I arrive at 7 p.m. and check the address to make sure I'm in the right place. The flickering glow of a 7/11 sign faintly illuminates the abandoned cheesesteak shop and dry cleaner in this stripped down strip mall. The only clue is a cardboard sign advertising 'Evanston Ultimate Fitness' in 1950's–themed red lettering. It hangs on a non–descript vestibule that reeks of cigarette smoke and looks like mold.
But it's here, I soon learn, in a cramped gym above an Emerson Street dry cleaner, that a tight–knit group of Northwestern students practice a sport most of the country has largely turned its back on: boxing.
In the studio, an uncanny amalgam of former high school boxers, fitness fiends and ex–athletes have found catharsis in the unparalleled workout.
"In boxing, I've had to push through workouts I didn't think I can make it through," said Weinberg sophomore Jasmin Williams, who also plays club softball and basketball. "I've had to punch the bags for longer than I thought I could, had to feel my muscles giving out on me while I'm in the ring sparring."
Communication junior Sean Oliver came to Northwestern as a defensive back on the football team. After a heart condition robbed him of a chance to start for the Wildcats, boxing became his sole athletic outlet.
"I wouldn't quite say the intensity is as high as a D–1 football program, but then again, I don't think you can expect that," Oliver said. "But as far as club sports goes, I think this is as intense as it gets."
He found camaraderie similar to a varsity football squad as well. During practice, veterans dispense advice freely to newcomers. They hold informal meet-ups – a viewing at party at JT's Bar and Grill for the Mayweather–Pacquiao fight, a Dillo Day brunch – and create friendly nicknames for themselves. Weinberg senior Ben Bloch, 6'3 and 220 pounds but with a disarming ear–to–ear beard, goes by "Bear Jew." McCormick junior Reanna Durbin is "Roller Durby."
"It's having another group of friends to hang out with," Durbin said. "And then we also share the passion and that's going to bring people together."
A select number have found an element even deeper. NU Boxfit members do not spar as part of practice, focusing instead on conditioning and technique. But each year, a handful of players train and compete in the ring as members of Evanston Ultimate Fitness. For these few – approximately 10 out of roughly 20 'A team' members, according to captain and McCormick senior John Qian – sparring provides an unmatched mental and physical challenge. As a junior, Erica Rodriguez (SESP '14) won the Chicago Golden Gloves, one of the 'Big Three' amateur tournaments in the country.
"You get in the ring, there's nothing in between you and the other person." Rodriguez said. "Whatever you put into it is what you get out. It's like the rawest, purest, realest experience you can have."
Since its inception in 2006, Northwestern Boxfit – originally known as Northwestern Boxing Club – has provided students with exhaustive CrossFit style workouts, self-defense training and a unique social niche. But as Northwestern Boxfit celebrates its 10th anniversary, it does so knowing that there may not be an 11th. With national concern for concussions growing, Boxfit finds itself standing alongside the NFL at the center of a heated national debate over youth safety in contact sports, and Northwestern University threatens to shut the longstanding club down.
The potential end of Northwestern Boxfit began with the name: "Boxing Club." Last year, Northwestern conducted a safety and liability review of all 45 club sports. Most came back without a hitch, but the review board took issue with a university–sponsored boxing club. At issue was the most sensational aspect of boxing: the knockout.
"We do not really want to be associated with a sport that, as part of its scoring, encourages concussions," said Dan Bulfin, director of recreational sports for Northwestern. "And unlike other sports, this is one sport that actually has a point system that encourages people to do that."
Statistically, amateur boxing produces fewer head injuries than mainstream sports like football and soccer. Rodriguez, captain at the time, presented this case to the board, pointing out how the university supported these unsafe-in-comparison sports. She and other team members say they have never seen an injury worse than a bloody nose.
Northwestern argued that wasn’t the point. It was about a perceived liability, Bulfin said. A boxing club with Northwestern’s name on it indicated that the university tacitly supported a sport whose objective is to inflict a head injury. Parents could sue the school if someone was hurt. He cited lawsuits escalating into the millions.
