Research Project Musings: the History of College Boxing at Purdue

Although I have settled on a dissertation topic relating to college football, this semester I am working on a research paper about intercollegiate boxing. It’s a topic that my advisor has encouraged me to pursue as a part of a larger independent study on race and boxing. Although the topic isn’t as sexy as the big name professional boxers that I’ve been reading about, college boxing is fascinating. It flies under most people’s radar. When I went to the University Archives I got a weird look when I mentioned to topic. They had no idea the NCAA ever sponsored the sport.

Before this semester I already knew quite a bit about the topic. I think in some ways that, along with his own curiosity, this is why my advisor asked me to write about it. During my MA I wrote a paper about military, college, and Native American boarding school boxing. After several revisions that cut out most of the college and military aspects, I published that paper last year in a collection on Native American and sports.

In this new project I am committed to remaining focused on the college aspect, but am not quite sure how to frame it. I’ve found some interesting leads but haven’t found a solid source base yet (and yes, it is pretty late in the semester to still be grasping for sources). There are two main sources or at least events/ideas that I want to work the paper around. The first is a boxer named Gus Boughan that placed 2nd in his weight division at the 1942 NCAA boxing tournament in New Orleans, LA. Bougham was a student at Purdue University and lost to a Wisconsin boxer. Wisconsin had a boxing dynasty during the relatively brief time period that the NCAA sponsored the sport. Indeed, the Wisconsin program has been the focus on a couple of scholarly studies. In fact, Lords of the Ring by Doug Moe traces outlines the program’s entire history. The only other major work on college boxing is The Six-Minute Fraternity by E.C. Wallenfeldt. This book is apparently difficult to find, but I was fortunate enough to have that my library purchased a copy for me.

Anyhow, a quick look in the index for Purdue brings you to a short passage about Boughan and the 1942 NCAA championship bout. I chose Purdue with the hope that we’d have information about him or at least Purdue boxing in our University Archives. Unfortunately this hasn’t been the case so far. But this brings up all sort of new questions about intercollegiate boxing at Purdue. First, how/why did someone compete in the 1942 NCAA Championships if the school did not have a team? Second, since Boughan was representing Purdue, I became curious about what sort of boxing infrastructure the school had. I have read a bit about the various military programs at Purdue in other books, such as the V-5 and V-12 Navy officer training programs. As I learned in my previous work on college boxing, the sport has a close connection with the military.

Beyond these questions, I found another interesting anecdote while searching for “Purdue boxing” in my favorite database, Newspaper Archive. In an article in the February 5, 1945 issue of the Wisconsin State Journal, Purdue Athletic Director Guy “Red” Mackey outlined his desires and apprehensions about potentially starting an intercollegiate boxing team. Mackey felt like intercollegiate boxing was an up and coming sport, but remained nervous about the influence of the professional sport. Indeed, according to Wallenfeldt, this question of professional influence remained a constant concern of everyone involved with college boxing throughout its existence.

In some ways, I think the paper could go one of two ways based on these two events. I could try to find more information surrounding the debates about starting an intercollegiate team and discuss why they eventually decided against it. Or, I could look in the opposite direction and explore the institutional boxing culture at Purdue that pushed Mackey to consider the sport. I’m confident that I can tie both options to a larger cultural view of boxing during this period but maybe not with peer institution examples. Although both options sound quite similar, the difference is largely the type of sources. The athletic department papers are not a part of the Purdue’s University Archives collection. Instead, the athletic department has maintained possession of them without a clear policy on access.

So far I have taken the second approach and looked at the university and local newspapers. I’ve also done some digging in the university annuals. In the annuals, they list information about the intramural programs including the number of participants. My plan is to take a long-range view (15-20 years) and look at the development of boxing in both among both military and regular students. Ideally, I’ll be able to find the beginning of the boxing intramural and trace it through the 1945 Wisconsin State Journal article. This will probably involve mostly mining numbers from the university annuals and seeing what kind of coverage the school newspaper gives it.

Mixed with the intramural culture, I’ve found a couple of articles in the university newspaper about exhibition cards held on campus, called “smokers.” They were popular events. A 1945 article indicates that they featured students from V-12 programs as well as in academic majors pitted against each other in different weight classes. As I continue to dig into the “smokers” it looks as if there were a couple held during 1945 and possibly 1944 too. I haven’t had a chance to look at 1946. It remains to be seen if these were the result of the military’s influence and World War II, or if they continued after the war. I’m also unsure on their connection to the intramural program.

Drawing distinct connections will be difficult, but I think I’ll have enough to paint the picture of an active amateur boxing culture at Purdue that piqued the interest of administrators. It seems rather clear that concerns over professionalism kept it from becoming big time. The key to the success of this paper will be connecting Purdue, and its boxing culture, to other universities. While it’s clear that they did not follow the Wisconsin route, I’m curious if other schools teetered on the verge of going intercollegiate while sponsoring extensive amateur boxing intramurals and exhibition cards. One logical place to look is nearby Notre Dame University. Tentative Google searches have indicated that they did sponsor charity boxing-cards consisting of student combatants as early as the 1920s. The “Bengal Bouts” as they became known, continue to this day and remain a very active part of Notre Dame recreational and student life.

So that’s a glimpse of what I am up to this semester and some of the issues and ideas I am working with. Most of my questions can probably be answered with more time spent reading microfilm and combing the university annuals, but I’m worried that I wont find a smoking gun. I’m resigned to the fact that I probably wont get access to the athletic department papers. The next best option is to see what, if anything, exists regarding the V-12 program and boxing. As I conclude this post I feel like I have a better understanding of what I am doing and where I am going, but I still feel like I lack solid sources. To write this brief overview is one thing, but I want/need to be able to provide more thick-description of the events and the culture. It’s hard to get that from a few newspaper articles and some numbers reported in the university annuals. I guess that’s where the real creativity and writing begins.

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