Unofficial boxing club thrives despite lack of university recognition

Boxers practice hitting mitts outside at practice on the Ellis Oval. Ari Schneider / The Tufts Daily

“I wanna see you shift your weight. Point your back foot, try to roll your shoulder up to your chin,” senior Merek Johnson said. First-year Haley Pogachefsky adjusted her motions to follow Johnson’s advice. “There you go, perfect.”

These are Tufts students, and this is boxing practice. Technically, however, the Tufts Boxing Team does not exist.

“Five years ago, three sports came over to [the Tufts Athletics Department from the Tufts Community Union (TCU)]: taekwondo, shudokan, and boxing,” Assistant Director of Athletics Branwen Smith-King said. “They came over to us for a lot of different reasons, primarily because [TCU] didn’t feel like they should be approving sports. Approving sports clubs should be in conjunction with athletics because it affects our resources, our facilities and of course money … and so we agreed to take those three sports under our wing, and so they got a two-year grace period.”

Following this two-year period, in the spring of 2013, Johnson — who was a sophomore at the time — was called into the athletics department and was told that it would be boxing’s last year as a club sport.

“Athletics never approved boxing as a club,” Smith-King said. “About 15 or 20 years ago students came to us twice to ask if we had a boxing club … We had an athletic committee at the time that didn’t approve it for the same reasons why we don’t approve it now — because of health and safety.”Smith-King elaborated that the health and safety concerns were largely due to the university’s resources.

“We don’t have athletic trainers for many of our club sports,” she said. “We don’t have the resources to be able to feel that we can safely oversee a sport like boxing.”

The boxing team, in its current form, cannot use the Tufts name or use athletics department facilities, according to Smith-King. But that hasn’t stopped them from continuing to do what they love.

Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

“When I joined the club [in the spring of my first year], kids would come in, mostly guys, headphones plugged in, hit stuff, but it was kind of solitary, and since then it’s become a little more social … and that’s one motivating factor [for continuing to box],” Johnson said. “The sport itself I think is really fun, it’s incredibly dynamic, it’s very difficult, it’s a tremendous workout if you keep up with it.”

Due to its unrecognized status, the group occasionally changes location for its practices. On Sunday, Oct. 26, practice was held outdoors. Upon arriving to practice, each boxer put on his or her hand wraps.

“When you squeeze [your hand] it should feel like you’re holding a roll of quarters,” Johnson said to new members who asked him for help putting theirs on.

When the club was cut Johnson bought all the boxing gear from the athletics department, and now he brings it to practice for the unofficial club to use.

During the Oct. 26 practice, the group split up into pairs to run mitts, where one member holds the mitts while the other punches them. The communication between each pair was evident: discussion, advice and laughter filled the crisp fall air as the boxers concentrated on the exercise.

“This semester we’ve kind of had a different plan of attack, and we want to start promoting it a little more socially,” Johnson said.

Sophomore Derek Fieldhouse, who began boxing last year after watching boxing videos on YouTube and becoming interested in the sport, has taken the lead in the unofficial club’s new social campaign, posting in Tufts groups on Facebook, spreading the word about the club’s existence and telling others about how they can get involved.

“I really like the team because we’re a really small group, and so we’re pretty social,” Fieldhouse said. “It’s fun to get together, talk to people, ask how their day is going … It’s a good study break in a sense; you can be doing work really hard and then be like, ‘Oh, I need to go hang out with some friends and work out at the same time,’ because no one likes to work out alone.”

Just as the team has evolved over time, Johnson has come a long way since joining in his first year.

“The first practice I had [in my first year] actually was more of a workout, and it was really grueling, and I came back [and] I guess maybe that time I felt like I had something to prove,” he said.

Today, according to Fieldhouse, Johnson is the most experienced boxer in the unofficial club. His role involves teaching those with less experience, including Fieldhouse, who worked with Johnson two or three times a week last year to improve his boxing ability.

“Boxing is one of those sports where it’s really passed down from one person to the next,” Fieldhouse said. “Merek taught me and now I teach others, and then in a few weeks or months they’ll start teaching others as well. It’s really interesting to see this ancestry … Merek taught me this, I modified it a little, and someone else is changing it now.”

For Johnson, teaching is one of the best parts of being part of the group.

“I love to teach, so getting new people is really fun for me, especially just starting off on the basics,” he said. “This semester we’ve had some huge practices when like ten new kids show up, and it’s fun and super rewarding for me to work with that many people at once, and I’ve learned a lot from that. And that’s also pretty empowering, to work with so many new people and manage a group like that.”

One of the challenges that the unofficial club faces is the general public’s negative opinion of the sport of boxing.

“I don’t think boxing has a great perception in the public eye,” Johnson said. “In general, it’s seen as kind of thuggish or violent.”

Fieldhouse agreed, adding that this shouldn’t have to be the case.

“Boxing is put in a pretty bad light, honestly,” he said. “A lot of people see it as an incredibly aggressive sport where you just punch someone in the face. That is a big part of professional boxing, but on an amateur level … we look more for the technique side of boxing, and it’s actually very technical.”

In the future, the unofficial club hopes to get the recognition that would allow it to wear Tufts’ name, give it access to Tufts athletic facilities and enable it to formally reach out to other students.

“It does seem unfair that there are [other] sports [at Tufts] … where there’s liability,” Johnson said.  “It doesn’t seem very equal to eliminate boxing.”

Smith-King is not ruling out the potential for boxing’s return as an official Tufts club some day.

“Things change, and if we were able to get resources and get a full-time trainer, I would revisit it, no question,” she said. “But that’s unlikely to happen right now.”

For now, the unofficial club is looking to grow their base and increase their presence on campus.

“The school has a job, in my mind, to really meet the wants of students, and if the want is big enough or if the want is truly there I feel like the school will do something about it,” Fieldhouse said. “Hopefully through continued outreach, through people’s friends, through just word of mouth, we can grow enough and gain enough committed members that we can go back to [the administration] and say … there’s a very large number of us that really want this to happen. What can we do with [the administration] to make this happen? So I think that’s where we’re headed.”