The tuxedo-clad Virginia men make their way into a jam-packed, adrenaline-filled Memorial Gymnasium. With dates on their arms, they hurry to find seats on the bleachers or standing room on the overhead track. The lights dim and a door swings open. A spotlight shines on sinewy figures emerging from the entrance. The crowd erupts.
But moments later, there are no cheers—only the sounds of fighting. As the combatants in the ring let loose with a barrage of haymakers, the fans are barred from uttering a peep. These are the rules of this “gentleman’s sport.” Only when the bell rings after the three-minute round can the onlookers react to what they have just witnessed.
And in those 1930s, what they saw was sheer domination.
In the history of UVA athletics, boxing is the only team to go undefeated in consecutive seasons—from 1932 to 1936 the team didn’t lose once. Then, less than two decades after those dazzling heights, the sport was knocked to the canvas. Boxing was demoted to an intramural sport, eventually disappearing altogether.
“It was a sad end to a proud tradition,” says Peter Schmidt (Col ’70, Darden ’74), who coached UVA’s final intramural teams in the mid-1980s.
Coach Johnny LaRowe built UVA into that national powerhouse. From 1932-36, UVA went 28-0-2, winning the Southern Conference tournament every year. As the football team struggled—it managed only two winning seasons during that decade—Grounds reveled in the boxing team’s glory.
“It was the sport at the University,” says former boxer Mortimer Caplin (Col ’37, Law ’40). “The student body turned out every week we had a bout. It was just filled to the roof.”
Fans became intoxicated by the action, according to Dr. John Risher (Col ’32, Med ’36). “Everyone loved it because we were winning,” he says.
At the heart of this success was LaRowe, a former Marine who ran a billiards parlor on the Corner. According to UVA historian Coy Barefoot (Grad ’97), word got around that LaRowe had experience in the sport, and students looking to form a team recruited him to be their coach. In 1922, LaRowe, with the help of jack-of-all-trades coach Henry “Pop” Lannigan, led Virginia to a win over Washington and Lee University.
The next year, competing in a makeshift ring constructed in Old Cabell Hall—a venue that was a fraction of the size of the football team’s home at Lambeth Field—Virginia went 4-0. To the delight of fans, the Cavaliers defeated VMI (twice), Washington and Lee, and MIT. “A wave of wild enthusiasm swept through the University during the boxing season, and over 2,500 people saw the three [home] meets,” reads a Corks & Curls recap of the 1923 season. “With the exception of football, the proportional attendance was greater than at any other sport during the entire year.”
When Memorial Gym opened in 1924, boxing really took off. Middleweight James A. Leftwich (Col ’25) was the star of those ’20s teams. “Lefty,” as he was known, lost just one match in his career and competed in the Olympics.
With a motto of “Fight your best but never foul,” LaRowe took the reins of the program in 1926. A year later, the sport received varsity status. That year, Virginia went 4-2 and won the inaugural Southern Conference boxing tournament, which was held at Memorial Gym and featured Virginia Tech, the University of North Carolina, the University of Florida and the University of Georgia.
Soon, Virginia would become one of the top teams in the country.
In 1928, a record-breaking 3,000 fans came out for the tournament, according to Corks & Curls. By 1929, the event had grown to nine schools, setting the stage for what would become one of the most impressive reigns by any UVA team, in any sport. The backdrop to the success was Mem Gym, which provided a home-court advantage similar to the one the UVA basketball team enjoys at John Paul Jones Arena today. According to lore, there was once a Harvard boxer who became so overwhelmed by the spectacle that he fainted. “They had to revive him so that he could box his match,” the 1970s-’80s coach Schmidt says.
During the action, though, fans had to be careful. If they cheered during the round, the ref could declare the opposing fighter the winner. Schmidt likes to tell the story of a fight his father, Ray Schmidt (Col ’39, Educ ’64), had against the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis in the late 1930s. A group of midshipmen gathered behind his father’s corner and were razzing him between rounds. Schmidt asked his trainer for water. Then, right as the bell sounded, the boxer spit it out at the midshipmen. “Since the round had just started, they couldn’t say a word,” Schmidt says, grinning. “They had to just sit there with water dripping off the brims of their caps. He just sort of winked at them and went out and did his thing.”
Coming out of high school, the elder Schmidt wanted to go to a university with a good boxing program. The Brooklyn, New York, native jumped at the chance to learn under LaRowe, who was known as “The Dean of College Boxing Coaches,” according to a 1941 Corks & Curls. Even though he didn’t attend UVA, LaRowe—who coached many matches from a wheelchair because of an unknown ailment—was beloved. “The whole gymnasium would stand up when he came in,” Caplin says. Then-Virginia President Edwin Alderman considered LaRowe much more than a coach. “You are developing the characters of the students,” he wrote LaRowe in a letter. “If any sport had to be dropped from the University’s athletic program, I assure you that boxing would be the last sport to be discontinued.”
