Retro: Duke's boxing team

It didn't last long but it wasn't lightweight

Several years ago, I came upon striking photographic negatives of Duke students… boxing? Was that a real thing? A little research in the University Archives revealed a short but remarkable athletic program—one worth remembering.

Boxing first became popular at Duke in the 1910s. At the cornerstone-laying of the new gymnasium (now Brodie Recreation Center) in 1920, boxing was demonstrated as part of the festivities. The gym was even built with boxing spaces included. Team boxing began at Duke in 1928 but revved up when boxing champ Addison “Add” Warren was hired as coach in 1931. Warren had been a champion boxer at UNC, holding both the heavyweight and light heavyweight national intercollegiate titles (boxing was not an NCAA sport until 1932), and after graduating, he boxed professionally until he broke his arm. As the coach of boxing, he began to recruit local students as well as those from farther afield.

The Duke team began to win more matches, becoming state champions in 1933. In 1935, the Chanticleer yearbook noted that under Warren, boxing was “rapidly advancing to the point where it will threaten the major sports in popularity and interest.” In 1936, Ray Matulewicz ’37 and Danny Farrar ’38 were the first two Duke students to win individual national championships in any sport. Matulewicz repeated the feat in 1937. Farrar and Matulewicz are both recognized in the Duke Athletics Hall of Fame for their milestone accomplishments.

Both men, along with fellow Duke boxer Al Mann ’37, competed in the Olympic trials for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Matulewicz made it to the final but lost in a controversial decision. Nevertheless, The News & Observer reported that “he made such a fine impression on the Chicago fight experts and on John Berhne, coach of the U.S. Team, that he was invited back to the final trials…there is a movement on foot to take the Duke boy along as the 17th member of the U.S. team.” Indeed, he was chosen as an alternate on the U.S. team but did not get the opportunity to compete.

Matulewicz became a professional boxer under the name Mat Raymond after graduating in 1937. Warren served as his manager. Before a match in Madison Square Garden, Raymond memorably put lead weights under a carpenter’s apron to qualify as a heavyweight—the division with the largest purse. He fought impressively for several years, and at the conclusion of his career, Mat Raymond was ranked sixth in the world.

Coach Warren was a well-liked member of the Duke community, praised by his boxers for his support and optimism. The Chronicle noted in 1940 that “Add himself is rapidly becoming a campus tradition. His unfailing good humor and his readiness to talk on any subject under the sun have made him known to nearly every student.” In his book The Six-Minute Fraternity: The Rise and Fall of NCAA Tournament Boxing, E.C. Wallenfeldt conveys a story, or perhaps a legend. At a party at the Washington Duke Hotel following a match with the University of Virginia, Warren drank a bit too much and began using “loud and graphic profanity.” UVA’s coach quietly asked him to stop, and “Add, in a reaction of mortification, moved to the center of the suite and announced, ‘I hear that I have been using bad language, so I want to apologize and say I am sorry to all you bastards!’ ”

In 1940, the team had a record of several lackluster seasons with no standout stars. Boxing was criticized as a sport that invited injury to student- athletes, and indeed, the Duke boxers suffered broken bones and concussions. The Chronicle reported: “Conference officials…have recently commented upon the growing tendency to turn conference bouts into slug fests, rather than into exhibitions of the fine art of boxing.” In March 1940, the Duke Athletic Council unanimously voted to discontinue boxing, to the disappointment of Warren and many students. The Chronicle announced the decision with the pithy headline “Boxing KO’d by Council Yesterday.” At the same meeting, the council added a sport that had been played unofficially for two years and was increasingly popular: lacrosse.

Duke’s boxing program existed only for twelve years but produced Duke’s first NCAA champions. The photos from the 1930s not only help us learn about the team but also give us a sense of what it must have been like, crowding around a small basement ring and watching bygone Blue Devils “duke” it out.

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