MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Steven Ware advanced across the sparring ring, pivoting and bobbing with his gloves high, closing the distance with a boxer who outweighed him by 60 pounds.
Giving away substantial reach, too, he took an occasional jab or straight cross smacking his headgear, but got inside and landed a few punches and made cruiserweight Craig Frazee miss with several hooks.
“I’ve got some things I need to work on,” Ware said afterward. “I’m coming off, off the side.”
He needed to stay inside with his pivots, he said.
Ware is coming off winning the National Collegiate Boxing Association championship at 132 pounds for West Virginia University, where he out-decisioned a West Point fighter in the April final. He was WVU’s fifth national champion in the past five years in a club sport started by students only a decade ago.
At West Virginia, which draws thousands to Division I football and basketball games, boxers train in off-campus gyms and compete in relative obscurity. The NCAA dropped boxing after 1960. That year, Wisconsin’s Charlie Mohr died from a brain hemorrhage a week after the defending champion was knocked down and stopped in the 165-pound title bout.
Collegiate boxing has made a comeback without the NCAA.
WVU competes in the 34-team NCBA that formed in 1976 and includes the often dominant major military academies, where boxers get experience rising through intramurals and then compete against other colleges. The United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association, formed in 2012, has listed 21 registered college clubs and individual students from other local clubs compete. Both now have women’s divisions and hold national tournaments.
“There’s a statistic in 2007 we looked up to help our cause with the university because we got some friction from the university” about safety, said Patrick McLaughlin, an assistant boxing coach for WVU. “So we pulled some stats. In that year, amateur boxing was the 75th ranked amateur sport in injuries.”
“Concussions are a huge concern,” McLaughlin said. “It’s definitely dangerous, but I think they’ve made a lot of rule changes and things that make it a safer sport. I think it’s pretty effective.”
McLaughlin, who had a background in karate, and another student filed the paperwork to start the club. He said his interest was sparked by the critically panned 1987 movie “Teen Wolf Too,” in which Jason Bateman plays a teen who gets a college scholarship from a boxing coach who hopes to take advantage of his supernatural werewolf abilities in the ring.
Now a public school counsellor, McLaughlin runs workouts at a gym in an old shopping mall for a mix of amateurs, including Ware. The WVU team trains mainly under head coach Brandon Lyall at a recently built community centre where other club sports have space.
There have been other coaches, including a WVU Medicine doctor who had been national champion of Belarus, and a former California Golden Gloves heavyweight champion who got an unrelated job transfer to West Virginia, McLaughlin said. The team’s first two national champions were women.
Ware, now 28, is finishing a bachelor’s degree and plans to teach physical education, first showed up in 2012. He’d been driving a forklift at a sawmill for a few years, helping his single mother pay off some debt, after high school in a small town outside Elkins, West Virginia, he said.
The sawmill shut down. He came to the Morgantown gym for jiu-jitsu, met McLaughlin and started boxing.
“He taught me how to fight as a short guy,” said Ware, who’s 5-foot-5. “That’s how I fell in love with boxing.”
Ware recalled having been hit only two or three times that hurt enough to remember. In training and sparring they work at landing punches to score points but not hurt each other, he said.
“My team is my family to me,” he said. His girlfriend, Callie Goodwin, is a boxer whom he helps train. Martial arts gave him a positive path and way to think in the absence of role models, he said.
The negative is cutting weight, he said. He walks around at about 145 to 150 pounds even while working out daily.
McLaughlin repeatedly drills boxers working in pairs to move forward, back and sideways, to block and slip jabs, properly duck hooks from the knees and to punch with limited exposure. “Angles, movement, that’s what we’re all about” he said.
After training only three months, Ware was asked to compete in place of an injured boxer and won. He later enrolled at the university and was on a winning streak that ended in the 2016 collegiate tournaments with a narrow regional final loss to a Naval Academy boxer and an opening round loss in the nationals to a Coast Guard Academy fighter he thought he beat.
Ware ramped up training to twice a day and came back to get the belt this year, raising his record to 12-2.
“They’re always tough. They’re always well-conditioned,” McLaughlin said of the military academy teams. “But we typically have better skills.”
“And so it’s just a matter if the person can prepare enough to weather the storm,” McLaughlin said. “Because if you run out of gas, you don’t have the skills anymore.”