I wrote just over a month ago about the difficulty I was having tying together one of my research papers. The paper explored attempts to create an intercollegiate boxing team at Purdue during the late 1930s and 1940s. Although the Second World War loomed large, the paper is mostly a micro history of debates and activities at Purdue. The research was remarkably fun. There were so many little events that I kept finding in the student newspaper (my main source base) and the more I found the more questions there seemed to be. Because of this, I’ve still been thinking and rethinking through the paper.
Two of the things I struggled with the most while putting together the paper were finding a cohesive thesis and answering the all-important “so-what” question. The end of the semester deadline pressed me a bit to churn out, what I admitted to my advisor at the time I turned it in, an inadequate paper. He’s promised that in the next week or so we’ll sit down and talk it out (something I hadn’t really been able to do before turning it in because both our schedules). But even as I wait for that meeting, I’ve continued to think and am starting to come to a more unified thesis and some solid conclusions. Here are those conclusions.
On the surface the paper is nothing more than “cool story bro” scholarship. It tells the story of an NCAA sport that almost no one knew existed at a school that never offered it as a true varsity sport. Yet, what I am discovering is that Purdue’s unremarkable story — a story of high hopes and unfulfilled potential — is important. The two major works on NCAA boxing focus on the upper echelons of success. E. C. Wallenfeldt’s history of the NCAA Boxing Tournament, which lasted from 1932-1960, focuses exclusively on the creation of the sport at a national level by discussing its most successful boxers and teams. Likewise, Doug Moe’s Lords of the Ring tells the story of the University of Wisconsin boxing team. Wisconsin had the best NCAA boxing team in the sport’s short history and played a key role in its demise. Neither of these books shares the day-to-day, year-to-year struggles of a mediocre program. They fail to provide a full explanation as to why NCAA boxing never materialized across the country and look at the deeper roots of its failure.
As I’ve continued to think over the paper I wrote and the research I have in front of me, I think Purdue’s boxing history helps to tell this story. Boxing at Purdue was remarkably popular. The school fielded an intercollegiate club team in 1942 and 1943 that sent several team members to the NCAA tournament. During World War II, the club teamed with the Navy V-12 and Navy Electricians’ school to offer a series of “Smoker” events several times a year. These events attracted thousands of fans and eventually were broadcasted on local radio. But, after the war, competitive boxing essentially disappeared from the campus.
Although I’ve not been able to find conclusive evident to hint at an absolute or full explanation, it is clear that the departure of the Navy training schools hurt the sport. Particularly because in February 1945 Purdue Athletic Director, Guy “Red” Mackey, expressed support for intercollegiate boxing and hoped to establish a team. Mackey, however, was cautious in his support noting that the creation of a program was hingent on him finding the “right” man. He wanted a college man with no ties to seedier professional boxing. College boxing, as practiced by the top programs in the NCAA, had always been more of a gentleman’s sport that taught toughness and life-long-lessons. The source base makes clear that Mackey never found his man although one may wonder how hard he searched. Purdue had several excellent boxing coaches and interested students throughout the 1940s. College boxing itself was connected to military training from it inception. During the war the Navy and ASTP paid the salary of one of the boxing instructors. Many of the boxers were also connected to the Navy training schools on campus. Hiring a boxing instructor after the war, it would seem, proved more difficult.
While the push for college boxing at Purdue developed independently of the Navy, during the war it became almost in separable from the training schools. Boxing’s zenith at Purdue occurred during World War II. Unfortunately, the NCAA cancelled its boxing tournaments in 1944, ‘45, and ’46 providing little chance for Purdue to establish itself in collegiate circles. The close alliance between boxing and the Navy, in many ways, seems to have doomed the sport. As the war drew to a close and training schools vanished from university campuses, so too did the boxing instructors, and students they brought with them, who were working to establish the sport. Purdue lost all the momentum it had gained toward establishing intercollegiate boxing between 1940 and 1946.
So why is this failure important? First, it shines light on the delicate nature of boxing on college campuses well before 1960 and the sport’s demise. Second, it provides new insight into the relationship between the NCAA sport and the military during World War II. There’s been a lot of talk about football during World War II (in fact, my advisor just wrote a book about it), but others sport, especially boxing, were also important tools for training and morale. Next, I think the story of boxing at Purdue is a part of the larger narrative of NCAA boxing beyond the championship teams and NCAA tournaments. Purdue competed intercollegiate in 1942 and 1943 with schools in Indiana, Kentucky, and Michigan. They tried to continue competing during 1944 but the difficulty in finding opponents and the cancellation of the NCAA boxing tournament prevented them. Although it offers only a brief snapshot of boxing, those two years provide a glimpse into the regional boxing culture and expands the purvey of college boxing beyond the teams who competed at the NCAAs year in and year out.
Perhaps in the end, this is still nothing more than a cool story about a bygone sport. Collegiate boxing didn’t survive at Purdue beyond the 1940s, but it didn’t survive at any of the big programs after 1960. Writing in Sports Illustrated in 1960 as the dominoes were falling and the end of NCAA boxing was in sight, Martin Kane suggested that “You Can Blame It On The Moms.” While he recognized it was more than just them to blame, his narrative didn’t explore the deeper roots of the problem. The story of high hopes and unfulfilled potential of Purdue boxing is one step towards exploring these deeper roots and provides further evidence that you can’t just blame it on the Moms.