Written By: Bill Syken
College boxing hasn’t existed for more than a half-century, but once upon a time it was a big deal, and when LIFE wanted to document the sport in 1949, the obvious place to go was the University of Wisconsin. The Badgers were the sport’s dominant program, winning eight national titles and hosting seven NCAA tournaments from the years that college boxing was an official sport, from 1932 to 1960. The story never ran in LIFE, so these photos by George Skadding are being shown for the first time.
Boxing matches in Madison routinely drew more than 12,000 fans to the school’s basketball arena, with a record 15,200 people attending a bout against Washington State in 1940.
In these photos, a boxer from Wisconsin takes on an fighter from the University of Idaho. That might sound like a mismatch, and these pictures show the Badger getting in his licks. But Idaho was another one of the sport’s power programs. The Vandals won three national championships in boxing, tied with San Jose State for the second most all-time. Another gem state school, Idaho State, won a pair national titles as well.
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It can be safely said that Wisconsin’s John Walsh was the greatest college boxing coach. A former Golden Gloves champion himself, Walsh became the Wisconsin coach in 1934, and his boxers won 35 individual titles in addition to their eight team titles. Walsh led the program until 1958, which was just a couple years before college boxing met its demise.
College boxing’s popularity peaked in the late 1940s, around when LIFE photographer George Skadding took these pictures, for a story that never ran in the magazine. But the sport was fading as a varsity endeavor by 1960, when Syracuse was the only eastern school to send a team to the tournament. During the tournament a popular Wisconsin boxer, Charlie Mohr, collapsed in the dressing room and never regained consciousness. He died eight days later. Already in 1959 a Texas A&M fighter, Curtis Raymond Lyons, had died after a bout. Sports Illustrated’s report on Mohr’s death was headlined, both mournfully and accurately, “The End of College Boxing.”