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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

UW Field House: Wisconsin hosts Michigan State March 10, 1950 in front of 14,000 fans at the UW Field House


Charlie Mohr and Stu Bartell were good friends.

But on April 9, 1960, with a national title on the line, the two men were fierce enemies in the ring.

In likely the final fight of his boxing career, Mohr was not only battling for a personal title, but also a victory over San Jose State's Bartell that would secure a ninth NCAA team championship for Wisconsin.

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""If you wanted to have a brother or a son, Charlie was about the mold you would want him to come out of,"" former teammate Bob Lynch said. ""When he walked across campus he just lit the place up. Everyone wanted to know him.  He was the most popular athlete on campus at that time""

The first round was a wash. Both fighters were in their prime and on their game that night. Midway through round number two, Mohr went for a left jab at Bartell's upper chest. Bartell dodged the brunt of the hit and countered with a powerful right to Mohr's head.

Mohr stumbled back to the ropes and went down hard.

The referee called the match off.

The young Wisconsin fighter from New York staggered back to the locker room where, according to an account from the April 12 edition of The Daily Cardinal, he collapsed into convulsions. Rushed to the hospital, Mohr underwent emergency surgery and spent the next week fighting for his life.

""He always had a time for any and everybody,"" Lynch said.

On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1960, Charlie Mohr died.

Within a month, Wisconsin faculty voted to abolish the sport, and boxing had fought its final round.

But as abrupt and dramatic as its ending was, the University of Wisconsin boxing program's beginning was humble at best—a tie.  March 21, 1933, the Badgers and St. Thomas College fought to a 4-4 draw in Wisconsin's first dual match.

For the next 27 years, ties—and especially losses—would be few and far between for the Badgers. Six years after that initial bout, Wisconsin claimed its first NCAA team championship April 17, 1939. There would be seven more team titles to follow, as well as 38 individual crowns overall.

And with success came popularity. With popularity came the crowds.

It was unusual to find a crowd of less than 10,000 at any dual match Wisconsin hosted. The team was the toast of the town, eclipsed only by the Badger football team, according to former Wisconsin boxer and 1951 NCAA Champion Dick Murphy.

""There was a Friday night when there was a Joe Louis  heavyweight worlds championship fight in Madison Square Garden  that had an attendance of 11,000,"" Murphy said. ""That same night UW boxed Washington State in the Madison Field House and the attendance was 15,000.""

Bob Lynch, who boxed at Wisconsin in the program's final two seasons, credits much of the program's success to its coach, John Walsh.

""John Walsh was an extremely successful man,"" Lynch said. ""John worked with the boys' heads awful well. He was so damn bright and really made them think.""

Walsh, who also completed law school while coaching at Wisconsin, led the Badgers to all eight team titles.

In fact, Walsh was so successful and well respected that, while still coaching at Wisconsin, a trophy to honor the annual NCAA team champion was named in the coach's honor.

Heading into the 1950s however, college boxing began to take a hit  as universities across the country dropped their programs.

""Wisconsin was the last Big Ten school that had intercollegiate boxing. The next to last would have been Michigan State and right before then, University of Minnesota,"" Lynch said. ""So it was beginning to decline in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s basically because a number of schools were giving it up.""

The sport of boxing began to take on generally negative connotations as well.  Doug Moe, author of ""Lords of the Ring,"" a history of the UW boxing program, said the way professional boxing was racked with organized crime scandals shed a bad light on the sport overall.

""There was this visceral feeling that boxing was not a sport that should be on good college campuses, and programs were dropping it,"" Moe said. ""The Badgers were having trouble scheduling enough teams during the season.""

According to Moe, university faculty at Wisconsin had been trying to get rid of boxing since the late 1940s. With the death of Charlie Mohr, they had enough general sentiment to ban the sport.

""It got so that the faculty and a lot of people around the community wanted to have the word boxing sound almost like a swear word,"" Lynch said. ""Some of the same people that approved of it, because of Charlie's death, suddenly saw all the flaws and the faults in it.""

Later that year, the NCAA followed suit, officially dropping its sponsorship of intercollegiate boxing.

Today, college boxing has found new life. The National Collegiate Boxing Association has sponsored a collegiate boxing league since 1976, currently featuring 35 universities, including three Big Ten schools.

College boxing in the NCBA today does not hold the grandeur of NCAA boxing throughout the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, however, and likely never will. Instead, we are left only with the surviving memories of those like Dick Murphy, Bob Lynch and others who, if only for three short decades, made Madison the boxing capitol of the world.

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