The faded blue canvas of the boxing ring inside the U.S. Naval Academy was already spattered with blood. Trapped between the meaty fists of junior Kevin O'Donnell and the blue-and-gold ropes, senior Agur Adams struggled desperately to escape being the next one to christen the mat.
"Get outta there! Move! Stick and move, Agur!" pleaded his cornerman, Jim Searing. Adams freed himself with a left hook. But moments later, O'Donnell delivered a crushing blow to Adams's temple, whipping his head around. The crowd, a sea of fellow midshipmen -- and Adams's family -- cried out in sympathy. This fight wasn't about victory anymore. It was about survival.
All midshipmen learn to box as sophomores, but the Brigade Boxing Championships, held last Friday, are the pinnacle of pugilistic achievement at the academy. Held annually inside Halsey Field House, the tournament is second only to the Army-Navy football game in prestige and lore. Over the three two-minute rounds, noses are bloodied and egos made and broken. After gaining glory in front of their classmates, the winners get their names inscribed on a plaque for all time and go on to represent the academy at the regional and national levels.
White-gloved ushers handed out programs inside the brightly lighted, hangar-size gym. Midshipmen dressed in blue-and-gold jackets, some lumped together to root for a boxer in their company, made up most of the audience; family, professors and local spectators filled the rest of the stands. The smallest fans ran around waving yellow foam fingers as the ring announcer waited patiently in his tuxedo.
Helping out in the gold corner was Marine Col. John Allen, the commandant of the academy, in an olive green and gold exercise jacket. He was pumped.
"This is the brigade at its best," said Allen, a former midshipman who took karate at the academy. "This is the midshipmen showing all that they've learned. This is a wonderful manifestation of the spirit, the toughness, that we teach here."
For Adams, the confrontation could never be something that came naturally.
"Just warming up, my legs feel like rubber. I just feel like I'm going to fall over," he said at practice the day before the match. "I feel like sometimes I am just barely able to throw a punch. . . . Those are the longest two minutes of your life, standing there in the ring fighting with somebody."
Finally, the boxers made their entrance to the "Rocky" theme song, "Eye of the Tiger," and formed straight lines for the national anthem with their arms at their sides and fists clenched.
The first match of the night was 112-pound Billy Coakley, a 19-year-old plebe from Georgetown, S.C., versus Josh Veney, a junior from Fort Meade. It was Coakley's first fight of his career and the crowd was chanting "VE-ney! VE-ney!" Coakley's fists were flying. It was the first time he had ever been in the ring. He won. With his back to the excitement, in a quiet corner of the gym, Coakley's eyes brimmed with tears. He thought he was alone when he pumped his fists in the air and whispered, "Yes! Yes!"
"I kept asking everyone, 'Do I have it? Do I have it?' " said Coakley, who was recruited during routine height/weight checks. "Everyone was very supportive and told me I have what it takes to win. . . . It's a great honor [to attend the academy], but when you have 4,000 other kids dressed in black or white just like you, you want something that sets you apart or to do something exceptional. I felt I was in line for something greater than just being a midshipman here. It's so big. Just by being here means you're part of a tradition."
It's a tradition many know from a past fight between a midshipman by the name of Oliver North and his classmate, James Webb. Part of the thrill of the fights is not the hooks or the jabs or the crosses but the possibility of who these young men will someday become. North, who defeated Webb in the welterweight final of 1967, was later assistant to President Reagan's national security advisor and remembered for his role in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Webb was a Vietnam hero who became secretary of the Navy and every so often comes back to visit the midshipmen practicing in McDonough Hall. Quite often, the boxers who train under Coach Jim McNally go on to be SEALs or join the Marines.
While national champion Frank Parisi, a 132-pound junior from the Bronx, was bloodying classmate Bryan Kendris, one spectator remarked, "Now these are the guys you want to go to war with."
