Bengal Bouts

Author: Elena Que

A large ring stands in the middle of a gym. Two boxers face off inside, wearing headgear, mouthguards, gloves and other protective equipment. They
spar for a minute, are signaled to stop and retreat to their respective corners to receive attention and advice from coaches, captains and mentors. After another minute, they meet again. From an onlooker’s perspective, it’s a flurry of activity — jabs, hooks, slips and more. But for the boxers, every moment is an opportunity to execute the technique and form they have been practicing for months. At the end of the spar, following several minutes of intense competition and skillful maneuvering, the two boxers embrace each other in a brotherly hug.

This is just a small glimpse into a practice for the men’s boxing club at Notre Dame. Originally founded by Knute Rockne in 1920, the club’s central focus, a partnership with the Congregation of Holy Cross in Bangladesh, first came to fruition in 1931. The season culminates in the annual Bengal Bouts tournament, a multi-night fundraiser in which boxers compete against each other and sell tickets to raise money that contributes to building schools and health care clinics or sponsoring the education of impoverished students in Bangladesh. This year, the tournament takes place on Feb. 16, 20 and 27 before the finals on Mar. 4.

This practice took place one week before the first round of the Bengal Bouts tournament, and the two boxers sparring in the ring were just a snapshot of the organized chaos around the gym. Captains led drills in the main gym, other boxers warmed up for their own spars with punching bags or by shadowboxing and coaches offered advice and analysis. Medical personnel attended to the health and safety of every boxer who had sparred. This wasn’t just a practice, but a well-oiled production. As the tournament nears, preparation and focus are key.

“It’s mostly just excitement. I feel prepared. I feel healthy. I feel like a spring,” first-year student Cole Ceravolo said when asked how he felt about the tournament. As a freshman, he has only been a part of the club for a few months but he has quickly grown to love the strong community and supportive environment. “I just got hooked on throwing jabs, slipping, doing it in front of the mirror in my dorm.”

As the tournament approaches, boxers are feeling a mix of emotions, and excitement is just one of many. The task of stepping into the ring and facing a teammate and competitor is both physically and mentally daunting.

“They’ll probably have butterflies in their stomach the entire day,” vice president Christian Murray said of the participants. “They’re going to say, ‘I don’t want to do this, I’m really scared to go in the ring.’ Everyone experiences that.”

Whether one is a first-year or a more experienced boxer, there is little doubt that nerves play a role going into the tournament. Yet the hard work that every participant pours into their performance for months in advance, from intense “HIIT” (High-Intensity Interval Training) workouts to countless spars, makes them more comfortable and confident in the ring.

“Once you get in there and know how the guy is moving and how they’re throwing, you start to feel comfortable,” Ph.D. student and second-year boxer Nirajan Koirala said of his experience during spars.

Beyond the personal desire to succeed, the club’s mission plays a part in motivating the boxers to perform well. Although the primary draw of the club is the opportunity to learn boxing skills and technique, the larger focus is undoubtedly on the partnership with the missions in Bangladesh. 

“From me, putting in that work, there’s a greater purpose for it. And that’s what helps me get over that mental block,” said Will Robbins, a second-year boxer. Robbins is one of several boxers who will be in Bangladesh this summer on a service trip. Each summer, a small group of boxers get the opportunity to travel there and teach English at nearby schools, allowing them to make a firsthand connection with the cause they support.

Club president Jack Phillips spoke to the incredible transformation he witnesses as members come to devote themselves to the club’s mission: “I think once that happens, your commitment changes from ‘I want to be the best boxer I can be’ to ‘I want to leave this club in a better place than I found it.’” As a senior and club president, he has seen countless new participants grow and improve throughout the course of the season.

Several boxers commented that the fundraising may not have been what initially inspired them to join Bengal Bouts, but it came to the forefront of their personal drive and motivation as they learned more about its significance. Not only does the tournament push them to improve themselves physically, but it also challenges their very character and allows them to contribute to something so much bigger than themselves.

“What really is the backbone is the fundraising aspects of these things. We have a purpose behind why we’re going and competing against each other,” head coach Nate Walker said. “We’re educating over 130,000 students in Bangladesh. Being a small part of that, it’s a humbling experience.” The club has a two-fold goal and is a call to self-improvement in more ways than one.

Within the club itself, a strong community underlies the competitiveness in the ring. While every spar may feature a fierce competition of strength, technique and speed in a very physical manner, they always end in a hug that demonstrates the deep respect opponents have for each other. If anything, the camaraderie is even stronger after facing each other than it was before. Training together every day builds strong bonds between boxers as they push each other to be the best version of themselves: “These guys are showing up every day. I can start showing up every day,” Ceravolo said of the strong motivation within the Notre Dame boxing community.

No day comes without its obstacles, and from the physical to mental expectations, the Bengal Bouts can be a daunting experience. However, the supportive community, mission-driven focus and one-of-a-kind opportunity all play a role in driving participants to success. As the tournament nears, much of the heavy lifting has been done, but in the time that remains the boxers must maintain focused and support each other more than ever before.

“Your life’s not always going to be comfortable. The people we’re supporting in Bangladesh definitely don’t feel that comfort every day. But they have to go out there every day and fight their battle despite not wanting to do it or despite wishing their circumstances were different. It’s a way of empathizing with that,” Murray said. While practicing for hours a day, subjecting oneself to the risk of physical injury and pushing through mental blocks can be taxing, the larger goal that the club works toward provides an unparalleled motivator. 

Their motto, “Strong bodies fight, that weak bodies may be nourished” may have been coined in 1931, but it continues to be lived out to this day, nearly 100 years later.