Boxing night in Britain is a fight for school honor

Contest: The grand traditions of Oxford and Cambridge universities include an annual bloodletting known as the Varsity match.

April 18, 1999|By Christopher Isenberg

IT IS NOON on the Sunday before the annual Varsity match against Cambridge, and the Oxford University boxing team has just finished a grueling two-hour session of sparring, shadowboxing, bag work and circuit training.

Still dripping sweat, they gather around an upright, gray-haired man known as the Colonel. A veteran of the Second World War, Lt. Colonel Peter Fleming boxed for Oxford in the late 1940s, and each year he delivers a series of talks on strategy to the team as they prepare for the big match.

"Fighting a good bout is like writing a good essay," the Colonel said. The clipped tones and unhesitating fluency of his voice evoke a bygone era of crackling wartime radio broadcasts. "As my English master at school used to tell us, you want to start out with a striking opening sentence to grab the examiner's attention.

"In boxing terms, that means come from your corner punching. Jab-jab-jab."

The Colonel steps nimbly toward the group, throwing three surprisingly sharp lefts in rapid succession.

"Follow that point with a powerful paragraph that backs it up. Left-right-left. Now, once you've got the momentum going, you can explore a few more complex ideas. Left-right-hook, double-jab-right-uppercut-uppercut. And finally you must be sure to tie the various strands all together and build to a climax that leaves your examiner gasping with your ability. Yes! First-class honors! My God, I better read that again."

The world in which the Colonel's words make sense, where it is perfectly natural for great academic universities to field boxing teams, disappeared from America so long ago that it is hard to escape the feeling that you have been transported into scenes glimpsed in grainy black-and-white yearbook photographs.

This sensation of time travel is strong again on the night of March 10, as the crowd files through the stone doorway of the Cambridge Town Hall, up the stairs and into the very image of fading Victorian splendor.

The walls of the long, high-ceilinged hall are covered with a maroon wallpaper embellished with golden crests and lined with oil paintings of 19th century town mayors in their mink collars. Lighted by brass chandeliers, the ring sits on a raised platform at the center of the room, and the long pipes of the organ that looms behind it have been painted Cambridge's jaunty light blue.

Tonight, in the absence of choristers, rowdy students jostle for standing room on the risers below the organ and take turns shouting, "Caaaambriiiiidge," in a soccer stadium sing-song.

The rows of folding chairs that surround the ring are occupied by an initially more subdued group of boxing alumni who return for the match every year, both recent graduates who look ready to jump back in the ring and gray-haired doctors, businessmen and Members of Parliament itching to tell the stories of their fighting days long ago. They wear the jackets and ties they've won for competing in past Varsity matches, and the blues of their crested blazers (navy for Oxford and teal for Cambridge) add an air of pageantry to the event that invests it with the power of a coming-of-age ritual.

First, gentlemanly jabbing

The men who fight tonight will earn the right to join the blue-coated ranks, but first they must perform a ceremony that requires the spilling of blood.

That blood comes quickly. Some of tonight's participants have been training for as little as two months -- most no more than five months -- and the fights all reflect the cruel truth of amateur boxing: It is much easier to learn to throw a punch than to avoid one.

The featherweight contest, the first of nine bouts, which progress from lightest to heaviest, begins as a sporting affair -- an exchange of gentlemanly jabbing. Oxford's Javier Colayco fights in a caricature of the traditional boxing stance, both hands fixed firmly on guard in front of his face. His head and back stay completely stiff as he shuffle-steps forward and back, throwing long straight jabs and the occasional right cross.

While both fighters continue to probe cautiously, Colayco's height and reach give him the advantage. But his opponent, Dave Ottunu, after being charged with a standing eight count, abandons the hunt-and-peck in favor of loaded, looping swinging. These wild punches leave him completely open, and an experienced fighter could easily slip and counter. Colayco, however, is cowed by the off-balance charge and begins backpedaling, a horribly ineffective defense. Ottunu's punches land heavily, and Colayco's nose opens up, which delights an unabashedly bloodthirsty section of the crowd.

'Hit him in the face!'

Egged on by screams of "Let's have him!" and "Hit him in the face!" Ottunu moves on to even crazier combinations, almost diving forward with leaping lefts and rights. Each punch to the nose coats his glove with blood, which Ottunu then returns to his opponent's face with the next. With this daubing stroke, he paints Colayco's entire face into a red, tribal mask.

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