Although many people on campus are unaware of the anniversary’s significance, one of the most controversial decisions in the history of Wisconsin athletics is about to turn 44.
On May 9, 1960, a faculty meeting was held at Music Hall to decide the fate of the Badger boxing program.
The sport had come under attack in recent years due to its violent nature, and many questioned whether it had a place in college athletics.
Despite the storied tradition and popularity of Wisconsin boxing, the UW faculty ultimately voted to give the sport the axe during this meeting.
While this came as a surprise to many at the time, former UW boxer Bob Morgan felt the decision was on the foreseeable horizon.
“In one sense, it was an inevitability that boxing might be dropped,” Morgan said. “It was declining as a sport, and the question was always raised: ‘If the aim of boxing is to hurt someone, should it be a college sport?’ And that apparently was a question no one could answer properly.”
The meeting and the faculty’s decision came in the wake of the sport’s most tragic incident: the death of Charlie Mohr.
In April of 1960, the NCAA tournament was held in the UW-Madison Field House, and Mohr entered his championship bout as the defending national champion.
Sadly, he lost his title fight and, as fate would have it, his life eight days later.
“I grew up here, and the death of Charlie Mohr was always like the Otis Redding plane crash or the bombing in Sterling (Hall),” said Doug Moe, columnist for The Capital Times and author of “Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Team.” “It was sort of part of the landscape when you talked about big moments in Madison.”
This big moment, and the subsequent banning of boxing, has created a hotbed of discussion over the years.
While it’s true boxing is a violent sport and fighters do get hurt, a number of sports fall under the umbrella of violence. Football and hockey athletes, for example, are injured every day. Technically, every tackle, body check or block could be considered an act of violence. So, where do you draw the line?
As Morgan ventures, one of the key arguments for the boxing ban was that the aim of the sport was to hurt the opponent — whereas in sports like football and hockey, violence is merely a bi-product.
Former UW boxer and Morgan teammate Dick Murphy disagrees with this claim, however.
“There’s a lot of people who hate boxing,” Murphy said. “They say, ‘Well, the intention of boxing is to hurt somebody.’ What do you think the intention is of 11 defensive football players? Or hockey players? The worst fight I ever saw in my life was on the hockey rink here four or five years ago. There was blood everywhere. It lasted 20 minutes.”
The actual cause of Mohr’s death has been an added element to an already hot topic.
Some people have said Mohr had a brain aneurysm that had the potential to kill him — whether it burst when he received a sharp blow to the face or merely hit his head on a tabletop.
Through his research, however, Doug Moe has found there is no merit to this claim. He interviewed the brain surgeon involved in the case, who said Mohr died of a subdural hematoma, otherwise known as a blood clot in the brain.
Such a condition is caused by a severe blow to the head, and a subsequent bouncing of the brain within its cavity. This movement of the brain may then cause shearing or tearing of the blood vessels surrounding the brain. When the blood vessels tear, blood accumulates within the space between the brain and its outer covering, resulting in a blood clot.
“I’m an admirer of the boxers, and I don’t think the program should have been ended,” Moe said. “But let’s be honest about it. It was a boxing injury that killed him.”
Boxing isn’t the only sport a UW athlete has suffered a fatal injury in, though.
Jay Seiler, a freshman on the 1979 Wisconsin football team, died of a nearly identical brain injury during spring practice.
Like Mohr, Seiler collapsed into a coma shortly after receiving a sharp blow to the head. And, eerily, he also died eight days later.
While news of Seiler’s untimely death rocked the Wisconsin campus community, the thought of ending football was never brought up like ending boxing following the death of Mohr.
Although football players are equipped with pads and helmets, and rules are put in place to limit the number of injuries, the potential for an unfortunate incident will always be there.
Many have argued the same could be said of college boxing.
“There were three two-minute rounds. They wore head gear. It was a far cry from Mike Tyson biting people’s ears off,” Moe said. “Having said that, it was violent — you know, it’s boxing. But a lot of things are violent. In the 1970s, a UW football player named Jay Seiler sustained almost an identical brain injury to the one Charlie Mohr suffered … He got that injury at the practice field of Camp Randall, and there was never any discussion of ending football.”
As for the boxing-ban discussion of 1960, one man in particular has been credited with the sport’s ultimate demise.
David Fellman, a highly regarded UW political science professor at the time, was the person who wrote the motion to the faculty senate leading to the May 9 meeting. During the meeting, Fellman stood in front of the estimated 500 people in attendance and read his resolution.
According to Tom Cullen, who was in attendance the night of the meeting, Fellman said, “I have a proposal: Because of the savagery and the unnecessary dangers involved in college boxing, it should be abolished.”
Shortly thereafter, his motion passed and UW boxing instantly became a thing of the past.
“They voted it out, which I think was absolutely unjust,” Murphy said. “[Professor Fellman] hated boxing. There was a crew, and he was one of the ringleaders, that it was like a full-time job trying to get rid of the boxing program. Finally, they saw this opportunity, and they were just like a bunch of hyenas.”
Regardless of the sport, every athlete has his or her own distinct style. Whether Ben Wallace is muscling his opponent for position on the block or Lee Evans is trying to use his speed to juke by a defender, athletes approach the game differently depending on their position, size and area of skill.
Not unlike any other sport, boxers are also said to have their own distinct styles — with varying degrees of malicious intent.
“I never went into the ring to hurt anyone; it might sound crazy,” Morgan said. “But my style was that I would box like a chess match. I would try to out-point, out-figure-out the opponent and do things he couldn’t respond to. So, I look at boxing a little differently.”
Granted, not every collegiate boxer stepped into the ring with the same intent as Morgan.
But Jeff Mack certainly doesn’t approach the football field with the same intent as Chuck Cecil once did.
Regardless of whether or not the sport should have been banned, though, the boxing tradition at the University of Wisconsin should still be cherished and celebrated. Throughout its 27-year history, a number of excellent athletes and people were a part of the program. And their memory should not be forgotten.
As for many of the athletes themselves, Wisconsin boxing will always hold a special place in their hearts.
“Dick Murphy said it all for us: ‘We were the lucky ones.’ And we truly were,” Morgan said. “I couldn’t have gone to college without a scholarship for boxing. I really didn’t have any intention of going to college, and this came up and changed my life entirely.”