By Gabrielle Kratsas
As Spanish language major Luke Runion, finance and accounting major Mark Shorr and other University of Maryland students made their way to the exit, Runion stopped to say farewell to some of the friends he had made while training at Keely’s District Boxing and Youth Center. It was the beginning of the 2007 spring semester, and the Terps Boxing team had returned to Keely’s to resume their training from the fall.
But after spending $100 per boxer, $1,000 total, to use former professional boxer Keely Thompson’s nonprofit gym in Columbia Heights, Runion and the guys refused to pay more.
“[Keely’s] was supposed to be free for everybody, but because we were 18, they charged us,” said Runion. But when Thompson asked for more money a third time, Runion stood his ground.
“Either refund us or keep it, but we’re not gonna pay more, and we’re gonna leave,” he told Thompson, who began to threaten Runion angrily.
As Runion said goodbye to his friends, Thompson yelled after him, “Get the fuck out!”
“There are some rules on the wall,” Runion said, motioning to the colorfully painted brick of the church’s basement. “And it says no cursing.”
“I make the motherfucking rules. Get the fuck out!” said Thompson, before picking up a shovel and moving in Runion’s direction.
“I kinda stood there and looked at him and felt like, you know, this is ridiculous,” said Runion. Somebody had grabbed Thompson, and the Terps boxers left in peace. Thompson was later sentenced in October 2013 to two-and-a-halfyears in prison for siphoning more than $200,000 of the gym’s federal grant money to pay for his gambling habit, concert tickets and other personal expenses, according to the Washington Post.
“We were always the hood team, you know,” said Coach Runion, a University of Maryland grad and the founder of the school’s boxing club, when thinking back on how far his boxers have come. “We didn’t have the funding and the uniforms and the facilities like everyone else had. We had to fight for everything we have.”
Today’s Terps Boxers practice at the No “X” Cuse Boxing Club’s gym about 30 minutes from campus in Capitol Heights, Md. where they sold their ring for $1 to use in the facility. Gym owner and Coach Lamont Roach Sr.’s son is a freshman at Maryland and a new member of the team, so he’s invested in the club.
It wasn’t until the fall of the 2013-2014 school year that the team found No “X” Cuse. Runion’s boxers, those within the school’s sports club who train to travel and compete, have moved among different off-campus gyms at least once every year since the team’s foundation in fall 2004.
“We were like a traveling band of gypsies,” said Runion. He won the 2003 National Championship as a heavyweight fighter at Penn State, and he wanted to continue competing when he transferred to Maryland. But bringing boxing, a “blood sport,” to a college campus is not as simple as signing some papers and obtaining equipment.
For Runion, a space to practice on campus was the No. 1 priority for his growing team, but even after the Campus Recreation Services allotted them a place to train, Terps Boxing was unsatisfied. Aside from one to two years around 2010 when former Sports Club Director Katie Hagen gave the team a verbal approval to spar on campus, the university barred the exhibition boxing matches, which are necessary for proper training.
“For like nine years now, it’s been the same story,” said Runion. The club has seen four CRS club sports directors come and go, but no matter how many times they presented their case, the school has shut down the idea, regardless of the club’s leadership and number of participants.
Their most recent request for permission to spar on-campus was submitted in spring 2013. Assistant Director of Sports Clubs Tiffanie Morgan emailed the club Nov. 5, 2013 to decline the proposal, which was reviewed by the campus recreation director, associate director of programs, assistant director of sport clubs, coordinator of sport clubs and the university legal counsel.
Morgan quoted the legal counsel as being “’extremely uncomfortable with the Boxing Club sparring on campus’ due to concern surrounding risk management issues including liability, the necessary level of supervision, and a fundamental aspect of boxing (intentional hitting the head of one’s opponent).”
“I think the issue of appropriate space and supervision for such an activity is a considerable issue,” said current CRS Associate Director Wallace Eddy, who has worked with Runion and his club since its foundation. “When Luke first approached CRS about starting a boxing club, the focus was to be on the fitness benefits that are part of training for boxing,” he said, agreeing with Morgan. “We agreed with that premise and as part of our mission support fitness.”
Matt Steenhoek, a former Terps Boxer who graduated from Maryland in 2005 had helped Luke found the club, remembered the struggle they faced with housing the practices necessary to train properly. “We’d bounce around from gym to gym, and when different gyms closed down, we would find somewhere else to go,” he said. At one point, the guys had tried sparring in the basement of their fraternity, Kappa Alpha’s house. “We probably were not supposed to do that,” said Steenhoek. He said that that space was convenient because of its location next to Ritchie Coliseum, a campus gym.
