Vassar Yesterday

Alums Remember Boxing

Lisa Hancock Gomes, '80

When I started the Vassar Boxing and Martial Arts Club my senior year (1979-1980), we were a small group of dedicated Sunday afternoon aficionados who met in the upstairs gym at Kenyon. Our informal practices took shape when our coach, Tony Marchese, agreed to help us out. Among many other talents, Tony is a four-time New York Golden Gloves winner and three-time World Middleweight contender. 

Tony brought gloves and headgear to our little gym and taught us how to move and hit correctly. When we went against each other, it was full contact. I was the only woman, and had to tell the guys to go ahead and not be afraid to hit me, because I was going to hit them. And I did. I'm pretty sure any of the guys would tell you I held my own. I tried to entice other women to join by offering free self-defense classes, but for that day and age, it just was me.

After I graduated, Tony continued to help other students for several years. I was glad to see that Vassar began offering non-contact boxing classes in the 1990s.Tellme when they do full contact; I'll be there!

Shanlon Wu ’80

I had trained in martial arts since I was a kid—Shaolin kung fu, tai chi, some Japanese Goju karate, and in college, tae kwon do. Full-contact martial arts was just beginning in the US—the first stirrings of MMA [Mixed Martial Arts]—and it was popular to train with boxers who hit for real. A classmate, Jonathan Field ’81,saw me teaching myself to use a speed bag in Kenyon, and told me that former heavyweight champion of the world Floyd Patterson lived across the river and we should go see him—maybe train a bit with him.

We drove up a long winding road to Floyd’s house. Floyd was leaning on a rake wearing a baseball cap—looking from the distance like a farmer or gardener. Only the hands gave away the true profession. They were huge, flattened, and perpetually swollen at the knuckles.

I was surprised at the powerful field of peacefulness about him. He nodded at us and asked when we wanted to start. He explained the cost of training: as long as you were training you paid nothing—it was only if you stopped training that you owed him monthly dues. It was that peacefulness about Floyd that I sought. He’d been to great battles and returned. No question remained of his courage. I wanted to feel the same about myself.

Heinz Insu Fenkl ’82 and I had both been trained to kick through our martial arts training and were told by other fighters to never let Floyd know that we knew how to kick. Floyd had some old-fashioned notions about it: he felt only cowards kicked. Insu and I extrapolated from this that it would be safest not to even let Floyd know that we had any previous fighting training at all. We worried that the slightest actions might give us away as cowardly karate guys. The first night we sparred we wouldn’t block any punches at all even though we could—we just let ourselves get hit so Floyd wouldn’t think we’d sparred before. I saw Insu’s rear leg twitching throughout his sparring that night, itching to be thrown and I was sure he’d give us away by throwing an instinctive kick. Luckily he never did.

As the bell rang, Floyd would rest a big hand on your shoulder for a moment. It was a comforting, steadying connection, and I sometimes imagined he tried to flow into his fighters some of his greatness in that brief touch.

I lost my first fight—Floyd stopped it. I had taken two standing eight counts but had just hit my opponent with a clean right that buckled his knees and he was being given an eight count himself when Floyd threw in the towel. He explained later that I was overmatched and he wanted to protect my confidence—that I could have won only by a lucky punch. “I’m sorry Floyd,” I said when I came back to the corner, ashamed at having lost so quickly. “Jesus, Wu, don’t apologize,” he said. “I’m the one who should apologize for not getting you a better match.” We were in Canada and some reporter wanted to speak with him but he shooed him away telling him he had to talk with his fighter. In the dressing room, he told me: “Well, we know one thingnow. We know you’re not a coward. You kept going after him even when he washitting you.

College, like most things when you are young, was a great storm of feelings, ideas,and trying to imagine yourself. Some days you felt like you owned the world and some days you felt like you had no place in the world. But boxing brought with it a sense of self—it grounded you through the physicality of the training. Jumping rope, shadowboxing—all to the ritual of the timed bell brought order to my world. When Iran in the mornings alone I felt simple and pure.

Sonia Slutsky ’94

I still remember when my mother came up to the teacher of my boxing course, Frank Bergon, at graduation, appalled that her daughter's professor had not only introduced her to boxing but also taught her to appreciate and respect the sport, and not to just angrily dismiss it. In fact, he had been undoing a lifetime of training and had encouraged me to spar with a trainer. (Frank, what were you thinking?)

