Chris Vannini Jan 4, 2022
ARLINGTON, Texas — The white wrap has to go around the outside of the hand to start. Otherwise, it’ll loosen up in a fist. Three times around the wrist. Three times around the hand but inside the thumb. Then in between each finger, starting with the space between the pinky and the ring finger. Gauze pads on the knuckles provide some protection. The Everlast tape holds it all together.
It needs to be tight, but also loose. It stretches with a clenching of the fist. This can be a tedious, rigorous process. When you’re a boxer, though, the hands are paramount.
Kristina Hughes needs her tape done first. Her fight is just 15 minutes away, the opener in the women’s 125-pound weight class. She’s got the red gloves on. “X Gon’ Give It To Ya” by DMX blares through the speaker. Well, “blares” might be generous — the music emanates from a handheld Bluetooth device. But in this tight space, as more than a dozen people congregate between metal lockers, that speaker sounds like a 10-pound boombox. The sound reverberates. It gets the fighters in the right mindset, even if it is the clean version of the song. That difference is quickly evident.
“There’s not a lot of lyrics left,” jokes head coach Jerry Hart as he tapes his fighters’ hands. “Bad Boys For Life” is next on the playlist. When a curse word slips through, Hart quickly grabs the phone and skips to the next song, chagrined.
After all, this is the Army. Standards and practices are implied.
Hughes is a senior cadet with dreams of flying helicopters. But tonight, she’s a fighter for Army’s boxing team against the team from Air Force. Because of the pandemic, this is her first sanctioned fight in 20 months. It’s also her second fight ever.
Once he finishes taping, Hart brings the team together for a pregame message.
“That team out there has won 19 national championships,” Hart says of Air Force. “This team has won 10. But they want what we have. Tonight sets the tone for the year. If they beat you to the middle of the ring when that bell rings, you’re going to hear from me and Coach O (Osahon Omo-Osagie).”
College boxing is no longer an NCAA-sanctioned sport, but it still exists, and these two teams are the best of the best. This dual is another step toward regionals and nationals in the spring, but it’s unlike any other in the history of college boxing’s most decorated rivalry. We’re at Globe Life Field, home of the Texas Rangers and this season’s Army-Air Force football game. But tonight is a boxing event, the ring set up in right field with hundreds of fans in attendance, both in seating around the ring and in the stands above the outfield fence.
“You have no idea what your body can do,” Hart says in the locker room. “Tonight, you’re going to find out a teeny bit. I want Air Force to walk away not wanting to have this match next year. Do it for the team, but more importantly, do it for you. You’ve got the Corps out there, you’ve got important people, but nothing matters but you and the person across from you.”
Everyone puts a hand in the middle of the group for a call and response.
Who leads the way?
RANGERS LEAD THE WAY!
The Army team, all in black and gold trunks, walks out of the locker room and into the cavernous tunnel beneath the right-field stands. Hughes leads the way. After walking about 30 feet on the concrete, she makes a right turn onto the green artificial grass. The crowd roars. There’s an F-16 fighter jet to the left and an Army truck to the right. Hughes looks up at the giant video board in left field, ready for a fight experience she will never forget.
Edward Hughes remembers the moment his youngest daughter told him she’d go to West Point. It was no shock. Edward served 20 years in the Army as an artillery officer; three of Kristina’s four older siblings are in the military, though they went through ROTC. So when Kristina returned home to State College, Pa., from a weeklong summer leadership experience at West Point while in high school, she told her father, “I think I found my peeps.”
It was when she told her dad she wanted to box that he was taken aback.
“I was like, Are you sure you want to do that?’” he says. “I’m a dad, she’s my daughter. Getting punched in the face wasn’t a favorite thing of mine. On the other hand, I want my daughter to be tough and able to defend herself.”
Edward had participated in boxing at West Point himself. It’s required of all plebes because it’s a class at Army, as well as at Air Force and Navy. And he vividly remembers his three fights, all very painful. Still, they served a purpose.
“It really comes down to the ability to handle yourself under pressure,” Air Force head coach Blake Baldi says. “It’s not the boxing skills or hand-to-hand combat that we’re trying to get out of it. It’s just, we’re going to put you in a place that you’ve probably never been before, that’s going to make you uncomfortable, instill some fear and anxiety, and you have to be able to handle it.”
