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Ringside since 1920
The joy of jabbingTommy Rawson pummels the speed bag at Malkin Athletic Center. Photograph by Jim Harrison
The left jab is no longer quick, and the uppercut lacks its former power, but at 90 years of age, the old guy can still tattoo that speed bag at a nice rhythm. As he moves into his tenth decade, Tommy Rawson remains the sole mentor of the Harvard Boxing Club, whose acolytes call him, simply, "Coach." Having instructed Harvard pugilists since 1941, Rawson has earned the epithet, and earns it still: he is at Malkin Athletic Center five afternoons a week, from 3 to 5:30, teaching "the sweet science" to his charges. "He never stops pushing you," says Joy Liu '99, president of the boxing club. "There are new people coming in every day, wanting to learn--no one has any prior experience--and you'd think he might not have time for the rest of us. But when I'm hitting the bag, Coach always comes by, showing me how to fix my technique, how to clean everything up."
The boxing club has about two dozen members who practice regularly and an equal number who show up on a more erratic basis. Five are female. Some new recruits are borne in by the sport's recent upsurge as a fitness pursuit. "It's definitely trendy," says Liu. "The New York Sports Clubs are a chain with about 30 clubs in New York City, and every club has a little corner with a speed bag, some gloves. Lots of places offer boxerobics classes, or kick-boxing."
Rawson has no problem with the renewed popularity of boxing, but he has seen many phases come and go; he even remembers when boxing was an intercollegiate sport at Harvard. From 1930 to 1937, Crimson pugilists compiled an overall record of 25-11-4 against opponents from Dartmouth, Yale, and MIT. "You had to get to the bouts a couple of hours early to get a seat," he recalls. "The rules prohibited infighting--you had to box at a distance." In 1937 boxing became an intramural sport at Harvard. Today the Ivy League has no varsity boxing teams, nor any matches between colleges; only Harvard, Columbia, and Dartmouth offer it as a club sport. "I'm teaching them the art of self-defense," says Rawson. "It's not to make fighters out of them. But some of them want to fight, to go to the Golden Gloves. If they want to, they can get an amateur card and box."
One who went to the Golden Gloves was the 5-foot, 10-inch Liu, who took up boxing as a sophomore and won the 1998 Golden Gloves championship in Lowell, taking honors in the women's 139-pound light-welterweight class against an opponent who was "a slugger," in Rawson's description. He contrasts that style to Liu's dexterity with the jab: "Joy jabbed her brains out!"
As a competitor, Rawson was a champion himself as a 135-pound lightweight. His father was an accomplished boxer who taught the sport at the Boys Club in Charlestown, Massachusetts. "When I was 12 or 13 years old I'd go there after school and box with different young fellows," Rawson says. "I learned the ropes that way." He also played football in the days before face masks, and broke his nose twice. "My mother raised the devil and said, 'No more football!'" Rawson recalls, so the boy turned to the ring. "When I was 16, I started boxing as an amateur in places like Fall River, New Bedford, New Hampshire, Lowell. Usually on a Friday or Saturday night--not a school night."
In 1929 Rawson won the national amateur lightweight championship in the new Chicago Stadium. "Gene Autry opened the show with a rodeo," Rawson recalls. "And Al Capone was at ringside--he had two rows." Later that year Rawson turned professional, and over the next 12 years compiled an 89-6 record in the ring. During the Depression, he was able to win purses as large as $1, 400 for a 12-round bout in Boston Garden. Training included runs of eight to 10 miles along the coastline. "I worked like a dog and I was always in good shape," he says. "I try to pass that on."
Many of the boxing-club members do concentrate on fitness, profiting from classic pugilistic training like jumping rope and hitting the heavy bag and speed bag. Liu is the only female member who actually spars. Sometimes fellow students have trouble taking in the realities of boxing, and assume that Liu is practicing boxerobics: "Do you hit people?" they ask. Yes, she does. "It's a thrill, to give somebody a nice stiff jab," Liu explains, laughing. "You can feel it connect, feel their head go back. It's satisfying."
Tommy Rawson quit the ring in 1941 when his wife didn't want him to box any more. He owned a trucking company and began coaching at Harvard. Nowadays he gets out on the golf course regularly and is proud of his two holes-in-one. Rawson remains trim and looks exceptionally fit in a Harvard Boxing Club T-shirt, which bears a quotation from Virgil: "Now whoever has courage and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forward, lace on the gloves, and put up his hands."
His own strong and collected spirit has made Rawson a beloved figure to many in the boxing world; in November, more than 300 attended a celebration of his ninetieth birthday, sponsored by USA Boxing New England, that included a dinner at Boston's Tremont House Hotel and a pugilistic exhibition by the U.S. Marine Corps boxing team from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and top amateur boxers from New England. "I was completely surprised," Rawson says. "I thought I was going to a fight, where I was going to take a bow. There were a bunch of kids from Harvard there, all in dress suits. Joy was there in a beautiful gown. It was a wonderful evening." Furthermore, two of the guests in attendance that night offer evidence that Rawson's physical prowess and penchant for teaching run in the family. They are his younger sister, Ann, who is 87, and his older sister, Frances, 92. Both teach ballroom dancing at a large church in West Roxbury.
~ Craig Lambert
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