“We sparred in the racquetball courts before the [Eppley Recreation Center] was constructed, we sparred in the grass, we sparred in the KA basement, we sparred in the parking lots,” said Runion. “We sparred in all of the most unsafe environments because that’s what we had to do to get prepared to go compete with teams that had two or three rings in their gym.”
As any good coach would, Runion knew when to throw in the towel and stop pushing for an on-campus space. “I figured, the longer we fight them, the longer that ring is just going to sit in storage and is not going to be used,” he said. “I think that we could save a lot of energy . . . and put it towards something that will work, and prove [the university] wrong by being successful off-campus.
But one fight for which Runion refused to take a knee concerned allowing women to compete in the annual collegiate boxing national championships. Before 2012, women were welcomed and encouraged to join and compete as Terps Boxers, but the National Collegiate Boxing Association did not hold or allow major tournaments for women.
Runion’s close friend and former Terps Boxer Larry Mitros remembered sitting in on annual coaches meetings with Runion. “Luke’s been one of the most vocal supporters of having a women’s boxing tournament in the collegiate ranks,” said Mitros. “He always, always made a point to bring it up.”
“Every year you wanted to pull your hair out,” recalled Runion. But according to him, nothing changed as a result of those meetings year after year. And among the unmoving NCBA coaches were those who represented military academy West Point and the United States Naval Academy.
“It’s a shame because the academies represent more dignity and character than some of their actions,” said Runion. “And, really, they said all the right things; it really wasn’t what they said as much as what they didn’t do. And their actions expressed their priorities. Their priorities were their elite men’s program and not for the people at public universities . . . They were using public schools as punching bags, and that’s not really what the sport of boxing is supposed to be. It’s supposed to be fair play and a fair fight, and so we changed it.”
With the support of other coaches from schools such as Miami, San Francisco, Loyola, Georgetown and North Carolina, Runion founded the United States Intercollegiate Boxing Association, which held the nation’s first co-ed collegiate boxing national championships in April 2013 on SFU’s campus. Eight women went home with champion belts, an opportunity that was unheard of just years before.
“Lacking due attention in the spotlight consequently reduced the number of women fighters, which affected my own competitive career as the number of matches that were available to me were no more than twice a semester,” said Elizabeth Morgan, the first female Terps Boxer. Despite concerns from her father and others, the only things that mattered to Morgan—a former cheerleader—was mastering the sport and breaking the stereotypes.
Morgan eventually became the team’s first female captain as well as an assistant coach after graduating, but she remembered struggling to get the guys comfortable enough to hit her in their sparring practices. She said, “Some of them simply believed that sparring me was pretty much as beneficial as a pillow fight in a pool of chocolate pudding.”
But according to Runion and former UMD boxer and assistant coach Russ Williams, the guys learned pretty quickly that Morgan was no one to be taken lightly. “I had to hold Liz back because she would beat some of the guys,” said Runion.
“I think there was maybe a little bit of hesitation at first just because you’re not quite sure how hard to go with it,” said Williams, concerning Morgan sparring with the guys. He laughed and said, “I think everybody got the picture pretty quick as soon as that first punch came from Liz.”
Because of the small number of women competitors, some of Morgan’s fights, including her first, were against heavier women with more experience. “I chose the hard way, and I don’t regret it,” said Morgan. “My collegiate boxing career was one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had in my life.”
Meanwhile, junior cell biology major Lindsey Ferry charges her teammates around one of the three rings in No “X” Cuse at a typical Tuesday night sparring practice. Dressed in layers to stay warm in the warehouse-style gym that lacks central heating, Ferry listens to Coach Runion’s advice before pivoting and throwing a right hook at teammate Icah De Guzman. De Guzman stays grounded as Ferry bounces back and forth on her toes. Both women let out heavy breaths with each strike. The 30-second warning bell rings in the background, and Ferry quickly turns De Guzman around and pins her against the ropes.
“I’m actually sad that nationals still has such a small amount of girls,” said Ferry, who plans to go to the 2014 USIBA Nationals in Miami. Within her first year competing, she has had two fights, one of which was held in London during the Terps Boxers’ first trip to fight abroad.
“It would definitely be really sad, you know, if everybody else was getting all of these opportunities,” said Ferry in response to a question of whether she would still compete if she was not able to go to nationals. “We’re not in the past like that anymore; that’s so dated.”
Disclaimer: Gabrielle Kratsas has competed on the Terps Boxing team, and she worked as the club’s secretary in 2013.