Luke Runion is the head of the U.S. Intercollegiate Boxing Association, the largest collegiate boxing league in the country. He argues that Northwestern’s view conflates the dangerous professional pay–per–view fights with amateur boxing. Amateur boxing has equipment – 16 ounce gloves, a mouthpiece, headgear – and a culture of safety. A contingency of supervisors, including doctors, referees and coaches, will stop a fight immediately if someone gets hurt.
"The nature of amateur boxing is not to get a knockout," Runion said. "It's a possibility, but more often than not a fight gets stopped because of a mismatch or someone gets hits hard and concussions are treated immediately. [Boxers] can be prevented from going back to play, whereas the culture in other sports is get back in the game."
After months of debate, Rodriguez and the school reached an agreement: Northwestern Boxing Club just had to change their name. It became Northwestern Boxfit, emphasizing the conditioning aspect of the club. They rewrote the constitution. The university couldn’t stop students from sparring on their own time, as members of Evanston Ultimate Fitness, but those that did needed their own insurance and could not show any university affiliation.
Northwestern called it a compromise. Students remained bitter.
"We are not boxing fitness," Rodriguez said, "Even though it's a non–contact club, like during practice there's no contact, we are doing drills and exercises, but we are not like a fitness class, we are learning boxing."
At the same time that Northwestern Boxfit was fighting for legitimacy, a similar discussion was taking place just five miles down the road. A group of Loyola University students petitioned their school to recognize them as an official club sport that allows sparring. Loyola had the opposite reaction of Northwestern: according to Meghan Morris, director of club sports, Loyola saw no difference between boxing and the other contact sports. Loyola Boxing Club officially began training in October, and they start competing next year.
Northwestern is quickly finding itself in the minority. Even before the Mayweather–Pacquiao fight refocused national attention to a long overlooked sport – both to its attractiveness and its violence – amateur boxing was experiencing a revival on college campuses. The USIBA began in 2012 with 20 member schools. Now they have over 40.
Boxfit members continued to resent the change, but for a year, a tense peace held. Approximately 100 people showed up for their annual fall tryout. They continued workouts: three times a week at Blomquist and SPAC for 30–40 ‘B team’ members and twice a week at Evanston Ultimate Fitness for 10 to 20 ‘A team’ members. A handful of members like Qian and Bloch trained and sparred on their own time.
Then, sometime in the middle of May, a student showed up at University Health services with a head injury, claiming he had been boxing. Northwestern called Qian in for a meeting, and Boxfit’s survival was, again, in jeopardy.
Qian claims he asked the entire team and says the student wasn’t affiliated with Northwestern Boxfit. He says Northwestern is unfairly punishing Boxfit for someone who was fighting recklessly. In an email to the university, he presented a case that this injury actually supports the need for Northwestern to recognize the club.
"It’s pretty unfair if were getting in trouble for something we didn’t do," Qian said in an interview. "If anything, if people are boxing or sparring in their backyards, we think they should be doing it in under supervision, in a safe environment, rather than hurting themselves."
Northwestern declined to comment specifically on the recent flare up, but said that there had been reports of repeated "non–compliance" with last year’s agreement. There have been incidents of Boxfit presenting themselves as boxing club – which Qian admits – and Northwestern questions to what extent practicing off campus leads to sparring.
Eventually, Northwestern's demand was to move all practices where Blomquist or SPAC, where university officials can supervise and make sure no one is sparring. But to Qian and much of Boxfit, that would mean the end of the club. Northwestern lacks the instructors or the equipment for any type of real boxing training. Practices would just be conditioning.
"Without a boxing coach or boxing gym, we would just be 'NU exercising club,'" Rodriguez wrote in a Facebook message. "Which [I] guess is what they have been trying to do to us for a long time."
And for Qian, that could quell the shared passion and spell the end for the camaraderie upon which the team is built.
"I’ve been a part of this team since freshman year. Before me. there were a lot of other people who have really cared about the club," Qian said. "This year has been our best year in terms of how strong the team is, how close we are as a group and I only see that going uphill from now. It would be sad for me to see one of the best club sports on campus go."
The fate of NU Boxfit remains in limbo. Qian is hoping to be officially recognized as a boxing club, but Bulfin said that such an agreement would not free Northwestern of liability – their chief concern.
"Basically we’re going to get this license, or this will mean the end of anything that resembles real boxing at Northwestern," Qian said.