Illinois emerges as premier intercollegiate program

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Photo courtesy of Illini Boxing Club

The Illini Boxing Club wins the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association Men’s Team National in March. Seven Illini walked away with a championship belt during the USIBA Annual National Boxing Championships on March 22.

By Jared Farmer, Staff Writer

The year is 1960. The NCAA is holding its 28th NCAA Boxing Championship.

The Spartans are looking to capture their third straight National Championship. They’re looking to catch up in titles with the Wisconsin Badgers, who have dominated the college boxing world since its inception, the team that holds a comfortable lead with the most titles in the NCAA.

But they wouldn’t ever get the chance.

After the San Jose State Spartans found success in capturing it’s third title, tragedy struck. At the championship, Wisconsin boxer Charlie Mohr suffered a brain hemorrhage and died one week later.

This tragedy marked the end of the varsity sport, although it was in decline long before.

Its popularity was at its peak in 1948, with 55 colleges producing a boxing program. But by the 1959 championship, only 20 teams competed. The NCAA has discontinued boxing as a college sport ever since.

Recently the sport has begun to make a resurgence on campuses. In 2012 the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association formed and began hosting men’s and women’s National Championships. The organization aims to reignite the popularity of college boxing by spreading across campuses. In 2013 the University of Illinois’ Illini Boxing Club became one of the 16 teams to join the organization.

“We have a club side that mainly focuses on cardio workouts and intensity training, and we have a team side that also spars and has the option of entering competitions and tourneys,” said team president Allan Castellon. “As far as membership, we’ve grown every year as an RSO on campus. This year we’ve had over 150 members each semester. It’s open to anyone that has access to the ARC.”

Senior Castellon, has been boxing with the Illini since 2014. As the team’s third president, he cites its availability to everyone as a key part of its large membership, from people who haven’t thrown a single punch, to those looking to compete on a national level. The boxers can be seen at the back of the third gym in the ARC every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 p.m. and every Sunday at 10 a.m.

“We do an intense cardio workout, but from week one we teach people stuff like proper stance,” Castellon said. “Week two, basic jabs. Week three, straights. It’s very instructional, but we like to make sure everybody has a good workout.”

Illini Boxing also functions as a social organization. The team bonds at bigger events like barn dances and bar crawls, hosts fundraisers and involves itself with several other events on campus.

“It’s kind of cheesy to say, but we’ve developed this family culture, created a fighting family if you will,” Castellon said.

“This team is really like family to me,” said sophomore Diane Pedro. “ Everyone has to find their group when they first step on campus. This was the first club I joined and I found a place that I belong. We’re all here to help each other academically, too, and often times, older classmates are able to help me out or give me old textbooks. It’s just really great to have a group of people you fit in with.”

Each practice varies in its content, but the team warms up by running laps and doing sprints for about 30-45 minutes. After a quick breather, the boxers stretch and start hitting the mat. As a club, the focus of practices usually revolve around fundamentals, form and stamina improvement.

“By this point in the semester, we expect most people to have learned the basics, so now our training focuses on more advanced exercises.

“After the boxing/stretching, we switch it up between core, back work, jump rope or just something fun,” Castellon said. “It’s really adaptive, which is what we want it to be. We always look for fresh opinions and new ways to train, and we take our members feedback and apply lessons and experience into our next practice.”

All club members have the opportunity to try out for the competitive team in which practices have a significant uptick in their intensity. To go along with the drills done by the club team, the competitive team focuses on more advanced techniques, more intense workouts and sparring with partners.

“Everybody on this side is fighting for that same goal, and each of us are there to push each other,” said junior Albert Lopez. “We talk about our weight in typical conversation just because it’s important to us as competitors. Whether it’s running laps in the ARC together or helping out with form, we’re always supporting each other.”

Despite the slight differences, the club and competitive teams function as one. The competitive team frequently looks to the club to add new competitors, but both still operate as one unified RSO.

“The team and club both do a lot to interact with each other,” Pedro said. “We go to competitions, and it becomes a different atmosphere because so many of us are all out there cheering each other on. I think it creates an atmosphere where you can become comfortable and feel safe. Even if you don’t feel like you’re putting up your best fight in the ring, it really doesn’t matter.”

For Lopez, competing wouldn’t be the same without the support of the entire organization.

“When you’re in that ring, you can hear the entire team,” Lopez said. “Even though there are two coaches in our corner, the entire team is right behind us the whole time.”

As the RSO grew over the years, the Illini began to assemble a competitive roster capable of taking home the National Championship.

On March 22, the USIBA hosted its sixth Annual National Boxing Championships at Syracuse Univerity . In a field of 12 colleges and 60 bouts among 120 fighters, the Illini entered the competition with over a sixth, 22 fighters,  of the talent pool. Seven of the 22 Illini walked away with a championship belt, each for their respective weight class and experience.

On March 24, the men’s competitive team left Syracuse with the overall tournament title for the second year in a row.

“I think the team has evolved, Castellon said, Initially, our mission was just to expand as an RSO and prove that we’re a sustainable RSO that can continue to expand … We’ve repeated the men’s team national trophy. Now we have the clout, we have the size, we have the membership status. I think our goal now is to spread this boxing culture within the University of Illinois, within the Champaign-Urbana community …

“There are so many clubs starting up at all these different colleges and universities, so we’re seeing how far we can ride that wave and see how far we can get,” Castellon said. “We want to three-peat that trophy and get a trophy on the women’s side. But at the end of the day, we want to remain the gold standard for college boxing and just keep on progressing.”

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