Although Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy once represented Harvard in the ring and boxing was among the most celebrated of college sports, by 1960, the NCAA had banned the sport after the death of a Wisconsin fighter. But a revival, led by teams like VMI, is now in full bloom.
Virginia Military Institute competes in the Southern Conference in most sports, but not in the ring. On the canvas, they’re members of the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association (USIBA). The military school of roughly 1,700 students is also the reigning USIBA National Champion.
Founded in 2012, the USIBA is the younger of the two primary collegiate boxing associations. The older circuit, the National Collegiate Boxing Association (NCBA), was founded in 1976, in part to fill the void left when the NCAA stopped sponsoring the sport.
Keydets’ head coach Larry Hinojosa is a former police officer at the school and currently works at nearby Washington and Lee. Hinojosa began as an assistant for the Keydets in 2007. Previously members of the NCBA, VMI joined the USIBA in 2012-2013.
Hinojosa, 35, originally from Ramona, Ca., was a boxing fan from youth even though there wasn’t a ring in his hometown. “My friends and I would carry around boxing gloves and watch videos of Mike Tyson and George Foreman fights,” said the head coach. In middle school, they’d watch fights on VHS and try to replicate what they saw on a heavy bag strategically placed near the set.
Although too young to recall the place boxing once held in sports, all Keydets gain a solid understanding of the sport via a required VMI class in the ring. “They come to the team and know pretty much what to expect. VMI is a tough place. Other [non-military] schools aren’t like this; every single student that passes through here has been in the boxing ring. Every one of them has to go into the ring and face their fears,” he added.
By his early 20s, Hinojosa relocated to the East and in 2005 took a job as a police officer in Buena Vista, Va. He found a boxing gym in Staunton, roughly 45 minutes away. On several occasions he fought in exhibitions and was training more seriously when he began working at VMI. “I asked if they minded if I used the gym and I told them that I would be more than happy to come to practice and hold mitts or time or do whatever they needed to help out,” he said. With the club’s coaching in transition at the time, he was soon an assistant coach.
He engaged the Keydets with stories of a time when boxing held a much larger place in America than it does today. “People went to other people’s houses to watch fights. We’d drive to my grandparents’ house a little over an hour away to watch Mike Tyson on pay-per-view. I remember when we watched it, even if it lasted a minute, no one cared. It was a spectacle,” said Hinojosa.
Hinojosa is joined in the Keydets’ corner by fellow coach Joe Shafer. They both saw the same recurrent drive in their student-athletes. “When you ask them to do something at a certain level, they do it harder and they do it with their whole heart. These are not your average guys,” said Hinojosa.
The two coaches contemplated a new approach to the Keydets’ team philosophy. “We asked ourselves ‘What would a championship team be doing right now?’ and ‘What would a championship coach be asking his guys to do?’” he said. They felt they had the raw material for a run at the USIBA Nationals, and so upped their competitive challenges accordingly.
In late January 2015, the Keydets fought a group of British collegiate boxers in Richmond. The UK squad was looking for opponents so the Keydets headed north to the state capital.
The coaches knew that the British boxers were tactical, typically loading up on points rather than going for a win via TKO. That gave the Keydets the opportunity to develop their younger boxers with only a small risk of them suffering a demoralizing knockout.
Fights are scored according to the USA Boxing standard scoring system, a 10-point “must” system.
“The winner of each round earns 10 points, while the loser earns 9 or less depending on how close the round proved. The criteria for scoring is - number of quality blows on target area; domination of the bout; competitiveness; technique and tactics superiority; and infringement of the rules,” said Eric Buller, the vice president of the NCBA and Miami University’s boxing coach. “At the end of the bout the scores for each round are added up and the athlete with the highest point total wins the bout,” he added. The USIBA and the NCBA utilize the same scoring system.
Although most of VMI’s inexperienced boxers didn’t win that night, they each went the distance of three, two-minute rounds in their fights. “You could see the potential. They really went after it,” said Hinojosa.
The main event pitted VMI’s captain, Liam Healy, against a British opponent with a nickname straight out of pugilism’s bare-knuckled 19th century past – “Gorgeous” Jordan Gaunt. Gaunt was an experienced fighter and on most cards a favorite over the Keydet.
Befitting the moment, the 201 lb. Healy approached the ring to the strains of Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful” and a cheering throng of VMI alumni in the stands. The senior captain solidified VMI as a team on the rise when he outpointed Gaunt to earn the decision.
The president of the USIBA and the head of the University of Michigan’s boxing club, Tony Sensoli, was in attendance. “He saw how competitive we were with the UK boxers, and came up and said ‘Larry, you guys have a team that could win nationals.’” His words proved prescient.
The Keydets continued to practice three to four times a week in preparation for the April USIBA nationals. It was a sharp contrast from what Hinojosa recalled from his earlier times with VMI, “Back then, it was pretty much whoever showed up. There were times when I was a little nervous we could maintain a team with just eight guys coming to practice. Now we have probably about 15 that are coming regularly,” he said.
Although a high number by VMI standards, national powers such as Michigan and Maryland have the luxury of tryouts and dozens of boxers to pick from to fill out their rosters. The Keydets finished their 2015 regular season and took a team of eight fighters west to Ann Arbor for the national championships hosted by the University of Michigan.
“The University of Michigan had over 100 years of experience on their coaching staff. They were two-time defending national champions, and it was their home. They were larger than life,” said Hinojosa.
Fittingly, the national title came down to a single fight, pitting VMI’s Healy against the reigning national champion at 201 lbs., Kevin Bosma of Michigan. The USIBA segments its boxers into experience levels, with beginners having 0-2 fights, novices from 0-10 fights, and an open division for those with five or more fights. It also features 10 weight classes that range from 119 to 201+ pounds.
“There are times in novice when you can box open. Liam was a novice, and could have boxed novice or open. We talked to him and I know how Liam is and I said ‘Liam, will you be satisfied if you just win the novice? Or do you want to know that you’re the very best boxer?’ Liam said he wanted to fight open,” said the VMI head coach.
The emcee announced the Michigan boxer to a cheering hometown crowd as “Kevin ‘Drago’ Bosma,” evoking the name of the fictional opponent, Ivan Drago, from the movie Rocky IV. The crowd responded with a loud “Drago!” chant as the bell sounded to start the fight.
As the chant waned, Healy caught the favorite with a series of overhand rights while working the outside of the ring and avoiding any inside damage from Bosma. Just before the bell sounded to end the first, the Michigan boxer received a standing eight-count.
After a second eight-count and another flurry of overhand rights, Bosma was staggered against the ropes, the fight was stopped, and VMI had captured a national championship. “Bosma is outstanding and Liam stopped him in the second round. It was amazing, a dream come true,” said Hinojosa.
The Keydets will have 3-4 fights between now and the 2016 USIBA Nationals, and are led by captains John Park and Armondo Herrera-Dosreis at 125 and 132 lbs., respectively.
Their next step toward a return trip to the finals is a match on February 6 in Richmond, a city that’s proven an auspicious launching pad for the Keydets’ ascent in the USIBA.
Above: The Keydets are making a name for themselves in the collegiate boxing world as a small school going against much larger clubs. (Courtesy Virginia Military Institute)
Middle: John Park won the Keydets' first belt of the USIBA Nationals in 2015 at 125 pounds. (Courtesy Virginia Military Institute)
Video of Liam Healy defeating Kevin Bosma of Michigan courtesy VMI.