There is a battle going on in college boxing, only the combatants are not boxers and it’s not punches that they’re trading. A few months back, I wrote a piece covering the University of Washington boxing squad and mentioned their sanction under the National Collegiate Boxing Association (NCBA), the first organization to reinstate boxing into college since its removal from the NCAA in 1966. Soon after, one of the founding members of the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association (USIBA) reached out to ensure our readers knew that there was indeed another organization on the college boxing scene, and that they’re on a mission to reform how the sport had been carried out for nearly the last four decades.
The USIBA formed in 2012 under a collaborative effort of coaches looking to make changes in the sport of college boxing. At the center of that movement is Luke Runion, a former NCBA coach and boxer who also medaled at the USA Nationals during his amateur career, and later went on to establish a fight club at the University of Maryland. Because of his accomplishments in the amateurs, Runion often sat on many of the sport’s advisory councils and it was here he began taking issue with how it was being run at the college level.
“When I transitioned to coaching at the University of Maryland, I realized that even though I was a pretty good boxer, all the kids that wanted to learn how to box and were actually able to box weren’t necessarily competing on a level playing field intercolleigately when it came to tournament time,” Runion told me. “USA Boxing offers experienced divisions for safety. There’s an ‘Open’ and ‘Novice’ division. The NCBA did not.”
For those unfamiliar, amateur boxing in the United States is sanctioned by USA Boxing, and under its rules, a competitor with more than 10 bouts is considered an “Open” fighter while those with less are classified as “Novice”, with both divisions holding their respective championships. The idea behind the distinction is to ensure that boxers are matched fairly in the ring. The USIBA adds an additional “Beginner” class to further lessen the gap in bouts disparities. When I mentioned the matter to the NCBA, their response was that the divisions weren’t necessary since their eligibility terms limit the number of bouts a boxer is allowed to have in the first place.
“The point that needs to be made and understood is that our eligibility rules don’t allow boxers to have more than 10 sanctioned USA boxing bouts. If someone has more, they can still register with us, and they will be matched accordingly, but they’re not going to be allowed to box at our regional or national tournaments,” said Eric Buller, Vice President of the NCBA. “That’s how we kind of answer the safety question to having only one division. That’s how you prevent a kid who has 75 fights to go up against a kid that has 5, because he will never be eligible to be in our tournaments.”
The NCBA also deferred part of the responsibility to the coaches knowing which bouts to take and which ones to turn down, an argument that makes sense since even under USA Boxing rules, a boxer with 11 fights and a boxer with 100 would technically be in the same division. When I passed the information back onto Runion, he had this to say in response:
“The problem with NCBA rule is that a kid with 1 bout can fight a kid with more than 10 bouts as long as the more experienced boxer has had all their bouts in college,” Runion said. “And then there are all these exceptions to these rules. For example the academy boxers that boxed at the Air Force, Navy, and military academies don’t record their bouts in their USA Boxing passport. They don’t have sanctioned events when they box in their brigade matches on campus because they have insurance through the military so they don’t use USA Boxing. There just wasn’t a lot of transparency on what people’s actual records were.”
According to Runion, academy boxers win about 75% of the NCBA championships, a statistic that matches closely with one published in a New York Times article covering the same matter. Runion attributed the imbalance to the loophole in unrecorded bouts. NCBA president Ken Cooper, on the other hand, attributed the dominance of the military academies to their combatives program and dedication from their student-athletes.
“Every kid at the academies has to take combatives, so you find a good athlete, and they stay with it,” Cooper told me through a phone interview. “What’s the academy have by the way? 4,000 students? And I’m on a campus with say 40,000 students, and I can’t find kids that want to box? Doesn’t make any sense to me. If I’m on a campus with 40,000 students, I’d have every weight class filled, with men and women, and with people behind them.”
According to its website, the USIBA has amassed a 34-team following since its inception, compared to the 32 teams listed by the NCBA who formed in 1976. It is perhaps telling that such a large number of teams have formed under the USIBA within only three years of operation, though I can’t say for sure whether that number is due strictly to operational differences between the two organizations, or if the process of forming under one organization is more fitting for certain colleges than the other. At least in the case of the West Point women’s boxing team, it was the way in which the USIBA ran their tournaments that influenced their choice, despite the men’s team being sanctioned under the NCBA.
“I have a very small team, and a lot of them are new to boxing. Because [the USIBA] has three different categories you can put people in, it really allowed for them to gain experience before they get thrown in with very experienced boxers,” stated Patrice Benson, the Officer-in-Charge of the West Point women’s boxing team and the person who ultimately decided on the sanctioning body. “It allows them to have a growing period and I like that they have a growing period. It also allows all of our boxers to be able to go to nationals, which I really liked.”
The other major issue differentiating the two organizations is the state of women’s boxing. USIBA first began offering national women’s championships at the inception of their organization. The NCBA didn’t hold nationals until 2014, though did have women championships at their regional tournaments much earlier. For Runion, however, only having the regional championships was part of the problem.