Both Hart and Baldi teach boxing classes at their respective academies. That’s their primary role. But with those positions comes access to a pool of potential team members. They encourage their best students to try out, a process that lasts around four weeks in August.
That’s how Hughes got involved. Former Army coach Ray Barone liked her tenacity in class and encouraged her to join the team. But she had choir commitments at the time.
“At first I didn’t really want to do it; I didn’t want to get hit in the head all the time,” she says. “He was like, ‘No, you’re a fighter through and through. You’ve got to come out for the team.’ I did, and it’s the best decision I ever made.”
College boxing is not sanctioned by the NCAA. The association stopped sponsoring the sport in 1960 after the death of Wisconsin boxer Charlie Mohr. According to a 1960 Sports Illustrated article, some doctors suspected Mohr might have suffered an aneurysm, but it didn’t matter. The sport was already in decline. The National Collegiate Boxing Association was founded in 1976 as an autonomous, non-profit organization to bring back the sport. The rules differ from amateur boxing, with fights lasting three rounds at two minutes each, and all fighters wearing 12-ounce gloves, heavier gloves that reduce the speed of the blows. College boxers must have fewer than 10 sanctioned fights in their background. The association is comprised of club teams across the country.
As one might imagine, the service academies, full of students training for combat, are the best at it. Air Force has 19 men’s national tournament championships, Army has 10 and Navy has five. Nevada, the top program that is not a service academy, also has five. Army also has two women’s tournament championships, which began in 2014. All 10 of Army’s men’s titles have come since 2007, while Air Force has one in that span.
“Army folks look at it and say, if someone’s going to win at college boxing, it’s Army,” Hart says. “Who generally does the hand-to-hand fighting? It’s the Army, it’s the Marines and Special Forces, but the Army is considered the face-to-face service.”
They’re not NCAA teams, but Air Force treats its boxing team as a varsity sport, with athlete housing, travel and other amenities.
“We compete at a high level, so we have the medical staff and trainers to support it, and with the concussion studies we do as an institution, it’s the right place for it,” Air Force athletic director Nathan Pine says. “We love it. … We have a great program and we’re happy to have it under the varsity umbrella, even if it doesn’t compete under the NCAA umbrella.”
That set the stage for Globe Life Park. These academies always hold a boxing event the day before their football game, but it’s typically on campus. This year’s Army-Air Force football game was at a baseball stadium, and the event organizers wanted a series of events around the game. When the idea of the boxing match came up, it provided an ideal showcase.
The week prior, Army, Navy and Air Force competed against each other at an event in Detroit. But this event, this stage, would be different.
Kristina Hughes is in the ring, nerves tingling, adrenaline flowing. Her father is in the front row. The crowd is especially hot for the first fight of the night. As she stands in the red corner across from Air Force’s Caroline “Cat” Tak, Hart has his hands on Hughes’ black headgear as he delivers one last message. When the bell rings, Hughes darts to the center.
The opening minute is a flurry of punches. But that energy is too high and both fighters forget their training, as punches get a bit sloppy. Hart yells for Hughes to straighten her stance and focus on jabs to the face.
“Keep it simple!” he shouts.
That adrenaline runs low late in the two-minute round. Both fighters look tired. The impact of punches is minimal. They need a breather. It finally comes as the bell rings. In the corner, Hart tells Hughes she needs to punch straight, not swipe, staring at her the entire time without blinking. He’s firm but encouraging. After a minute, the fight resumes.
In the second round, Hughes finds her footing. After almost two years since her last sanctioned fight, the rust has worn off. Now it’s real. She connects on several right hooks to the head, drawing big cheers from the Army fan section. Tak gets in her share of shots, too. It’s a much cleaner round. When the bell rings, the boxers tap gloves, a sign of respect.
One round to go. In the corner, Hart tells Hughes to breathe deeply and slowly. This is what she trained for. To finish strong. The final round begins and both are clearly tired. But a final adrenaline rush comes as Hughes finishes with a late fury that gets the Army fans on their feet as they chant “Ar-my! Ar-my!” as the final bell rings. Hughes and Tak take off their gloves and hug as the crowd applauds. The fighters go to the opposite corner to shake hands with the opposing coach. It’s all about that respect.
