Volunteer coach Chris Mendez demonstrates the steps that go into a 3 hit combo. Photo by Joseph Oh
The breaths come out quickly, followed by the consecutive loud, dull thuds of gloves hitting training pads. Mat room B in the IMA becomes warm and sticky with sweat as the Washington Boxing Team finishes its practice.
This group, formed by just three students, was started three years ago and is no joke. For team president Rachel Nakanishi, the first female to make the squad, boxing was a journey of self-discovery. She found that she could look fear in the eye and still come out fighting.
“Something really remarkable happens when you are put in a situation where you feel like you could die, and you come out of it not dead,” she said. “And I mean you’re bleeding, you look terrible, you’re sweating from everywhere, you’re in pain. But you’re still fighting. There’s something really powerful in that, and [boxing] taught me I can do basically anything I put my mind to.”
It all began in 2008, when three UW students — Ryan Kim, Joe Byers, and Justin Thompson — established the team. The students were interested in boxing, but without a coach they were only able to train, not fight.
Things changed in 2010. That’s when Chris Mendez approached Kim and Byers about getting involved with the team and eventually became its first coach. Since then, the team has become accredited with the National Collegiate Boxing Association and has had matches around the country.
Team co-captain Sam Frankel said he and the other team members often talked about how selfish of a sport boxing can be: Even though they train as a team, the athletes fight one-on-one. But the team aspect has brought another element to the sport.
“I think all of our mindsets have really changed as we’ve grown with the team because, I mean, the pain and torture we’ve gone through together … I’d do almost anything for these guys,” Frankel said.
Part of that is thanks to Mendez, who boxed at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was runner up at Nationals twice. Mendez, who is an unpaid as a volunteer, said his military background instilled in him values that he wants to prepare the athletes with. He wants them to come out of the program armed with skills they can use once they graduate from the UW.
During tryouts earlier this month, team members were encouraged to cheer each other on. Mendez also had the boxers memorize inspirational quotes and do team-building exercises. He said that camaraderie among the team members has been growing since the tryouts began.
“They win together, they lose together, they train together, they lift each other up,” he said.
The boxers are currently scheduled for eight collegiate shows and three local, amateur shows. Mendez said the number is constantly changing as new shows come up and available funding fluctuates.
Which boxers get to fight is based on a number of criteria. First, Mendez decides how prepared the boxer is. One of the qualifications is at least 50 sparring rounds, or practice fights. The coaches then pair up boxers based on experience and what matches are available. This system is designed to keep the boxers safe and protect them from being paired against someone more experienced.
Because of the selection process for fights and other outside factors, some members, like Nakanishi, have not yet fought. She has been scheduled for three fights, but each time her opponent either failed to show up or dropped out.
“It was so frustrating,” Nakanishi said. “It’s really, really difficult and strenuous to put in that kind of work and have it amount to nothing.”
Mendez has the athletes begin to train for fights a month in advance using the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team’s regimen. This strenuous process includes six hours of skills work per week, running an hour per day, and traveling to other gyms for practice fights twice a week, which can take about four hours.
Mendez uses the regimen to push his athletes physically. He said he does this because fighting for three rounds in the boxing ring is physically similar to running a marathon.
While Nakanishi is still awaiting her first fight, Frankel has had five bouts. He placed second at Regionals last year, and then went on to fight at Nationals in New York City, where he placed seventh in the 156-pound weight class.
“[It was] really intimidating,” he said. “That was my first year competing, and all of a sudden I’m supposed to be fighting with the top eight boxers in the nation. So that was an intense experience, and just knowing I could be on par with these guys was something pretty incredible.”
Collegiate boxing is different from professional boxing. The goal is not to knock one’s opponent out, but rather to score points, which makes it much safer for the athletes. The force of the hit does not gain any extra points one way or another. It is about who can move better and has the better strategy, not who can deliver the hardest blows.
Mendez said that his philosophy on winning isn’t about whose hand is raised at the end of the match but instead about the athletes giving 100 percent.
“It’s not that I don’t want to win — I want to win,” he said. “But I want them to learn what winning means and how to define it.”
For Frankel, the key to winning is willpower.
“Your body is telling you to stop and you’re just pushing through it,” he said.
Nakanishi agreed, adding that while technique and strength help a fighter in the ring, it is more about who is willing to push themselves the furthest.
“For me, [that’s] harder, because it’s more personal,” she said. “It’s not just, ‘She was stronger.’ It’s, ‘[I] didn’t fight hard enough.’”
Mendez said some of the best fighters on the team are the female boxers, like Nakanishi. There are eight women competing on the team this year, which makes the UW team somewhat unique, as female fighters are typically uncommon within collegiate boxing. Mendez said the female boxers are not treated any differently, but that they do bring a new perspective to the sport.
“To me, what it shows is that there’s more to boxing than just slugging it out,” he said. “They’re tough; they’re scrappers. They’ve got a lot of heart, and they really push the guys a lot, too.”
Nakanishi said she came to the team last year with a background of mixed martial arts and submission grappling, but that tryouts were still physically difficult for her.
“We did planks for 20 minutes or half an hour and just held them there on the concrete in the rain,” she said. “We held planks for so long that my forearms bled. That was just part of a two-hour workout, so [it was] really, really physically strenuous. I had to take the IMA elevator for the third floor after those.”
This year, the active members helped Mendez run the four-week rigorous tryout process. Tryouts concluded earlier this month, with 25 of 58 hopefuls making it onto the team. Frankel said the key to being a good fighter is being able to push past physical limitations, and that is what is looked for in tryouts. The tryouts are purposefully strenuous so Mendez can see which athletes can handle the mental side to the sport.
“The physical [ability] will come,” Mendez said. “I can coach the skills. But I can’t coach the heart.”
Mendez would keep all of the athletes who tried out if he could, but the team doesn’t have the space or time for that many boxers.
“It also gives some creed to the team, because once they make it, they’re proud,” he said.
UW senior Ron Pasco tried out for the team this year and said he nearly quit after the first day of tryouts.
“The first day was probably the hardest day,” he said. “I wanted to quit, but I figured, ‘I can’t quit now. I have to go through the four weeks.’”
Mendez hopes that through it all, his philosophy will eventually benefit each and every boxer that comes through mat room B.
“That’s my goal, to reach each one of them individually,” he said. “If we can do that then I succeeded.”
Reach contributing writer Sarah Radmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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