“We encourage co-ed teams. We offer all the weight classes and all the skill levels. Adding the women’s program to our tournament and our league has been refreshing for a lot of our coaches because previously when the NCBA was the only game in town, after regionals they would stop coaching the women because they weren’t going to nationals,” said Runion. “That wasn’t fair to the women. Many of the women are just as likely to be a club president or a treasurer or team captain as the men, and now teams compete together. I’ve seen in gyms where women motivate the men and men work with the women to make them better. I think it’s a great co-ed sport and I don’t think the NCBA took full advantage of that.”
Runion claimed that the absence of a national women’s tournament at the NCBA was attributed to behind-door attitudes disapproving of women participating in the sport of boxing, as well as an overall lack of effort to get the tournaments formally organized. According to the NCBA, it was participation levels that prevented the bouts from happening.
“As much as we tried, even in the regionals, we just wouldn’t get enough women in order to hold a tournament,” Cooper told me. “Slowly we’re seeing that growth in women’s boxing so we’ve had to offer it. We made the decision after watching it for a couple of years and Luke was there while we were doing that. When he was still with us, Luke was doing surveys and collecting information about different women in different places and providing that information to us. We felt at the time, based on the information he gathered, that there weren’t enough women, to formally hold a women’s tournament. We felt that we needed to have the right density before going to the national tournament. I’m not even sure we’re there now, but we’re getting there.”
With no way to verify what was actually said during those meetings, it is difficult to determine the real reason behind why it took the NCBA so long to finally hold national women’s tournaments, though the USIBA’s ability to hold national women’s tournaments early in their formation is an interesting point to consider. And there is a strategic thinking behind the USIBA’s focus on women’s boxing. Runion calls it the “Ladies First” approach to reinstating college boxing into the NCAA.
“We’re trying to solidify our programs, make sure they’re solid programs with dedicated coaches. We’re not quite there yet, but I feel that if we can get there, we’ll have what we need to petition the NCAA and get the emerging sports status. Now if that happens, I guess I call it the ‘Ladies First’ approach,” Runion explained. “The requirements to become a men’s sport are much more challenging financially because you have to have fully funded programs within athletic departments and things like that. The women are going to be lower cost because the requirements for emerging sports are less. We have to take the path of least resistance and that only helps the men too because if the women are recognized in the NCAA, people will then say, ‘Well why not the men?’”
The idea is that reaching an NCAA status would allow for the possibility of scholarships for boxing to both ease the burden of the rigorous training regime to current student-athletes, and to recruit top boxers competing in the broader amateur circuit. The hope is that bringing in better talent will lead to more competitive matches and return the sport to its heyday of packing stadiums with tens of thousands of spectators compared to maybe the few hundred it draws now. The NCBA had a different view on the matter.
“I think in order to keep the sport safe there’s a level of control and experience that comes with it, and the NCAA has been away from boxing for so long, I don’t think they would understand how to integrate,” Buller said in response to the proposal. “The other part of it is the scholarship piece, when you start giving kids scholarships to box. I agree you give a kid an academic scholarship to get in to college, but I don’t want to give a kid a scholarship to box who has experience. That can insert a lot of danger into our organization.”
The “danger” Buller is referring to is the same danger seen in other NCAA sports, things like bribes, betting, or putting a student’s athletic performance before their academic one. Drawing more interest into the sport inevitably means generating more money, and any time money is involved, things get complicated.
So now that the issues have been laid out on the table, let’s see how the organizations stack up against one another:
- Experience Divisions
Between the two, splitting fighters up into three different divisions does seem to be the more logical way to ensure safety and fair competition since the bout limitation rule for the NCBA does not appear to apply for college sanctioned bouts. It also allows for more experienced boxers to have a chance at competing in the college ranks, which would lead to more competitive and exciting bouts. But it should also be noted that more divisions means more bouts, which means more management and more planning – a difficult task for an organization primarily staffed by volunteers – so the limitation could be more logistical than anything else. However at least from a theoretical standpoint, I say the USIBA takes this round.
- Women’s Boxing
Without any hard evidence that the NCBA held back women’s national championships due to antiquated attitudes towards women, low participation rates could very well have been their reason for the delayed induction. And to its credit, the NCBA does now hold women’s championships at their national tournaments, though it should be mentioned that the NCBA only offers bouts in 5 weight classes while the USIBA offers them in 10, matching that of USA Boxing. While lower participation rates do make it challenging to hold tournaments (sometimes there are only two fighters in a championship bracket), I give this round to the USIBA for leading the effort on the issue.
- The NCAA
On the one hand, reaching an NCAA status will allow the possibility of granting accomplished amateurs a chance to go to college and for better fights. That’s a win on two accounts. On the other, popularizing college boxing to something like NCAA football or basketball, does introduce some elements that may take away from the focus of pure athletic competition, and that can be dangerous in a sport like boxing. It’s important to remember that the whole reason the NCAA dropped the sport in the first place was because Charlie Mohr lost his life in the ring. I call this round even.
So which organization has the better approach? Based on this writer’s investigation, the USIBA is slightly ahead, though admittedly, the issues mentioned here probably only scratch the surface of an abyss of issues to consider. It also depends on how one believes college boxing should look and where it should be headed. But it’s important to see how these decisions can ripple through the larger landscape of a sport, and for anyone who has ever shown interest in college boxing, this is a small slice of what’s going on.
To find out more about both organizations, visit here:
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