It should have come as no surprise that my mother was upset. I also was verydismissive of boxing at the start of the course. I remember being negative, hating everything about the sport, and in turn dismissing it completely in most discussions and papers. (Admittedly, I really only took the course because Frank Bergon was co-teaching it with Ben Kohl.)

Thinking about it now, I see how the non-contact boxing class was a perfect choice for an American culture major like me since the strength of the major comes in its multidisciplinary structure. And, I don't think I appreciated the academic courseentirely until I took the physical course. It was one thing to read about boxing, to learn its history in American culture, through writing, literature, personal accounts, and films. That was safe and academic. It was another thing to get a whiff of the experience a boxer goes through. To be scared. To sweat like a beast!

I remember the sheer physical exhaustion. Each three-minute set was endless, intense, so completely draining throughout my entire body. The mental intensity. I found that time passed remarkably slowly when I sparredwith Brian [Burke]. At times, as adrenaline rushed through me, I could see the world brake to a sluggish pace, reminiscent of the time I was in a car accident and watched as the world slowed down to nanoseconds.

The most surprising and exciting moment of the non-contact class came the firsttime I sparred with Brian. Over and over he kept slapping my face, showing me that I was dropping my guard. His slaps were not painful, but they certainly were getting me angrier and angrier. So furious did I become that I saw an opening and landed my first punch. I nailed it right between his eyes. His head jolted back for a brief moment. I had never hit anyone before and shamefully felt extremely proud of myself, despite having “hurt” another person. It went against all that I had been taught and believed. In fact, I quickly found myself apologizing, breaking my stance and asking Brian if he were all right. His response? Brian simply smiled and slapped my face again. Back on point.

The most memorable moment in the academic course came when we went to Floyd Patterson's gym to meet him. His face was sweet and gentle, like a lovable older uncle or grandfather. (Didn't he pick up Ingemar Johansson's mouthpiece in the ring when it fell out during a bout? Or am I remembering incorrectly?) But when Floyd Patterson began telling us a story of a certain fight, he took a pose, and his hands went up to protect his face. In that instant, this sweet and gentle man transformed into a fighter. Something came over his body and his demeanor, and I remember feeling goose bumps. He was now the man who knocked out all of those heavyweights.
Growing up I never participated in team sports. I'm sure a lot of that had to do with the fact that as the smallest kid in class, I was always the last one picked for a team.

So I suppose I found a kinship with boxing, a sport where I could withdraw from the outside world and intensely focus on the present. Even though I did it briefly, it was unlike any other sport I had done.

Of course, it's easy for me to say all of this about what was in essence a non-contact class where I had no real risk of brain injury. I still have a lot of qualms about boxing. The risk of injury to young people. The glorification of violence. But as a documentary filmmaker and TV producer, I've done a few stories and filmed ins everal boxing gyms. I have seen firsthand how boxing has changed people's lives for the better by providing a sense of community, responsibility, focus, and self-esteem.

I don't know if I've just gotten older, if it's because I'm so many years out of the course, or that I have a young son, but I've begun to sour on boxing again. I see all of this Mixed Martial Arts programming and it makes me sad to watch people wail on one another in caged rings. It seems to be an over glorification of violence and lack of respect for humanity. Yes, boxing has a grace and a sweet science, but I can't help but wince at fights and connect the two. (But then again, I love football, another gladiator sport.)
Silas will not box. Nor will he play football (okay, he can be a kicker). But since he can't crawl yet, I shouldn't worry too soon.

Debbie Brand ’96

My boxing experiences at Vassar were some of the most memorable and transformative for me as a student, an athlete, and as a human being. I went into the academic class “Reading the Fights Boxing and American Values” with the most elementary understanding of the sport—the Rocky movies were all I knew. I left the class with a new outlook on the world. Learning about the art of pugilism both in theory and in practice helped to make boxing part of my being. One without the other would never have accomplished that. Understanding the pain of characters, the discipline required in and out of the ring, the calculated restraint of rage, the differences between fighting and boxing was an intellectual exercise; feeling it myself was a spiritual one.