"Ultimately, that's what we're here for," said Parisi, who began boxing in fifth grade at his Catholic grammar school. "If this is one way to help mentally prepare for it, getting in there and facing some kind of danger, that's great. But ultimately, you have to keep things in perspective. It is boxing. No matter how tough it gets in there, it's probably not even close to war."
Sophomore Amir Shareef, winner of the 175-pound match, came to the academy to get away from fighting. He saw too much of it growing up on the streets of Brooklyn, N.Y., where he got into a few scuffles himself. Now Shareef is consumed with winning every fight. He runs three miles every morning at 5:15, and sometimes he trains in three pairs of sweat pants to lose weight. Every day he is punching bags and doing calisthenics for hours. Shareef is so dedicated to the sport that he competed in Friday's championships, even though his grandmother died the same day.
"At first, I was skeptical about fighting," he said. "Then I thought what my grandmother wanted me to do, and she always told me to strive for excellence and press on. . . . I talked to my coach, I talked to my father, and he said, 'Amir, your grandmother wants you to fight.' Right then and there I made up my mind, and I said I'm dedicating the rest of my boxing career to my grandmother, and I will try to remain undefeated and never lose again in her name."
Adams, an electrical engineering and computer science major who will don the gold bars of a Marine second lieutenant when he graduates in May, has a military pedigree. A grandfather was a paratrooper in World War II, and his father worked aboard helicopters in Vietnam. Raised on Central Avenue NE in the District, however, his family always regarded him as a smart, shy boy -- not the type to duke it out in the ring.
The academy brought out the young man's competitive side. Tall and thin, he rowed lightweight crew in his plebe year at the academy but was frustrated by the technical side of the sport. Boxing, however, intrigued him, and he entered the brigade tournament in his sophomore year. He made it to the finals, only to lose to classmate Rick Weil. (Weil won for the fourth straight time Friday night in the 156-pound category.)
The defeat only strengthened Adams's determination to succeed. "I was crying at the end, it was so emotional," he said. "I didn't think I would care that much, but I was upset." When he studied for a semester at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs his junior year, he also took the opportunity to learn the sweet science from the flyboys' award-winning team. The boxing bug had bitten; he spent 10 to 15 hours a week practicing on top of all his other academic commitments.
"The biggest thing was self-confidence," Adams said. "It taught me to believe in myself."
He needed to believe in himself to go on after the second round Friday night. As the period ended, it was difficult to tell who was leading in the match. O'Donnell had been dominant in the first round, taking away Adams's reach advantage by clinching often and muscling him into the ropes. Adams managed to come back in the second round, but it wasn't clear who had won. The final round would determine that.
In the corner, Searing reminded Adams to take his shots and then escape the clinches. "Lead to the body and get back out," Searing said quietly, as Adams spat water into an ancient metal bucket painted blue and gold. Adams's arms hung limply at his sides; his eyes were glazed over. But he was listening. "Side to side, then get back out," Searing told him. "Hook him and get back out."
"Last round!" Parker shouted as Adams headed to the center of the ring.
Adams went for the kill, lashing out at O'Donnell with a ferocious set of hooks and jabs. O'Donnell grappled Adams into a corner for more up-close wrestling.
"This is a war," Parker said.
But there was no question: O'Donnell was slowing down. He was exhausted. "He's tired; go to him!" Parker yelled.
Adams, seeing it, backed O'Donnell into the blue corner. The crowd sensed the tide turning, too, and began cheering wildly. Here was the moment of decision. Adams ripped O'Donnell with left-right-left-right blows to the body. Searing and Parker, only a few feet away from the fury, were yelling at Adams: Don't stop!
At last, O'Donnell escaped the pummeling. But the fight was over. The bell clanged, and the two briefly embraced.
Back in his corner, Adams, breathing heavily, whispered: "I don't know. . . . I don't know. . . . Too much wrestling. . . ."
"It was very close," Searing agreed, as Adams walked back to the ring and took the ring announcer's hand.
Suddenly, the announcer was raising his arm, and Adams, champ at last, was grinning.