The Army supporters feel confident about Hughes’ chances with the judge’s decision, but you never know. They wait anxiously for a minute before the scores come in.
The referee raises Hughes’ hand. Winner by unanimous decision. The Army crowd roars and Hughes smiles and tears up as she’s presented the winner’s medal. She leaves the ring and heads down the backstop toward the locker room, where she sees her father. They embrace as tears roll down her face.
“It was just a flood of emotion,” Edward says a few weeks later. “She’s incredibly talented, she’s very spiritual, she’s academically gifted, but this was something she really wanted to do. It was a challenge for her. To see her come all of that distance to that night, I was so proud of her.”
On her way to the locker room, Kristina is stopped for a concussion test that includes following a light with her eyes and a trainer touching her shoulders, head and neck. She checks out OK and returns to enjoy the victory.
“I’m really proud of myself,” Hughes says. “It’s been a long time coming, being a senior and missing two years of boxing essentially. I feel like I’m myself in the ring, able to control the fight and show my best self. All the work that’s been put in from everyone, we spar no matter the weight class. I’ve had so many people beat me to a pulp in the ring over the past four years, and it’s brought out this warrior spirit in me that I would not have been able to find if not for them.”
The rest of the event is thrilling, with the teams trading victories as the weight classes go up. Cadets from both academies lift their chairs to celebrate wins.
Air Force leads 5-4 heading into the final bout, the men’s 182-pound weight class, and the energy is palpable. Fans of both schools are on their feet, and this feels like a true main event between Army junior Jon Parham and Air Force junior Walker Morris, who leaps over the top rope for his entrance. With his 6-foot-2 frame, Morris gets the best of Parham early, twice knocking out his mouthpiece. A knockout feels imminent.
But it doesn’t come. Parham rallies in the third round with some big blows. The crowd roars as the final bell sounds, truly an unknown who will win this fight and therefore the event.
By split decision, Morris wins, giving Air Force the team victory. The Air Force fighters and fans erupt, while Baldi doesn’t react at all, stone-faced as ever. Morris is named outstanding male fighter, and Hughes is named outstanding female fighter, giving her a plaque to go with the winning medal.
Former Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy tells the Army team ringside that it should be proud of what it accomplished. Several Medal of Honor recipients are among the dignitaries present. They tell the fighters they showed the exact kind of grit the Army needs. It’s a reminder of what these boxing teams are really about.
A few minutes later, the Army team is gathered in the cramped locker room. The mood is a mix of excitement for the winning fighters but disappointment for the team’s defeat. The team applauds the winners as Hart delivers his post-match speech.
“You’re tough. That’s what Army boxers are. We’re dogs,” he says. “We fight until the referee pulls us off, and just about every one of you did that tonight and I appreciate it. What’s the next level? Not just win, but how? We’ve got to box. We get hit too much. They’re slicker than us. Let’s be honest. We know what we need to do. Let’s get in the gym and work our freaking butts off. We’ve got from here to February, regionals in March, then nationals in April. Navy and Air Force, they know where we’re going to be. I believe we can get there.”
Hart tells the boxers that those with family in town are dismissed for the night; they just need to text the group chat so everyone knows where they are.
Hughes is still a bit overwhelmed. Her first fight in almost two years — on an unimaginable stage — couldn’t have gone any better. But the stage didn’t matter for those three rounds. It was a focus on the opponent, on herself, on discipline and what she was taught.
“West Point is amazing and has challenged me in so many ways, but then there’s this little niche set of Army boxing, which continues to exploit all your weaknesses and make them into strengths,” Hughes says. “I get up in the morning for morning practice and don’t know what’s going to happen to me, not knowing who’s going to hit me in the head today or what I’m going to learn, but the amount of investment I’ve gotten from the girls in the past, that level of dedication and commitment to growth and success, has really just expanded my overall leadership development.”
That’s the spirit of the Army. That’s what this is all about. That’s why each service academy requires boxing. And that’s what Hughes now sees in herself.
“This team is what it means to be a leader, what it means to really go into combat and have that heart.”
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Chris Vannini / The Athletic)