Silent Victors: Club boxing wins first-ever national championship

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By Zach Shaw, Daily Sports Writer
Published April 14, 2014

When you walk up the wooden stairs of the Sports Coliseum, you’re introduced to a room full of champions. The second floor of the Coliseum contains nine punching bags, two makeshift rings and boxing equipment with aged sweat stains only rivaled by the stains on the once-white wall nearby.

The second floor wasn’t meant to house champions, but the Michigan Men’s Boxing Club doesn’t care. As dusty photos of past boxers look on, two dozen boxers go through technique in unison. Hooks, dips, jabs and slips are accompanied by grunts that could be heard from outside in the parking lot.

As coaches egg them on, the group progresses through more and more complicated moves, until the team is matching in practice what it did in Miami April 5. That day, five individual titles helped the Wolverines beat out 19 other teams to win the school’s first-ever boxing national championship.

After nearly being kicked off campus as a club sport three years ago, the club has fought its way to the forefront of collegiate boxing. With an energetic group and an increasingly competitive atmosphere, the team looks to make success in the ring the latest Michigan tradition.

Four years ago, Michigan boxing was dead. A decade after Shamael Haque became the team’s last individual national champion, the program had declined into a non-competitive one; practices became little more than a good workout. With not enough competition, the Athletic Department pulled what little funding the team received, leaving it hanging on threads.

“Club sports need to compete,” said junior Kevin Bosma, the team’s vice president. “Michigan wants to see its name represented in a positive light and see its teams win with the block ‘M’, but with boxing, the University got nothing out of it. They pulled funding to enact change. It took a couple years and a ton of hard work, but now we’re representing the school well.”

After receiving the harsh wake-up call from the University, the Wolverines began registering for more tournaments. The team grew, and so did its confidence. Last year one boxer went to the national championships, but that didn’t stop volunteer coach Tony Sensoli from setting the bar even higher. Walking into this year’s first practice, Sensoli told the team they should have one goal: Win a national title.

“I remember thinking, ‘Damn, Tony, that’s a pretty hefty goal,’ especially considering we weren’t really on the national stage before,” Bosma said. “We tried to get everyone experience early and some of the fights didn’t go so well, and I was really doubting if we would be able to compete on a national level.”

The year progressed, but Sensoli’s goal still looked out of reach. While younger boxers caught on, others quit the team. Club sports like boxing require far more work than perks, and many find they aren’t up to the task.

“We really got on people who weren’t taking things seriously and held people accountable for sticking to our goals,” said freshman Yazan El-Baba. “Our coaches emphasized the idea that ‘those who stay will be champions,’ which is huge in a club sport because people don’t get any sort of compensation. It’s really just the will to win that keeps them going, and you could tell how passionate the coaches were and that trickled down to us.”

With the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association National Championships approaching, Michigan began to like its chances. It was sending the largest team to nationals, and had a real shot at making program history.

But a slew of injuries hurt the team’s chances. A ruptured spleen, a broken wrist, a concussion and a cracked sternum bruised the team’s ego just days before the tournament.

“Most of these guys are new to the sport, and many had only had one or two fights, so the team was already nervous,” Bosma said. “All those injuries right before the tournament were sitting in their minds, and it was very hard for us to calm their nerves and figure out a way to reinstill confidence in them.”

In Miami, the nerves took a bow to victories. Staying in a low-budget hostel with just two rooms and 23 people, only a 5-0 start relaxed the Wolverines.

Even shorthanded, the team sent seven boxers to Sunday’s championship slate, five more than any other team. By the time the final bell rang, Bosma, El-Baba, juniors Khaled Abbas, Pete Herzog and sophomore Alec Sensoli, Tony’s son, were crowned champions, giving Michigan the necessary points to win the team title. With Bosma still recovering from his victory in the 201-pound finals, the captain looked on as the team reached its destination.

“They didn’t realize how close we were,” Bosma said. “I think they were surprised a little bit, but it was more of a recognition that they did everything they needed to rather than a surprise. They came to believe that they could win it on their own without us having to stay on them to work hard. It was awesome to watch.”

Added Tony: “If you had asked me even two weeks ago if we were going to win I would have said no way. It was very emotional moment, and it validates the effort that everyone has put in this year to achieve that goal.”

Today, Michigan boxing is as alive as ever. After four years of creating a competitive culture, after just days of recovering from their national championship and months before their next competition, almost the entire team is still at practice. The nine punching bags sway back-and-forth as they are pummeled, the jump ropes skip as hard rock plays on the speakers, and the red, white and blue ropes bounce as boxers spar in the nearby ring.

After years of housing boxers who fail to win it all, the stained walls and piles now host national champions. With a title under its belt and a young core returning next year and plans for the women’s team to gain club status next year, the Michigan boxing program has crawled from afterthought to champions.

Boxing dominance has become the latest Michigan tradition.