Boxing is a club sport at Washington, which hosts national championships this weekend. Boxers have no scholarships, pay for their own travel, drive themselves to tourneys and maintain 3.0 GPAs.
“It was controversial, but I should have won. I only got hit five times but they gave the other dude the decision.”
University of Washington senior and boxing club team captain James Porter was discussing his defeat in the National Collegiate Boxing Association (NCBA) regional tournament last month in Reno. The Seattle native lost to Pedro Barrientes of the Air Force Academy in the welterweight (147-pound) division.
After the fight both the referee and Air Force coach Blake Baldi told Porter they thought he won. But as is said in subjectively scored sporting events, “The decision of the judges shall be final.” Beside that, controversial decisions are as much a part of the sweet science as cut men and spit buckets. Typical boxing, right?
“Yeah,” Porter said, laughing. “I guess so.”
But what Porter and the 13 other Huskies boxers who will fight in this week’s NCBA championship tournament at UW’s Alaska Airlines Arena do is hardly typical.
Since boxing is a club sport, UW team members sometimes pay for expenses out of their own pockets. They sell T-shirts and knit caps with UW Boxing logos and use that cash to help cover costs. They spend most of their practice time at Seattle boxing gyms.
Their coach, Christopher Mendez, requires them to maintain a 3.0 GPA. Travel to tournaments? The team shares driving responsibilities in cars they rent.
To box at UW means you really want to box. It is college athletics at its most charming and least cynical level.
Once upon a time, boxing was the biggest sport in America. That included college boxing. In the 1950s, crowds at college boxing tournaments routinely exceeded 10,000 fans. But in the 1960 NCAA championship tournament, Wisconsin boxer Charlie Mohr collapsed after suffering a brain hemorrhage and died a week later.
The NCAA quickly exited the boxing business. It wasn’t until 1976 that college fighting again was conducted on a national scale by the NCBA. By then, rules were in place to make college boxing safer, more like Olympics boxing. Head gear is worn. Fights are limited to three short rounds.
Despite the loss at regionals, Porter qualified for this week’s national tournament, which will allow him to defend the welterweight title he won as a junior. Last year’s win completed a successful return to boxing for Porter, who first learned to fight in 2011 at the Sea Mar Youth Boxing Club in South Seattle.
“I had a friend get jumped by some people, and I wanted to learn to defend myself,” he said. “I actually became good and began competing.”
But before long, he left the sport. A good student at Mount Rainier High School in Des Moines, he found the pressure of keeping up his grades, applying for college, holding down a job, plus trying to box, to be too much. But by the end of his sophomore year at UW he felt he had enough free time to devote to boxing. He calls that decision to return “the best I’ve ever made in my life.”
Porter is a walking (and punching) example of the student part of the student-athlete hybrid. He’s an informatics major at Washington, has been on the Dean’s List the past two quarters and will graduate next year. He’s been the vice-president of his fraternity and also enjoys his role as boxing team captain.
“I love to motivate people,” he said. “If anything I do in my life could inspire someone to do something great, then I’m happy.”
Unlike her teammate, Alison Forsyth isn’t a defending champion. Of anything. This does not, however, mean she isn’t a fighter who has worked hard to earn her shot.
The Gig Harbor resident and UW senior arrived at boxing team tryouts last fall at 174 pounds, too big for any female weight class. So she dropped 30 pounds and has joined a women’s roster that won the national team NCBA titles in 2014 and 2015. Her season has been long on great experiences but short on wins. Short as in none, a fact Forsyth chooses to be philosophical about.
“I’ve found reasons for motivation greater than just the W itself,” she said. “I fight for my team, I fight because I’ve lost over 30 pounds since October. I fight because I refuse to let all the hours I’ve trained go to waste.”
There’s another reason Forsyth fights. Like Porter, she got into fighting as a way to protect herself. But in her case, it wasn’t a friend who was attacked that spurred the move.
At 18 while traveling in South America, she was sexually assaulted. Soon after, she took up kick boxing as a means of self-defense. She also used that incident to help educate others. Last fall, she spoke to the UW football team. At the request of Mendez, she gave the same speech to the boxing team.
(UW boxers work out at Seattle Boxing Gym on Capitol Hill. / Mike Gastineau)
Forsyth came agonizingly close to her first win in the regionals against Air Force fighter Sarenna Ortiz. She dominated the first two rounds and most of the third when Ortiz landed a few jabs that caused Forsyth’s nose to bleed. The fight was stopped while a doctor checked her nose.
“I was still energetic and jumping up and down, ready to finish,” she said. The doctor agreed she was OK and let the fight continue. Forsyth then landed a retaliatory shot to Ortiz’s nose and felt like she had the fight won. But her nose continued to bleed. Without administering a standing eight count (given to fighters who are thought to be in trouble) the ref stopped the fight a second time and summoned the doctor.
“I stood in the corner begging him to let me finish the fight,” she said. “My coaches were shouting: ‘Eight seconds left, eight seconds left!’”
The doctor had a decision to make. He asked how much longer Forsyth had to fight to finish the round. Incredibly, when the timer yelled, “She’s 1:50 in,” meaning there was 10 seconds left in the round, the doctor mistakenly thought he heard “she’s got 1:50 left. He stopped the fight. Forsyth was ahead on the judges’ cards, but when a fight is stopped in this manner it doesn’t matter. She had another defeat.
Despite the loss, Forsyth will be allowed to enter the national tournament this week and is eager to step back into the ring. For support, she may lean on her team captain.
“James helps me the most with my mental game,” she said. “He has the strongest mental game of anyone on our team. Losing, to him, has never been an option.”
Beginning Thursday night at the NCBA championship, that saying becomes reality for Forsyth and her teammates.
“I’m very unsatisfied at the moment and all the more motivated walking into nationals,” she said. “I’m hungry for my rematch and I’m ready for my first win.”
She’s not the only one likely to get a rematch. Porter figures he might see Barrientes again this week. To defend his title, he’ll also likely have to go through University of Nevada boxer J.J. Mariano, who won the 139-pound division last year and has moved up a class.
Porter’s pre-fight routine never involves the other fighter.
“I think about how hard I’ve worked,” he said. “I’m confident in my skill, so it doesn’t matter what name I go against. I don’t want that to mess with my mental game. I just want to be confident.”
Spoken like a defending champion with a strong mental game.