By Neil Patrick Healy
Boxing is viewed as a sport for the individual. Images of a lone fighter raising his hands in victory while standing over his vanquished opponent are synonymous with the sport itself. One man is the champion of the world.
The thought of boxing being a team sport is a foreign concept to the sports world, but one proud program doesn’t find the concept to be foreign at all. That program is the University of Nevada, Reno boxing team, and this program is in a familiar position once again going into the national championship tournament in Miami, Florida this Friday. That position is a winning one. Each fighter who raises their hands in victory wins not only for himself, but also for a tight-knit group of men who has done everything for one another to succeed.
When Nevada had four fighters win the Western Regional title for their weight class and five total qualify for nationals last month, everyone around the boxing program knew that this group of men was special. All of them came into the gym from different walks of life, but they all have two things in common: They’re tough and they like to fight. Those two traits have lead to the team’s success.
“We’re sending in five real contenders this year,” said head coach Pat Schellin. “We could come home with five national champions. Their training, conditioning and everything else are all at a peak right now. I’d hate to be a college boxer in their way.”
Nationals mean different things to each of the five guys entering the ring. For the 132-pound senior Jarred Santos, it means one last chance to capture the elusive national title that would put the finishing touches on his brilliant career.
His teammates and coaches look at Santos as a leader for his tactical and physical prowess in the ring and his disciplined approach during training. Many bouts have been won from the strength of this senior’s left hand. He has qualified for nationals all four years and has progressively improved each fight. Santos is putting it all on the line for his final campaign.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling, because at this point every round can be my last,” he said. “I’m going in thinking that if I can’t even move after this fight, that’s OK. This may be the last time I ever fight, so it pushes me even more. I’ve improved every year and achieved every other goal I’ve had, so now I just need to win the title.”
For the 139-pound junior JJ Mariano, this is a chance to right the wrongs of last years second-place finish. Every counter punch and left hook delivered this year has been driven by that championship loss. Mariano knows he’s great, and he can feel how close he is to the title.
“It feels like I’m right there,” Mariano said. “After I stepped out of the ring last year, I knew I was going to be the champ this year. What’s stopping me? I have more experience than any of those guys and I know what to expect. All I could have done this year was train for it, which I have been.
“I’m ready to go. I’ve always wanted the title, but getting so close last year made it inevitable that I’d want it as bad as I do now.”
Santos and Mariano’s successes in the ring are linked together because of a decision that helped pave the way for their careers. Santos just finished his freshman season fighting at 139 pounds and Mariano just joined the team. At 5-foot-10, Mariano was a more natural fit for the 139-pound class compared to Santos standing at 5-foot-8. A spot was open in the 132-pound weight class, and Santos knew what he had to do.
“I talked to the coaches and I decided that I should go down to 132, because the 139 guys are taller and he was more of a fit than I was,” Santos said. “We wanted to fill up the weight classes and it was a better fit for me to go down.”
For the 147-pound junior Zach Smith, this is a chance to realize the potential everyone around him knows he has and to prove some people wrong along the way.
Smith did not come from a boxing background, but through mixed martial arts training, he learned how to take a hit. He joined the program and slaved away for a year before getting to fight.
Before regionals, he was not guaranteed a spot because another teammate was in his weight class. With no clear separation, the deadlock was settled by a three round box-off that pitted teammates against each other. Smith won and earned his spot.
Out of the five fighters going to nationals this year, Smith is the only one who did not win his regional weight class. He lost in the semi-finals in a close and controversial decision by the judges that may have cost him a trip to nationals, but fate decided to even the score.
Fighters from other regions got injured and could not participate in nationals, and through some complicated National Collegiate Boxing Association rules Smith will make the trip to Miami after all. Even though Smith didn’t like how he got to nationals, he knows making a run will silence any doubters he has.
“I wish I could have earned it more than I did honestly, but I got a spot and that’s what counts,” Smith said. “I don’t care what anyone else thinks, because I know what I can do and I know what I have to do to win. Not winning regionals puts a little more pressure on me, but that gives me more reason to just train and fight harder once I get down there.”
