Hand-to-hand combat

B.J. Richardson and Dan Leahey stand in opposite corners and come from vastly different backgrounds, but they share a common goal - and a friendship

Navy Brigade Boxing Championships

March 11, 2007|By RICK MAESE

In the center of the ring, they touch gloves and look right into each other's eyes. In just a brief moment, each fighter sees and knows everything possible about his opponent. Not just who he is, but where he's from, where he's going. Each also sees the hard truth behind the night's fight: To win, he must defeat one of his best friends. The bell rings, and the fighter wearing yellow fires two quick jabs, the second finding its target. The boxer throwing the jabs, B.J. Richardson, is a senior at the Naval Academy. He's fighting for his fourth consecutive title in the academy's Brigade Boxing Championships, a feat just 14 midshipmen have accomplished in the tournament's storied 66-year history - though none in his weight class, 147 pounds.

The jab doesn't faze his opponent, who counters with a right cross that sails over Richardson's head. The boxer wearing blue trunks is Dan Leahey. He's also a senior and has failed in three previous bids for a Brigades title. Leahey is hungry to leave the academy a winner in the ring and knows this is his last chance.

More than 4,000 fans fill Halsey Field House, including fellow midshipmen, family and alums. And though outside the academy walls the tournament receives little fanfare, inside this well-lit gymnasium, everyone delights in the night's ebb and flow like a carnival thrill ride. A giant American flag hangs on one wall. It's 38 feet across and 18 feet tall.

In here, the parents in the bleachers are a reminder that every fighter has a home. And the big flag makes it difficult to forget that every fighter is headed somewhere far from home.

Even without war as a backdrop, the boxing tournament is much anticipated every year, a way station for the tough - at an institution where toughness is an institution. Stepping inside the academy's walls is setting foot into a unique world, where the values and expectations are the same today as they were when the school opened its doors nearly 162 years ago.

The boxing ring epitomizes it all. Not just toughness, but competition, discipline and poise under pressure. That's why every plebe is required to learn to box, even the women. For Richardson and Leahey, fame is not waiting on the other side of that final bell. This is sport for the sake of sport.

On this night last month, with all that and a championship at stake, the two friends begin awkwardly, exchanging errant punches. Leahey is moving too slowly, cautiously feeling out Richardson, though by now the two know each other's styles and tendencies. After being hooked on boxing during their plebe summer, they've sparred together countless times and in the process have become good friends.

Finding a home

The first round is half over and Richardson paws at Leahey with his right hand. The crowd is loud but seems uncertain which fighter it prefers. Inside the ring, it's clear that the respect is mutual. Richardson admires all that Leahey has accomplished in school - Leahey is ranked No. 7 in a senior class of more than 1,000 - and Leahey respects what Richardson has overcome in life.

"B.J.'s greatest accomplishment wouldn't be graduating from here as a four-time champ," James McNally, Navy's veteran boxing coach, likes to say. "It'll be graduating from here, period."

Richardson was a fighter long before he found solace from a speed bag. For him, 12-ounce gloves are more than weapons. They're instruments of expression.

When Richardson was 3 months old, living in Jersey City, N.J., his parents began arguing one day. Eva Marie Richardson held a kitchen knife. It slashed across John Richardson's neck, killing him. Investigators ruled it self-defense. The mother sent her son to live with her sister in North Carolina.

"He was a jerk," B.J. Richardson says today of his father. "He didn't respect women. I grew up knowing that he was a person that I never wanted to be."

He saw his mother only occasionally. She moved to Florida and he remained in Raeford, N.C., where he grew up calling his aunt and uncle "Mom" and "Dad." He recalls a happy childhood, living and playing with cousins he regarded as siblings. But Richardson also recognizes that boxing is therapy for him, a better place than most to rid himself of whatever anger and sorrow his childhood layered into his life.

So every afternoon, Richardson visits the third-floor boxing gym in McDonough Hall, where he tries to understand himself as a fighter. On Fridays, though, he first stops by the Midshipmen Developmental Center where he meets with a counselor, trying to sort out what motivates him as a man.

It all seems more complex as he grows older. Last summer, he was back in Raeford visiting family. A family argument escalated and bullets chased Richardson from the house, the trail of gunfire leading back to a gun held by his uncle, the only father figure Richardson had ever known. According to Richardson and police, alcohol was involved. But that doesn't soften the hurt left by his uncle's words: "Don't ever come here again."

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