For pride, glory and Navy

Guts: Two very different midshipmen square off to show what they're made of in a Naval Academy tradition.

February 24, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

By the second round, blood was streaming from T Alford's nostrils and sprinkling Frank Parisi's shirt.

The referee's face creased with worry. He had already called a standing eight count to give Alford, a national collegiate champion and a three-time champ in the Naval Academy's annual boxing competition, a rest from Parisi's withering left fist.

But the sight of the blood seemed to awaken some force in Alford, a swaggering 21- year-old from Texas. At last, uncoiling like a spring, Alford launched a punch that sent Parisi wobbling to the ropes.

It was 8:51 p.m. Friday in the academy's cavernous Halsey Field House, and howls boomed from the hundreds of midshipmen in the stands. Some rose to their feet, shouting, "Go, T!"

If he defeated Parisi, Alford would be the 10th midshipman in the history of the Brigade Boxing Championships to win a title in each of his four years at the academy. Compared with Alford, Parisi was a nobody, an affable, soft-spoken 19-year-old from the Bronx who until a few weeks ago wasn't even good enough to make the school's traveling club team.

But Parisi had an advantage that Alford hadn't counted on. And by the end of the night, it would play a role in the biggest fight of Alford's life.

The Brigade Boxing Championship is warfare: the nation's future naval leaders testing their mettle through an exchange of bloody gloves. It is hand-to-hand combat relieved only by a referee and a stopwatch.

"A big part of the mission of the Naval Academy is trying to instill the warrior spirit in midshipmen," says the longtime boxing coach, Jim McNally. "Probably no other activity instills the warrior spirit like boxing."

All midshipmen take a required boxing class sophomore year, but most never set foot in a ring again. Only the roughest enter the brigade championship, a 61-year-old tradition that is equal parts rite of passage and blood sport.

In 1967, Oliver L. North, well before he became a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, defeated James H. Webb Jr., who would become secretary of the Navy and a best-selling novelist. Webb, it has been said, never forgave North.

This year, about 140 midshipmen entered the championships. Of those, 22 -- two in each of 11 weight classes -- made it to the finals.

Alford and Parisi are lightweights, 132-pounders standing 5 1/2 feet tall. They are not the academy's best boxers, their coach says. But their stories illuminate the divergent paths midshipmen take to the ring, and the role that character can play in determining winners and losers.

Alford, a senior, is a street brawler from Texas, with Harry Connick Jr.-like good looks and a cocksure way that has helped propel him to titles in each of the past three championships.

Parisi is the son of a funeral director father and a school crossing guard mother, a sophomore with soft brown eyes who has emerged through painstaking practice as a skillful boxer.

"This might be T's hardest battle," McNally said two days before the fight. "It will come down to Alford's will over Parisi's skill."

Family and fisticuffs

Alford had barely celebrated his fourth birthday when his father took down the swings behind their house in the Texas Hill Country and hung a heavy bag.

Before long, Alford and his younger brother, Seth, were squaring off on in the back yard.

Their father, as a teen, had excelled in the amateur Golden Gloves leagues. Later, he presided over his sons' matches, teaching basic punches and hot-dog moves like the "shoe-shine" -- a hail of shots to the abdomen.

"We'd take turns bloodying each other's nose and lips," Alford recalls. Their mother didn't come out to watch.

His parents gave him a one-letter first name because they couldn't decide between Tyler and Taylor. They wanted him to choose once he grew up. He has no such plans -- he likes having a name no one forgets.

Alford ran track and played football at his public high school in Houston. But school administrators knew him for his tendency to settle disputes with his fists.

During his first days at the Naval Academy's boxing gym as a plebe, he found his backyard boxing moves were no match for the academy's toughs. To improve, he jumped into the practice ring with any comer.

He'd return to his dorm with his white T-shirt purpled by his blood. "My roommates thought that I came here and got hit with a bat every day," Alford says.

It didn't take long for Alford, then 125 pounds, to make his mark as a featherweight with a piston-like fist. He was so clearly superior to his opponents that in two of his three brigade championships, referees stopped the contest midfight. His sophomore year, he won his division in the National Collegiate Boxing Championships.

Still, Alford has benefited from competing in weight classes with few contenders. And some of his victories have been the result of what even he calls "lucky shots" -- punches landed so powerfully that his opponents are stunned into momentary paralysis.

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