To the 156-pound senior Johnny Aguilar, he gets a do over of last year’s disappointing first-round exit. Going into last year’s nationals, Aguilar admitted to not being in the best place mentally. He made it a point to fix that this year.
“I’m a lot more calm now,” Aguilar said. “This time last year I was a mess. Feeling nervous, sweaty hands, and just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Once I got into the fight I wasted a lot of my adrenaline and energy because I was too pumped. This year I’m excited, but I’m calm.”
Despite a meager 6-6 record for his career, Aguilar came on strong in regionals and is getting hot at the right time. His “problem solver” left hand helped him win three fights in three nights at regionals last month. That is giving him the confidence to make a deep run in nationals.
“[Aguilar] had three great fights in regionals, which should give him the confidence going in because he had a really tough road,” Schellin said. “It’s not going to get much tougher than that, so I think he’s got a really good shot.”
Both Smith and Aguilar, both are perceived as the Cinderella stories. The guys who can come out of nowhere and make a deep run. With only a couple years in the program, they are both still in the learning curve. They both are trying to live up to their full potential.
“They’re both trying to break out of whatever is holding them back, which is usually them thinking too much,” Schellin said. “They both have what it takes, because I see it every day in here. I see them go ‘whoa’ to themselves when they figure something out. It’s just different when someone is trying to take your head off, but they both have a chance.”
As for the sophomore and defending 185-pound national champion Garrett Felling, he has a chance to add another accolade to a career that is still in its infancy. Felling is currently boasting an undefeated record and is on track to have one of the best seasons in program history, but his current status doesn’t dictate how he preforms today.
“I’m just as hungry for that title this year as I was last year,” Felling said. “My past accomplishments don’t affect how I train in the present. I’m not the kind of guy who rests of his laurels.”
Felling always looks to add or work on something every time he spars. With a destructive left hook and the ability to just overpower an opponent, Felling has been using the month-long stint in between regionals and nationals to work on speed.
“Over the last couple weeks since regionals, I’ve been sparring with some of the littler guys to help me develop some speed. It helps me be more aware of my own footwork, head movement, and speed instead of just trying to power through and land a big shot. That’s really going to help me going into these fights.”
The little guy he faced was the tenacious Jarred Santos. On paper, this is a complete mismatch. Santos stands at 5-foot-8 132 pounds, while Felling towers over him at 6-foot-2 185 pounds.
However, Felling got everything he could handle. Santos backed Felling up against the ropes on more than one occasion and landed a couple right hands while negating Felling’s huge reach advantage. Santos darted around the ring forcing Felling to use his feet.
When the round was over and the coach told Santos to take a break, he almost staggered out of the ring. His face was flushed bright red and sweat came pouring down his face. The words he manages to string together through his mouth guard and in between meager sips of water were “I have no energy right now.” Their mentality is that they’re only as good as each other.
“They give me the best sparring I could possibly get and I give them the best sparring that I can possibly give,” Santos said. “The harder you spar, the better you’re going to fight. You’re only as good as your sparring partner, and we try and give each other the best we have.”
Each man going to nationals has his own aspirations of victory and claiming the title for personal glory, but those feelings come second. The goal for all five fighters is to win for each other. All the hard work combined with the physical and emotional strain that these guys go through helps develop camaraderie between them.
“You become a family when you’re in here,” Smith said. “It’s not like other sports where there are a lot of guys and you’re only close with a handful. Here there are only a handful of guys and you become best friends with all of them. You see them every day and you know that you wouldn’t be where you are in this sport without them. It’s a lot bigger than just yourself out there in the ring.”
Every fighter on the team has used words such as family, brothers, loyalty and love to describe this teams relationship with one another. Santos said that it was therapeutic to be able to talk to his team about his struggles, because he knows that they can relate. The famous words of Shakespeare’s play “Henry V” are synonymous with how this team feels about each other. “For he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother.”
The five fighters have been through everything together and have shed blood, sweat, and tears in the process. The opportunity to capture a national title in their respective weight classes is the pinnacle of the team’s success. Schellin expects that all five fighters are either national champions or runners-up. Regardless of who wins national championships this weekend for the Nevada boxing team, the whole team wins. The whole team is in one guy’s corner.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @NeilTheJuiceMan.