An era of excellence

By Brandon Gullicksrud, Sports Editor

 

From start to finish, a Wisconsin boxing match at the UW Field
House could accurately be described as a timeless and unforgettable
event.

During the sport’s height in popularity, crowds of more than
15,000 people filled “The Barn” to cheer on Omar Crocker, Woody
Swancutt and the other Badger legends who came through the storied
UW boxing program.

“You say it to people today, and it’s hard for them to believe,”
said Doug Moe, author of “Lords of the Ring: The Triumph and
Tragedy of College Boxing’s Greatest Team.” “Until you see the
pictures in the Field House, the clich� of ‘people hanging
from the rafters,’ because that was almost what it was like …
Boxing nights were real happenings.”

Getting a good seat at one of these popular boxing nights was
similar to the privilege of snagging a lower-level seat during a UW
basketball game today.

In fact, there was a night when Joe Lewis defended his
heavyweight championship of the world in Madison Square Garden the
same night Wisconsin had a dual match against Michigan State.

The Lewis bout drew a crowd of 11,000 people — UW’s dual match:
15,200.

“You just can’t believe how popular that program was,” former UW
boxer Dick Murphy said. “Look at it this way, the program’s been
dead 44 years. There isn’t hardly a day where I’m walking around
that I don’t meet somebody that says, ‘You were a boxer!'”

Boxing became an official sport at the University of Wisconsin
in 1933. To get the program started on the right foot, the first
hire the athletic department made was former Golden Gloves Champion
and St. Paul, Minn., native John Walsh.

Walsh served as the Badgers’ head coach from 1933 to 1958, and
his program became the measuring stick for all of college
boxing.

“[Coach Walsh] was the most outstanding coach in the country as
far as college went,” said Bob Morgan, former NCAA boxing champion
and teammate of Murphy. “If you listened to him when he was in your
corner, you did very well … He had a good training program and a
good assistant in Vern Woodward. He commanded respect because he
really knew what he was talking about. He himself had won something
like 92 of 94 fights as an amateur. He was a very good coach, an
excellent coach.”

Murphy, like Morgan, also has a national championship to his
name and agrees with his former teammate’s assessment of Coach
Walsh.

“He was like a father to a lot of the kids, and he was a good
friend,” Murphy said. “We all knew he was the greatest coach. He
was a teacher. John Walsh would have really set the pace to all
these crumbums that are involved in national boxing now. They
needed someone to straighten it out, and he would have been the guy
to do it. Same with his assistant Vern Woodward, he was a great
coach too.”

Woodward served as an assistant coach from the late 1930s
through Walsh’s retirement in 1958. He then became the legendary
coach’s successor, but his tenure as head coach was short-lived, as
the program was dropped just two years later.

The boxers’ recollections of the bouts and experiences on
campus, however, keep the sport alive today.

The pre-fight ceremony, for example, still evokes vivid and fond
memories for Bob Morgan.

“They’d have each team come out before the match, and we would
line up on both sides of the ring,” Morgan said. “The Field House
would go dark, and they would have the spotlight on the U.S. flag,
which would be lowered from the ceiling, and they’d play the
‘Star-Spangled Banner.’ And it really, really was an inspiring
moment. It would raise the hairs on the back of your neck.”

Following the pre-fight ceremony, the boxers then headed back to
their respective dressing rooms and waited until it came time for
them to fight.

This waiting period was an anxious time for Morgan. So much so,
in fact, he devoted a chapter of his autobiography “Goodbye,
Geraldine” to it — entitled, appropriately enough, “Waiting.”

“The waiting was kind of nerve-racking,” Morgan said. “For me, I
was always in the middle as a welterweight. So, I had to wait to
get on. Then as you went up the aisle back up to the ring to fight,
you do have your doubts, and your fears and your wonders; you don’t
know what the guy is like. And people, as you’re going up the
aisle, are saying ‘Atta boy’ and ‘Have a good fight.’ You listen to
them, and you feel good about having all those people behind you
… You felt kind of weak going up those stairs, you wondered: ‘how
in the world am I going to fight?’ Once the bell rang, you were
okay. But it was an experience.”

The fights themselves consisted of three two-minute rounds,
which made bouts “very fast and very intense,” according to
Moe.

While this may seem like a short timeframe for a boxing match by
today’s standards, knockouts were still a relatively frequent
occurrence.

That is, unless the bout involved UW’s Omar Crocker; in which
case, a win by knockout was almost a certainty.

Crocker, also known as “The Haymaker,” lost just one fight in
his entire career, finishing his days in cardinal and white an
astounding 22-1-1.

Madison resident and former UW boxer Tom Cullen remembers
watching “The Haymaker” in action.

“Omar Crocker was fantastic. He was probably the most colorful,
outstanding boxer the program had,” Cullen said. “He was a knockout
artist … His number of first-round knockouts was quite something,
and his first year he had an unbelievable number. The crowd would
start going, ‘Ooo, Ooo, Ooo’ in anticipation, and there was a big
murmur of excitement. He would come up the aisle, and the crowd
would burst into a terrific applause.”

According to Moe, Crocker’s record should actually stand at
23-0-1.

It didn’t come out until after the bout had long been over, but
“The Haymaker” actually won his 1940 championship bout. One of the
judges had mistakenly marked his card for Crocker’s opponent when
he intended to mark it for Crocker. As a result, “The Haymaker”
lost the fight by a 2-1 decision, subsequently putting a blemish on
his unbeaten record.

Although he was at the unfortunate end of a scoring error in
1940, Crocker still ended his collegiate career as one of the
greatest fighters in UW history.

As well as being a renowned knockout puncher and all-around
great fighter, “The Haymaker” was a member of arguably the best
college boxing team ever assembled.

The 1939 Badgers were loaded with talent from top to bottom.
They not only had Crocker fighting at 147 pounds, but they also had
Woody Swancutt fighting in the following weight class at 156
pounds.

Swancutt and Crocker were both national champions in 1939, and
the UW boxing team wound up winning the overall team title.

As an interesting side note, Swancutt later went on to be one of
the founders of the strategic air command in the Air Force, and he
was actually a pilot of one of the planes that dropped an atomic
test bomb on Bikini Atoll.

Swancutt was just one of the many interesting people to go
through the UW boxing program, though.

If nothing else, these athletes were winners and helped create
one of the most successful sports in the history of Badger
Athletics.

“Obviously the football program has turned around, and we went
to the Final Four, which I thought I’d die before I’d ever see in
basketball,” Moe said. “A lot of people think that a lot of the
boxing crowd became hockey fans, and th’s probably some truth to
that, and they’ve had marvelous success. But I would say that
boxing can stand up with any of them. Whether it’s ahead of them or
not, I don’t know. But for crowd excitement and success, in terms
of winning, it’s right there with any program UW has ever had. In
fact, I would say with any program nationally. I mean you look at
UCLA basketball back in the ’60s and ’70s, and they won like
eight-straight national titles. So, that’s probably better. But to
win eight in 27 years is pretty impressive.”

Adding to the impressiveness of these eight team titles in 27
years is the sheer number of individual champions Wisconsin
produced.

Crocker, Swancutt, Morgan and Murphy were just four of the
incredible 38 national champions to lace up their gloves for the
Badgers.

It was an incredible era in UW athletics and will continue to be
a source of pride for those who took part in it.

“As the years go on, fewer and fewer people remember what it was
like,” Morgan said. “I have a great deal of pride in having been
part of a team that won a national championship in a sport that was
quite a big sport at the time. I am very proud of my teammates, and
I feel very good about the whole thing.”