On October 27, a large injustice will be rectified when John J. Walsh becomes the third boxing figure to be inducted into the 54-year-old Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, the long-overdue honor for the man who was to intercollegiate boxing what Knute Rockne was to football and John Wooden was to basketball will be conferred posthumously. Mr. Walsh died on November 1, 2001.
Over the last century the State of Wisconsin has produced some great prize fighters and even a world champion here and there. But when Cheeseheads with gray beards harken back to the glory days of boxing in their state, the conversation usually revolves around the national championship teams coached by Walsh at the University of Wisconsin in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. They routinely drew up to 15,000 fans to the UW Fieldhouse in Madison, when big-name pro cards in the state were attended by crowds a fraction of that size.
“I liken boxing at Wisconsin to football at Note Dame,” said Cal Vernon, UW’s 1947 National Collegiate Athletic Association light heavyweight champion and later a decent pro. “We were the Notre Dame of boxing.”
That was the case from 1934-57, when Walsh’s UW teams won an unequalled eight national championships. His boxers won 134 matches, lost just 28, had 18 draws, and won 38 individual NCAA championships – more than twice as many as any other school.
“No other coach in the history of intercollegiate boxing even approached his kind of success,” wrote E.C. Wallenfeldt in his definitive book on college boxing, “The Six-Minute Fraternity.”
In fact, says Wallenfeldt, while college boxing teams first sprang up in the East after World War I, it was Walsh’s arrival at UW in 1933 that launched “the force that was to dominate the sport more than any other entity in the history of college boxing.” That’s when Walsh, then a student at St. Thomas University in St. Paul, Minnesota, came to UW on March 21 to participate in a dual meet at the Fieldhouse against the Badger team that, until that year, had existed only on the intramural level.
A year earlier, Walsh, who once said he “loved boxing ever since I was old enough to walk,” had fought in the U.S. Olympic Trials. Just five weeks before he fought at UW, the 20-year-old Walsh had won the Northwest Golden Gloves welterweight title with five straight knockouts. His bouts lasted a total of eight minutes. According to one source, in his entire amateur career he lost just two of 100 fights.
No fan of professional boxing, then or ever, Walsh wanted to be a lawyer and was studying pre-law and both coaching and fighting on the St. Thomas boxing squad when the team came to UW for the first-ever intercollegiate dual meet at the Fieldhouse. The visitors won four of the eight matches, and Walsh took a decision over Wisconsin’s Fausto Rubini. He so impressed the UW Athletic Department poobahs that they asked Walsh to stay in Madison and coach the fledgling Badger team.
His heart set on starting law school at St. Thomas the following semester, Walsh said no thanks – only to find out the very next day that St. Thomas intended to shut down its law school at the end of that academic year. Walsh called UW back and took the job.
“Coaching was my avocation, and law was my vocation,” Walsh said later. He graduated from the UW law school while coaching the university boxing team. “The first couple years, half the boys were older than I was,” he said. “But I never let them know it.” At a reunion of UW boxers many years later, one named Ralph Russell came up to Walsh and asked how old he was. When Walsh told him, Russell said, “I’ll be damned! I’m six months older, and you were bossing me around like you were my father!”
In 1934, Walsh’s first year as UW coach, his boxers went 2-1 in dual meets. The next year UW was undefeated in five dual meets against other schools. Dual meets consisted of bouts in each of the traditional eight weight classes, from 112-pound flyweight to 175-plus heavyweight, with boxers wearing 12-ounce gloves. (Headgear became mandatory in 1947.) Whichever team won the most bouts won the dual meet.
The emphasis in college boxing, and especially with John Walsh, was on clean, sharp boxing (not, said Walsh, “you hit me and I hit you’), and in a further effort to differentiate the collegiate sport from the pro ring, in the early years NCAA rules called for silence from the audience except in-between rounds and at the end of each bout.
That was a huge strain on the fans that filled the UW Fieldhouse for meets held on Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays in the winter.
“From 1939-43,” wrote Wallenfeldt, “the smallest audience to watch a UW home dual meet numbered 8,500. The average attendance was 12,888. That was more than turned out for the world featherweight title match at the Milwaukee Auditorium on May 21, 1941, between Wisconsin native Phil Zwick and champion Petey Scalzo.
When the Fieldhouse hosted its first NCAA boxing tournament in 1939, 67 boxers from 24 colleges competed before a three-day total of 25,000-plus spectators, more than had attended any of the previous five national tournaments. Wisconsin won its first national title then, with four Badger fighters taking individual championships.