Tony Stronconi (could there be a better name for a trainer?) was my first trainer. He pushed every member of the class to execute each movement with technical accuracy, while inspiring us to drive ourselves to exhaustion. I can still hear his voice as he yells out combination counts (“One, two … one, two, three … one, two, three, two, four”). After 15 years as a multi-sport athlete, I had endured many rigorous workouts. The strain and anguish of shadow boxing, however, was different. It compelled a constant awareness of my own movements and each exertion; it absorbed me into the moment body and mind. The soul was quick to follow. Boxing had so absorbed me that I had even continued to train after I suffered an ACL tear in my final college basketball game. When I injured my knee again during a boxing workout, the trainers surrounded me, transforming from the hard-nosed drill sergeants to compassionate friends. Their gentleness only pushed me harder and deepened my passion.

A few weeks after that experience, I took part in “The Art of Boxing” symposium that sought to memorialize and honor the great visual and literary art that pugilism has inspired over the years. I actually got to challenge Joyce Carol Oates on the notions of masculinity in front of a live audience; I helped in highlighting the photographs of some of our greatest heroes—Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis; I was momentarily a part of history.

The academic class on the history and literature of boxing, and the physical training I received gave me icons to admire, cultures to explore, history to unearth, physical challenges to pursue. How ironic that something so “barbaric” could civilize me so directly. One of my career dreams as an educator is to create a similar experience for high school students. Scheduling makes it virtually impossible in a typical public school, but I hope to one day offer the total educational experience that this Vassar experience did. It blurred curricular lines, it tapped into every kind of intelligence, it diversified instruction, it developed academic and life skills. So few educational experiences do that as completely as the boxing experiences did for me. Maybe one day, I will be able to bless a student as profoundly as these classes did me.

Liz Zack ’96

I would never ever have taken that class without Frank Bergon suggesting it—but that's what made it such a typically Vassar experience; I was there to try and test anything that anyone raved about, especially if it was outside my comfort zone and seemed weird and foreign. I had no real interest in art history before I signed up as a freshman, but it seemed like a sin not to take the class at Vassar, and of course, then I became obsessed and minor in it.

I spent a lot of time in the gym back then so I remember thinking that the physical aspects of the class would be pretty easy for me. I remember the first class the instructor told us to lie on our backs and start doing sit-ups—he would tell us when to stop. He blew the whistle around his neck, gym-teacher style, and then kind of walked away. I was taking the class with my best friend and she and I diligently crunched until our abdominal muscles literally would not respond to our brains' directions to keep contracting. (And these are ridiculously fit, 19-year-old abdominals we're talking about, so that's saying a lot.) We limped home, and the next morning I discovered all the ways you engage your stomach muscles you never realized you did, you know like, turning over in bed, swinging your feet to the floor, raising to a standing position, breathing. I called my friend and she didn't answer. All day, I called her. (No cell phones then, just room phones.) Later that night I still hadn’t heard from her and a friend who lived in Main by her told me that she had called security because she couldn't walk or crawl or stand and had to be taken to the infirmary to get emergency muscle relaxers. Amazingly we convinced each other to try it again the next week!

When we got into the actual boxing part—I remember being annoyed at the softness of the instructor's eyes and tone (was it Tracy [Patterson] or Tony? I don’t remember)—my sense was that he felt a little bit out of HIS element initially training these college girls. So when I connected every now and then in a way that surprised him (and me), I think it really thrilled both of us. 

Brandon Thomas ’03

In many ways, it was a fitting combination at Vassar that on Tuesday afternoons I'd sit for a couple of hours debating word choice and sentence structure in Professor Bergon's Senior English Creative Writing seminar, and then I'd walk across campus and tape my hands for a course on boxing. The class itself was made up of, as I remember, eight or nine female students, myself, a 14- or 15-year-old kid from Poughkeepsie, the instructor Tracy, and the other instructor Brian, who could have taken on the biggest power forward or rugby player at Vassar. Brian is what I remember most vividly from those 10 sessions in the boxing room above the indoor tennis courts.

Even though I wasn't playing a varsity sport at VC anymore, I still considered myself an athlete. But every Tuesday, without fail, the instructor and his protégé would prove that I had never been agile, never had been particularly strong, and that even though I stood close to a foot taller than both of them, and easily outweighed them by 50 or 60 pounds, that they could have put me down without a second's thought. 

