Tommy Rawson, prized coach of boxing legends and Harvard students alike, died last Tuesday at Melrose-Wakefield Hospital. He was 94.
Rawson was born into a family of boxers in East Boston, Mass., his father a former boxer and boxing instructor in the area.
A stand-out boxer in his amateur career, Rawson was the national amateur junior lightweight champion in 1929 in the 135-pound class.
“I fought 227 fights as an amateur and won 223 of them,” Rawson told The Crimson in April 2001. “And the four decisions that I lost, I beat those fellas afterwards. So you could say that I rectified the defeats that I had.”
During his 11 years as a professional boxer, Rawson garnered an impressive 74-5 record before his retirement in 1941. In 1936, he won New England’s professional lightweight championship.
A general contractor by profession, Rawson was internationally known in the world of boxing, coaching the Burmese Olympic boxing team in 1972 at the Munich Games and also coaching boxing legend Rocky Marciano. Rawson also refereed boxing for over three decades and served as Massachusetts’ boxing commissioner.
In 1941, he brought his boxing talents to Harvard as coach of the Harvard Boxing Team.
Though boxing eventually became a club sport, he continued to help Harvard athletes master everything from the quick jab to endurance runs.
Rawson coached the Harvard Boxing Team and later the Harvard Thursday night. Boxing Club for 60 years until his retirement in 2001.
Boxing Club alums speak of Rawson’s dedication to teaching amateurs and recruiting both men and women to try the sport.
“I remember being very intimidated when I first went to the club and I basically thought I was going to be killed,” said Jonathon M. Guberman ’03, who was co-president of the Harvard Boxing Club last year. “But his philosophy revolved around the basics, and so he was always happy to start from scratch with a new group of people, teaching everyone the importance of a good, solid jab.”
Students often dropped in to visit the man they called “Coach” in his Malkin Athletic Center office and hear his many tales of encounters with gangsters and boxing greats.
“He loved to talk about his career, when asked, and was a living piece of history,” said Guberman. “He told us about the time that Al Capone wanted to meet him after a match, but he refused, because he ‘knew that guy was nothing but trouble.’ Or, he’d tell us about the time he was referee for a match with Mohammed Ali, and he had to tell him to quit goofing around and box properly.”
Many of his former protégés describe Rawson as a legend in his own right. Some have pointed to what they say are striking similarities between Rawson and Mickey, the coach character from the movie Rocky.
Members of his boxing teams at Harvard called Rawson a “gentleman for the ages,” according to his daughter, Zita A. Legere.
Rawson not only taught the basics of boxing and fitness, but also served as a mentor for both the boxing club regulars and others who casually dropped in for recreation and to learn from “Coach.”
“I came into the gym on a day when there was no one else but two brand-new members there and coach was showing them the usual exercises,” recalled Allison J. Porter ’02. “But when he started doing push-ups, I looked over and realized that he was doing them on his knuckles. He was 92 at the time. Most young people I know don’t do push-ups at all, let along knuckle push-ups. I was inspired and amazed.”
Rawson is survived by his four daughters, Anne M. Hall, Zita Legere, Gail Potheir and Donna Rawson, his sisters Frances Hickey and Ann M. Friel, 15 grandchildren and 28 great-grandchildren.