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Ever since I heard the "Rocky" rumor, I've been dying to meet Tommy Rawson. The story is probably apocryphal, but the gossip is that the 88-year-old Rawson, Harvard's boxing coach and resident sports legend, was the basis for Mickey, the character immortalized by Burgess Meredith in the 1976 Academy Award winning film.
So I decide to pay Rawson a visit.
As I prepare for our meeting, it strikes me that "Boxing at Harvard" is itself a curious idea, and I'm eager to learn where the two American institutions meet up. So I show up at the MAC's third-floor Rec. Room early for my Friday afternoon appointment, just as the club's introductory meeting is letting out and a practice is starting up. Rawson, a squat, bald man is standing in a corner, instructing one of his boxers. Wearing a collared shirt and ancient plaid pants, he seems to have forgotten how men his age are supposed to act: he throws a jab at the young boxer from time to time and he's bouncing on the balls of his feet, weaving somewhat nimbly from side to side.
I introduce myself and soon we're in the boxing office, a cramped room that's dominated by gloves, headgear and boxing bags of all types. In a gentle voice Rawson tells me about how he grew up in east Boston, fast-forwarding almost immediately to his first night in the ring: he won all four fights and received a watch for his troubles-a watch he still has. As the victory watches started to pile up, he sent them off to aunts, uncles and cousins-"Sometimes I'd ask for a lady's watch," he tells me.
He shows me a bulletin board full of newspaper clippings, and the articles confirm that he hasn't been embellishing the past: "Tommy Rawson-A Credit to Boxing and to Mankind," reads one headline, and a blurb on another story touts him as the New England Lightweight champion, listing his career professional record at 82-7.
Rawson recounts dozens of fights, his tales of perseverance peopled with corrupt referees, dirty timekeepers and guys with names like "Patty Irish." Rattling off the records and weight classes of opponents the way a preacher might cite lines from scripture, he relives each bout for me, gesticulating with his thick fingers and dodging invisible punches.
At length we move on to a discussion of his coaching career, and Rawson reveals that he found his way to Harvard during World War II. "And I've been here ever since," he concludes. Which is both true and not quite true. Because while he has been coaching at Harvard for more than half a century, it trickles out that has also done a bit of work on the outside as well: chairing the Massachusetts Boxing Commission; coaching at the Olympics; taking Rocky Marciano to the Gold Gloves, ("Ali wouldn't have been able to lay a hand on him," he insists, "Rocky would've crushed his ribs").
Repeatedly during our discussion, Rawson takes the conversation off on tangents, and they inevitably involve the revisiting of his past glories. Still, he has a firm grip on the present, and the status of boxing within it. For example, when two women who missed the introductory meeting enter his office, he works hard to pique their interest in boxing, portraying the sport as above all a means to fitness and self-defense. After they leave he explains to me that as a club-level sport, boxing exists at Harvard only as long as there is interest in it; the club won't survive unless new participants are recruited year after year.
It's fascinating to watch someone who has made boxing his life extol the merits of the sport, but there is also something undeniably sad about seeing the man who coached Rocky Marciano having to defend the sport, and even to sell it.
And it isn't any more uplifting to watch Rawson as he takes me on a tour of the club's facilities: he pays special attention to a large room labeled "Women's Fencing," one which used to house boxing back when it enjoyed varsity standing. I ask him why the sport was relegated to club status, but he's caught up in a nostalgic thought about a return to legitimacy. "If the University would just okay it," he trails off, referring to intercollegiate boxing. "We have the ropes, the ring-it's all ready to go."
Later on, I broach the subject again and this time Rawson offers, "Maybe they feel its a man-to-man sport where you try to knock the other guy out...But what the heck are they doing in football, or hockey, or rugby?"
His comparison doesn't quite fly with me, and yet watching the boxers, it's hard to deny that what they're doing requires great skill, that despite what one sees on TVKO, the sport is about much more than two guys trying to beat each other silly.
It's late in our conversation that I start to see shades of "Mickey" emerging. It's subtle-Rawson is calm and reserved where the coach in Rocky was acerbic and tightly-wound-and yet its definitely there. But I never do attempt to confirm the rumor. It seems like there's only so much to be gained from talking about the past.
"Boxing at Harvard is a curious idea; where do the two American institutions meet up?"
"There is something sad about seeing the man who coached Rocky Marciano having to defend the sport."
Dan S. Aibel's column appears alternate Wednesdays.
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