The punch that ended varsity college boxing was a classic right hand delivered to the left temple of a beloved Badger boxer named Charlie Mohr. It happened 50 years ago Friday.
On April 9, 1960, the University of Wisconsin was hosting the final night of the NCAA boxing tournament. The site was the Field House, which over the previous 25 years had regularly been filled with up to 15,000 fans.
College boxing was enormously popular in Madison. The NCAA had an annual bracketed tournament, in the manner of the basketball tournament today, and UW had won eight of them. The team trophy was named for John Walsh, the Badgers’ longtime coach.
The Field House crowd the night of April 9, 1960, was around 10,000. It was the smallest final night crowd of any NCAA tournament Madison had hosted, reflecting a decline in boxing’s popularity on college campuses across the country.
Although college boxers wore head gear, used padded gloves and fought only three two-minute rounds, the sport had been attacked as barbaric and inappropriate for good universities. In 1959, Sports Illustrated ran a piece on the problems facing college boxing. It was titled “You could blame it on the moms.”
Still, if the sport thrived anywhere by April 1960, it was Madison. The 10,000 fans in the Field House the night of April 9 made a lot of noise, especially as Badger boxers won some early bouts. It developed that if Charlie Mohr, the defending NCAA champion at 165 pounds, could win his fight against Stu Bartell of San Jose State, the Badgers would capture their ninth NCAA team championship.
Mohr was as popular as any Badger boxer, ever, and that was saying something. Past UW fighters included heroes like Woody Swancutt, who later helped initiate the Strategic Air Command, and bruisers like Omar Crocker, who lost only one bout in his entire career.
Mohr was from New York City, the son of a meat cutter. Once he arrived in Madison, it was impossible to find anyone with a bad word to say about him.
He worked at Paisan’s and helped with Mass at church on Sundays. Capital Times columnist Bonnie Ryan called Mohr “handsome, gentle and soft spoken. Charlie had a way about him that made you feel that you were the best friend he had in the world. It wouldn’t be amiss to say that Charlie had more genuine friends in Madison than anybody else.”
He was also a gifted boxer, though by the 1960 season some felt Mohr was having doubts about the sport. Elliott Maraniss of The Capital Times would later report that Mohr had been treated for depression prior to the 1960 season. In April 2000, Jim Doherty went more in depth in a Smithsonian magazine article on the 40th anniversary of the Mohr-Bartell bout.
Whatever his mind-set, Mohr was fighting for a championship that night. In the second round he fell to the canvas after a hard punch from Bartell. Mohr got to his feet, but the referee soon stopped the fight.
It was minutes later, in the locker room, that Mohr slipped off a stool and into a coma. He was taken by ambulance to UW Hospital.
As Mohr’s life hung in the balance, the critics of college boxing rallied. Proponents of the sport — including John Walsh and his successor as UW coach, Vernon Woodward — spoke passionately of the discipline and self-reliance young men learned through boxing.
Few listened. In the weeks ahead, the UW faculty voted to abolish boxing. The NCAA canceled its annual tournament.
Other factors contributed, but that right hand that knocked Charlie Mohr to the canvas was the blow that ended college boxing.
As years passed, some boxing advocates — who could point out, correctly, that two Badger football players suffered fatal injuries on the field — contended that Mohr had really not been hit that hard the night of April 9, 1960.
I once watched a tape of the bout, in the company of the Madison boxing trainer Bob Lynch. Lynch was in the crowd that night 50 years ago. Watching the tape and seeing Mohr fall, he said quietly, “It was a classic right hand.”
Within minutes, Mohr was in a coma. He died eight days later, on Easter.