Former Virginia Rector Gordon Rainey Jr. (Col ’62, Law ’67), whose father and uncle were UVA boxing captains in the 1930s, says LaRowe was the coaching gold standard. “[The boxers] were all devoted to Johnny LaRowe,” Rainey says. “They attributed all of their success to him.”
And there was plenty of success in those years—Gordon Rainey Sr. (Col ’34, Law ’37) won the Southern Conference championship in 1934; Schmidt won an NCAA championship in the light heavyweight division in 1937 in Sacramento, then did it again the next year when it was held at Mem Gym. Welterweight Maynard Harlow (Col ’38) also won an NCAA title that year.
Charlottesville had also become a boxing hotbed, with the best college fighters in the country coming to town for Olympic tryouts in 1937. The event attracted a number of celebrities, including retired professional heavyweight champion Gene Tunney, according to Corks & Curls.
But with the violent nature of the sport and the fact that fighters didn’t wear protective headgear, boxing had a darker side. One year, the 107-year-old Risher says, a boxer committed suicide. Also with their “cauliflower ears,” he says it was always easy to spot boxers around Grounds. While in medical school, Risher helped treat an assortment of injuries, which included broken noses and jaws.
One of the best fighters Risher says he ever saw was Ralph “Buddy” Shoaf (Educ ’50), who also played football. Risher took care of Shoaf after he broke his maxillary sinuses. “We told him he just couldn’t box anymore because another severe blow might hurt his eyesight,” Risher says. “We made him quit.”
Over the years, boxing began to lose its appeal. After LaRowe’s death in 1940 at the age of 73, the team’s performance gradually declined. Virginia’s last surge of excellence came in the late 1940s when Jim Miragliotta (Col ’49) and his two brothers led the Cavaliers to an Eastern Intercollegiate boxing tournament championship.
But UVA did not win a single match in 1954 or 1955, and the Board of Visitors decided—on Athletic Director Gus K. Tebell’s recommendation—to “abolish” boxing as a varsity sport and to place it at the intramural level, “conducted there with competent supervision.” At that point, boxing became almost exclusive to fraternities. Participants wore headgear and heavier gloves in an attempt to limit injuries.
Around the country, other universities were doing the same. “There was a lot of pressure from faculties,” according to Doug Moe, author of Lords of the Ring, a book about boxing’s rise and fall at the University of Wisconsin. “Boxing is the one sport where basically the sole objective is to go in and pummel somebody and hurt the opponent. Professors and others had always questioned whether that was a sport that should be sanctioned on college campuses.”
And boxing’s reputation at the professional level didn’t help matters, he says.
“It was associated with organized crime and gambling and that sort of thing,” Moe says. “The college game got linked to that—even though there really wasn’t much of a connection. Very few boxers went on to box professionally.”
Once schools began dropping boxing, the schools that hadn’t were forced to travel farther to find opponents, which became more expensive. The full demise of boxing as a varsity sport came in 1960 after a University of Wisconsin-Madison boxer died from a brain hemorrhage and the NCAA stopped sanctioning it, Moe says.
When Peter Schmidt arrived at UVA in 1966, he hadn’t planned on following in his father’s footsteps. However, with Zeta Psi fraternity requiring pledges to box or wrestle, he did just that. Schmidt says his matches were “nothing to write home about,” but he found the experience so rewarding that when he returned to work in Charlottesville in the late 1970s, he began helping out intramural Coach Billy Williams, eventually taking over for him.
In 1980, then-Virginia Assistant Dean of Students Peter Stoudt (Col ’75, Grad ’78), who had boxed at UVA as a student, organized the first intercollegiate intramural match against Lehigh University.
Over the next few years, UVA intramural champions would face their counterparts from other universities, though these Cavaliers didn’t enjoy anything close to the fanfare that their predecessors had.
Then, suddenly, with no official explanation, boxing was gone. Schmidt says UVA’s intramural director simply told him in the mid-’80s that the sport wasn’t going to be offered anymore. He says he believes it was part of a University-wide initiative to mitigate risk.
Schmidt was at the helm for Virginia’s last-ever match against VMI and Navy in what he recalls was spring of 1985. “It broke my heart,” says Schmidt, remembering the final bell. “I was really disappointed when they did away with it. It had a compelling history at the University, but I understood why they did it. There was just not resounding support for it.”
Today, a handful of schools, including UNC, compete as club teams in the National Collegiate Boxing Association, which is largely dominated by the armed forces—but the sport has nowhere near the cachet that it did in its heyday.
Caplin, now 100, served as a beach master during the Normandy invasion, and was President John F. Kennedy’s IRS Commissioner. He even made the cover of Time. But he still gets very excited when he talks about the powerful 1930s UVA teams he boxed on.
“We were,” he says, “such winners.”