however, turned the tables.
Entering the third and final round in the 175-pound bout, Army's undefeated J.B. Wells held a commanding point lead over Harvard's Gordie Robertson. Wells could have turned his back and run around the ring for two minutes and still won," Lamar recalls.
But in the closing seconds of the round. Robertson uncorked what had become the trademark of Harvard boxers--a combination jab, cross and hook followed by an inside right counter. The last blow landed under Well's ear and sent the bewildered Cadet spinning to the canvas for his first collegiate defeat.
Minutes later, Harvard's Bill Smith completely dominated Army's J.H. Isbell, a 217-pound All-American football tackle, to clinch the match for the Crimson and climax Harvard's only undefeated boxing season.
Two years later, in 1938, boxing lost its varsity status at Harvard. Squeamish spectators claim injuries killed intercollegiate boxing here and elsewhere. But University Health Service records do not report a single boxing injury during the 1930-37 period when boxing carried varsity status at Harvard. And one survey made at San Jose State College in California showed that boxing ranked seventh in injuries behind football, wrestling, basketball, track, soccer, and baseball.
Lamar blames the high-handed recruiting practices of many colleges for the sport's demise. "Golden Glove Champions with as many as 100 bouts under their belts would be placed in the ring with inexperienced fighters," he says. Serious injuries rarely occurred, but spectators and officials became disturbed at the one-sided affairs."
So for the past 30 years boxing at Harvard and at most other colleges has consisted of a single annual intramural event. Interest in the sport revived during World War II, when intramural boxing became a required activity for all Harvard undergraduates, but waned quickly. All that remains of boxing today are the classes Henry Lamar teaches every February and the three-day House tournament, which begins today.
But the House tournament is the highlight of the winter sport season for a great many Harvard sports fans, who still throng the IAB for the final bouts. And though Henry Lamar insists that intercollegiate boxing is dead and buried, who's to deny that if Harvard challenged Yale to an annual match, the Ivy League might generate a pugilistic renaissance in America?