On March 11, as classes were moved online and the University was upended due to COVID-19, members of the Michigan Boxing Club filed in to a meeting with the Recreational Sports Board.
The club’s executive team went into the meeting just a week before their national tournament in Atlanta, uncertain of its agenda. Soon, it would be revealed that their status as a club sport would be revoked, forcing them to continue as a Voluntary Student Organization.
“We get to this meeting,” boxing president Maya Irigoyen said. “And they completely caught us off guard. … Our advisor really gave us no heads up that this is what they were going to talk about.”
The motive to remove sponsorship really only came down to one reason — risk management. The fear of not being able to control the risk involved with the physicality of the sport drove those involved to make the decision.
“One of the biggest red flags that came up was — this decision wasn’t based on any factual information,” Irigoyen said. “They never really talked to any of us. We didn’t really get any information. … They came to this decision on their own.”
It wasn’t just the players that were affected by the decision, the coaches were also inflicted with a sense of betrayal.
For coach and team-appointed “spiritual advisor” Rama Mwenesi, the news added to an already stressful situation. As a Ph.D student and a hospital worker, he was dealing with his own problems, like getting back into the United States due to the outbreak.
“This was, without a doubt, one of the most tumultuous times that we could have received this news,” Mwenesi said.
He felt especially bothered by his inability to be there for his team, as they themselves struggled with a basket of issues, like being students dealing with the suspension of in-person classes.
“This was just like an extra, unnecessary stressor,” Irigoyen said.
In this tough time, the perceived negligence of the Recreational Sports Department deepened due to their reluctance to communicate. Irigoyen found that they were very slow to respond to her and even when they did, their answers were dry and unhelpful.
Director of Recreational Sports Mike Widen, Assistant Director of Club Sports Laurel Hanna and Assistant Director of Risk Management Kate Rychlinski were the main decision-makers.
All three of them and Club Sports Program Manager, Cybbi Barton, either denied a phone call with The Daily, failed to respond to an email or refrained from commenting on the issue. Widen eventually responded, only providing their official statement on the matter with no additional comments.
“As a result of the information produced by the risk audit,” the statement said, “it was determined that it was not in the best interest of our students or the university to encourage participation in these sports through sponsoring the club boxing and club taekwondo teams. The primary rationale for that decision is because both of those sports have scoring associated with contact to the head of the opponent.”
“It was once we brought it to the more extreme that they only started to recognize us,” Irigoyen said. “ … We just want a fair appeal process and to have the decision based on factual evidence and not just be subject to speculation.”
After a public petition was released and public support was shown by former team members and alumni, an extension was granted giving them until April 1, 2021 to prepare a rebuttal. On Friday morning, the date was changed to Oct. 1.
This was not the first time the University tried to remove the boxing club. Nine years ago, in the summer of 2011, executives of the team faced the same, unexpected battle.
“Out of the complete blue,” former boxing club president C.J. Fisher said, “with no previous warning, no previous probations, no previous conversations, we got a letter that said, ‘You guys are done on campus.’ ”
In the middle of the summer, this bombshell was dropped on their plate — just as a similar bombshell landed on Irigoyen and the current team’s plate amidst the chaos.
“More than emotional, we felt betrayed,” Fisher said.
“Risk management” was cited as the reason for their removal as well. The stigma of boxing being a violent and out-of-control sport was enough of a reason to send the club packing.
Coincidentally, Fisher pointed out another similarity with the current situation: a lack of research and evidence from the University.
“We’d never had any reported injuries,” Fisher said. “We’d never had any athletes hospitalized with boxing-related injuries.”
On top of safety, club college boxing — and the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association (USIBA) where the club competes — is well regulated. USA Boxing, the federation that regulates the sport, takes the lead in registering fighters, officiating matches, providing injury insurance, sanctioning gear and other administrative tasks.
“In 2011, the club sports administration knew none of this,” Fisher said. “They had absolutely no idea. They didn’t know USA Boxing had been functioning since the 60s or 70s. They didn’t realize that college boxing … was very organized.”
Fisher seized the chance to educate the Recreational Sports decision-makers and his thorough and persistent efforts worked out.
“(Former Recreational Sports Director William Canning) kind of apologized for not doing a little bit of his homework before just trying to tear our club down,” Fisher said.
At the request of Canning, the club was allowed to stay on campus with one condition — they had to grow in size and start winning. Fisher led the charge in growing the size of the team, implementing a more serious and competitive environment and most importantly a culture of winning.
“Over the last decade, we’ve become the winningest team in college boxing,” Mwenesi said.
The team has won five of the last six USIBA championships, adding to their impressive resume. Their culture — that Fisher helped build — has become one of success and one of inclusion, making them a staple in the school’s athletic community.
“This unique thing that boxing offers you,” Fisher said. “ … It bonds you in a very unanticipated sort of way and creates these friendships that don’t really dissolve.”
As Fisher, Irigoyen and Mwenesi can attest, the club has provided its members with a second home, friendships, life lessons and so much more throughout its history.
“It really strikes me as a surprise that Michigan would opt to try and eliminate boxing from Michigan,” Mwenesi said.
Fisher and Mwenesi serve as proof of the value of boxing seen by job recruiters and graduate school admissions. Fisher is well on his way to becoming a Navy surgeon, while Mwenesi is preparing to be a full-time doctor — even working in a hospital during the current COVID-19 crisis.
This club has meant a lot to the students and the coaches involved. The fight to keep their home on campus only serves to highlight its impact.
“We have a lot of pride in what we do and who we are,” Fisher said. “Boxers are fighters and it felt like we were trying to get bullied out of something and we aren’t people you can bully. So obviously we weren’t going to go down without a fight.”
Fisher’s mentality rings true for Irigoyen and the current team members, as they face the same battle he did nine years ago.
The date of the club boxing team’s appeal deadline was changed from April 1, 2021 to Oct. 1, 2020 after this story was published.