The partisan crowds imbued the hometown boxers and their opponents with decidedly different emotions. “They’d march you down the aisle with 10,000 people cheering you on, and when you got into the ring you were so pumped up to go, you’d be embarrassed to lose,” recalled Dick Bartman, a member of the 1956 national champion UW team.
“For me, it was rather scary,” recalled 1954 NCAA heavyweight champion Mike McMurtry, who fought for Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and then Idaho State. “If you were from Wisconsin, you had it made. If not, they booed the hell out of you.” Or worse. After winning a close decision in the 1956 national NCAA semi-finals at the Fieldhouse, McMurtry climbed out of the ring and stopped to wait for his coach.
“People were really booing and throwing things,” he recollected years later, and ÒI felt something hitting me in the rear end. I turned around and it was some lady pounding the hell out of me with her purse.”
Wisconsin won the NCAA championship again in 1943, -‘47, -‘48, -‘52 and -‘56.
What John Walsh meant to amateur boxing was signified by two major events in 1948. The NCAA national championship trophy was named after him, and Walsh was named co-coach of that year’s U.S. Olympic team.
Collegiate boxing was not a springboard to success in the pro ring, and wasn’t intended to be. Only Billy Soose, who fought for Penn State in the late 1930s, went on to win a world championship belt, as a middleweight in 1941. Probably the best known college boxer to graduate to the pro ranks, thanks to his numerous televised bouts in the 1950s, was welterweight Chuck Davey, who won six NCAA titles for Michigan State but lost a 147-pound world title bid against champion Kid Gavilan on February 11, 1953.
Walsh was strenuously against his or any college boxers turning pro, because he didn’t like the managers he saw in the pro game. “I’d tell my boxers, ‘Here’s what they’re going to tell you, and here’s the truth.’ They all knew how much I disliked anybody going into pro boxing. I just don’t think it’s good for a kid with a college degree to get smashed up as a pro boxer.”
In Olympic years, the NCAA boxing tournament was always held at the Fieldhouse because officials knew the huge crowds would boost interest in the sport. “We made a lot of money for the University,” Walsh said. But that didn’t endear him or boxing to some UW faculty members, who derided Walsh as “the occupant of the chair of applied brutality” and objected to University sanction of a sport they considered far beneath the dignity of their hallowed intellectual mission.
They sneered at Walsh’s view that properly taught and supervised amateur boxing built life-enriching character and discipline. In his 1951 primer called “Boxing Simplified,” Walsh wrote: “My personal enthusiasm for amateur boxing stems from my experience with the hundreds of fine young men with whom I have worked as a boxer, as coach at the University of Wisconsin, while in service with the Marines, and as coach of the U.S.
Olympic Team … And when our active association as student and teacher ended, each boy without exception was the richer for his experience. Not a single boy has borne a mark that might not just as well have been inflicted in a sliding accident, in a friendly scuffle, in an accidental fall, in a football game, or in a basketball contest.”
But there had been college boxing fatalities. In 1930, University of Pennsylvania boxer Oliver Horne died after a bout in the Eastern Intercollegiate Boxing Association tournament in Philadelphia; and in 1946, Dixon Walker of the University of Maryland died after being knocked out in the first round of a match.
And when UW boxer Charlie Mohr died fighting in the 1960 NCAA tournament at the Fieldhouse, the anti-boxing faculty members wasted no time shutting down the school’s boxing program. On the heels of boxing’s expulsion from UW, the NCAA abolished its boxing program altogether.
“There was no regular hearing as to what they should do about boxing and it took them less than 10 minutes to make up their decision, and no professor with a desire to continue boxing was allowed to make a speech at the hurried-up meeting,” recalled Walsh in 1998 about the decision to kill the sport that, at its height, was as popular as basketball at the University of Wisconsin. “Those that wanted to see boxing stopped did a very fast and unfair job in stopping further intercollegiate boxing.”
When a new sports arena was built on the University of Wisconsin campus in 1998, there was a special ceremony held during half-time of a basketball game at the aged Fieldhouse saluting the long-ago Badger boxers and their nonpareil coach. It was a nice gesture, but as far as Dick Bartman was concerned, it didn’t go far enough for the man who did so much for boxing, UW and, most of all, his fighters.
“They should,” he said about John Walsh, “put up a statue for this guy.”
The State Athletic Hall of Fame is a start, but even that would probably embarrass the dignified lawyer who only wanted, as Walsh said in the dedication of “Boxing Simplified, for “other coaches and boxers to enjoy the great sport of boxing and to benefit from it as fully and richly as I have.”