By the second or third week, once we'd gone over the different types of punches he wanted us to incorporate into our sessions, we would move in circuits around the room, using the speed bag, the heavy bag, shadow boxing, skipping rope, and also working out with Tracy. He'd don focus mitts—the round, red gloves that aim as targets—and bark out combination numbers to us for three minutes and we'd hit his gloves with the punches he'd dictated. The first time he introduced us to this, he asked Brian to demonstrate the correct technique. Brian couldn't have weighed more than 130 pounds and in his boxing stance stood no more than five feet tall. But to watch him and Tracy dance around the room, was to watch a deliberateness that was inspiring. There was no wasted movement on Brian's part. Every motion was tight and taut, and when Brian connected with Tracy's mitts, the sound reverberated beyond the workout room and into the gym below. As someone who had valued footwork on the basketball court, I remember thinking how graceful he was. The women, too, were both shocked and in awe of the speed he exemplified, magnified by the power his small frame exhibited with every punch. 

The small things—how he skipped rope, the deft rapidity of his hands on the speed bag, and how seriously he envisioned an opponent while he shadow boxed—spurred me on. I wanted to be that quick, to hear the speed bag knock against its bearing swiftly and repeatedly for minutes at a time.

The other thing that shocked me was how much of a workout the class was. It was only an hour, and I was in fairly good shape still, and yet afterward I always felt like I'd been at the gym for hours. Two- or three-hour practices on the basketball court rarely had left me that exhausted. A year or two later, in Boston, I joined a gym in Watertown, and would go there for a few hours a week. The gym was larger and built to accommodate beginners, like myself, as well as guys who were training for amateur bouts. There was a ring in the middle of the floor and one of my regrets was not sticking with the gym long enough—I think the owner said you needed a year or two at the gym—to spar with someone in the ring.

There's a building in Long Island City, Queens, which is known as 5 Pointz of Higher Burnin'. It's a derelict building that has been used for almost two decades as an enormous canvas for graffiti artists to practice their art. The owner of the building has allowed this, but he has recently decided to raze it in order to develop a large condo tower. I brought into school today an article about the building and the discussion surrounding its impending destruction, as well as some graffiti art, which I own, for my high school students to discuss. We talked about the history of graffiti art, its illegality, its virtues, and they are writing an essay defending the building as a cultural landmark or defending the position of the capitalist real estate developer. Thinking about it now, I find that there are a lot of similarities between the discussion we had today and one about a boxing class at Vassar. Both are considered by its detractors as pugilistic and uncivilized. But there is a beauty and grace that both inhabit, which, when observed being practiced by those who understand and value their fundamentals and principles, can be both shocking and wonderful. My knowledge of boxing is limited, at best, but I do still find myself watching a fighter's footwork or the movement of their shoulders during the few bouts I catch every year. In that way, it's not entirely unlike the daily speeches I give my students in which I tell them to find the value of a good word or phrase in the literature we read.

Joe Langdon ’05

I got the tip-off from Frank Bergon about Vassar’s boxing course. As I recall, in Senior Comp it was part of his practice to be reticent about offering direct writing "advice." One piece of advice he did offer, however, was that all writers should box. Matthew Reiniger ’05 and I took him up on that, and we both enjoyed it. It's very important for any scholarly types to get exercise, and boxing is especially valuable for writers—you've got to get that aggression out somehow! Rather than a violent enterprise, boxing makes one feel more peaceful and centered because you work it out of your system. Hitting bags is very centering, and it's great for people who don't have the athleticism required for martial arts like karate or tae kwon do.

I have qualms about combat sports, and I’m curious to see what boxing does in the face of Mixed Martial Arts, or Ultimate Fighting. Mixed Martial Arts has quickly and totally overwhelmed boxing as the premier combat sport, but boxing is in a fascinating position. Long the “brutish” contest, it now has an opening to position itself as the more dignified, athletic, sporting forbear of Ultimate Fighting and its panache of professional wrestling.

There are two moments I remember in particular from taking the class (and I wish I had learned about it sooner). One was when we were working with Brian, and in the back Tracy (who is very reticent and doesn't draw a lot attention) threw a combo at the heavy bag. He's not a big man, but the sound it produced was amazing, and I remember being shocked at the length of his arms and how easily they made the big bag swing, hard enough to ease the tension in the chain. It was frightening and graceful, and oddly tranquilizing. A well-thrown combination is a swirl of energy that returns to neutral, in kind of a circular way. I think that was the idea of centering I was talking about. Anyway, that act of hitting the bag made it seem more satisfying than running or pushups, more meditative than sports, and more on the order of tai chi or dance.

The other moment is when he brought a bunch of his team up from NY (the Bronx, I think it was). There was a big guy working with him—in my memory he has a sharp hat on and a cigar in his mouth, though he certainly had neither, such was the force of his persona. He held the bag against his belly and when you stepped forward he said, "Come on—you in the jungle now, baby!" in his bottomless gravely voice. It's difficult to punch when you're trying not to laugh. It was interesting to come into contact with people from such a different world—to be "in the jungle"—in the middle of pristine, pastoral Vassar.

In grad school, I’ve continued to take up boxing at a local gym. The guy who runs a class here is a pro cruiserweight—Henry Namauu—chin like concrete, but real sharp and funny. He just had a minor title shot that he lost, but I got an article and a short story out of it. 

Kelly Shortridge ’12

I’ve been taking the boxing class since the fall of 2009, and I decided to take the course, quite frankly, because I wanted to learn how to fight properly. Secondary reasons were to complement my weightlifting routine with intense cardio and to relieve stress. The main reasons why I will go out of my way to never, ever skip class (I even went in the depths of flu once) are because of the satisfaction I get knowing I tried my hardest, along with the relief from stress by punching something repeatedly and the social aspects of interacting with my enthusiastic classmates and the coaches.

When I showed up, I knew absolutely nothing; by the end of the first day, I had learned the basics: the proper stance, the jab, the right hand cross, the hook, the right uppercut and the left uppercut. These moves are labeled one through five, respectively, and that’s what Brian and Tracy use to call out the punches we should throw.

After a semester in the beginner’s class, I decided to join the advanced class to really hone my technique. I learned more about the movement the body should make when throwing punches and moving around the ring: twisting your shoulders, pivoting your feet, having power in your thighs for uppercuts, protecting your face, and so on.

And I still continue to improve these moves. Brian and Tracy, as well as more experienced members of the class, continue to give me tips. “This is good enough” is simply not acceptable, since you can always be better and always push yourself to new levels. This is perhaps what has been the best part of the class I wasn’t expecting when I started, that the coaches would be so high quality and so inspiring. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill “let’s break a light sweat” type class. They know how to move, they know what’s effective, and they push you to your absolute limit each time. It was exactly the intensity I was looking for, so I was pleasantly surprised. Before taking the class, I also didn’t realize how much of a psychological component there is to boxing, although there is obviously an intense physical element as well. The ability to defend yourself is absolutely crucial, and this class will prepare you to use force if you are in a dangerous situation (which hopefully will never happen!). However, you also have to develop mental endurance—the ability to push yourself to keep performing at your maximum level despite how tired, sweaty, and sore you are. That self-motivation is a skill that has important applications in all areas of life.

In fact, I think that this boxing class fits perfectly with the liberal arts experience that Vassar offers. Developing a well-rounded knowledge base is something that Vassar students strive for, and I think physicality is part of that, though it’s a fundamental aspect of education that is often overlooked. Just as I take challenging classes and perform my best on assignments to increase my mental proficiency, boxing and weightlifting help me challenge and improve myself physically.

I played soccer growing up, which is much more of a team sport. If your team loses, the blame is spread equally on everyone; in boxing, if you give up, it’s all on you. It’s a very individual sport and insular in a powerful way.

At the same time, even during the hard work, my classmates make individual effort more enjoyable. In that way, I would say that the people in the advanced section compose a team rather than individual participants. There’s a sense of “we’re all in it together,” so we push each other to do our best; it creates a wonderful, encouraging dynamic.

I also play violin in the Vassar Orchestra, so I do try to be careful not to hurt my wrists or hands. My second semester taking the class I bought special wraps that have more padding at the wrist and knuckles just to be careful. I also bought my own gloves since the ones available in the boxing room were too big for my hands; having loose gloves is not a good idea if you want to protect your wrists and hands! Also, my gloves are pink, so it’s a way to show my girly side even while slamming away at the heavy bag.

Boxing is one of the top things I’ll miss when I leave Vassar. For that reason, I have no intention to stop completely once I graduate, no matter where I go; it has become far too important to me, and is such a key part of having a complete sense of self (involving both the mental and the physical) that I could never give it up. The only problem I see is that I can’t take Brian and Tracy with me!