The first sign that a big show is about to happen are the large, yellow school buses pulling off Clinton Highway one by one and reassembling in a line on the curb outside the cavernous Knoxville Expo Center. This is usually a place where buyers and traders gather on weekend afternoons for gun shows and flea markets. But it is 7:30 p.m. on a cold Saturday night in February, and these buses aren’t filled with bargain hunters looking to cut a deal.
Stumbling out of the buses in a raucous deluge, dozens of fraternity brothers and sorority sisters head toward the entrance, followed closely behind by thousands of other onlookers flooding the parking lot and stretching its 1,200 car spaces to near capacity. The event staff at the doors is soon overrun as the crowd pushes and squeezes its way inside to a scene illuminated by overhead industrial lights: food and drink vendors to the left, port-a-potties in the distance, and bleachers encircling a red-and-white boxing at the center of it all.
It is finally time.
Boxing Weekend, a tradition of fraternity boxing more than 30 years in the making and self-proclaimed by Southeastern fraternities and organizers as “the biggest party weekend in the South,” is nearing its climax. For the next two hours, fraternity brothers from 14 of the 17 IFC chapters at the University of Tennessee will thrash and pound each other’s faces before dispersing with the crowds for after-parties around the city.
After two evenings of elimination bouts, the 65 boxers who started the tournament are whittled down to only a fraction of that number. In a curtained-off area in the corner of the Expo Center, the boxers pace anxiously, only a few feet away from the spectators who are finding their spots on the concrete floor, in the bleachers, and along the sides of the ring. Most of the boxers have their earbuds plugged into their phones, listening to music. Some are hitting mitts or shadowboxing—the typical sort of preparation that combat-sports fans see all the time on television broadcasts. But these boxers don’t quite look to be muscle-bound destroyers like Mike Tyson or George Foreman; they actually come in all shapes and sizes, from 125-pound featherweights to 200-plus-pound super heavyweights. What they don’t share in appearance, they share in nerves, which are obvious in the quiet of their pre-fight rituals.
At 8:09 p.m., longtime ringmaster Chuck Cavalaris enters through the ropes of the ring and takes center stage, microphone in hand. At the same time, a handful of the 30 police officers patrolling the tournament clear pathways toward the back of the packed building, where spectators block the flow of human traffic. The crowd rumbles as it squeezes in closer, pressing against the metal barricades that seperates the enthusiastic hordes from the ring.
“Welcome to the championship night of fights at the 36th Ace Miller Memorial Boxing Tournament!” Cavalaris shouts, his voice almost instantly muted by the roars and chants that fill the arena.
After the national anthem, the speakers play “Rocky Top” and the thousands in the crowd bellow loudly in unison. These are the only two times of the night the men and women standing on the 10 sets of bleachers sectioned off for the different fraternities in the tournament shout with and not at each other.
As the boxers make their way to the ring, there are cheers of encouragement from their fraternity brothers: “You’ve got this,” and “Fuck him up”—as well as a torrent of middle fingers and derogatory chants shouted from those of different fraternal bloodlines. The tension grows with each win as one of the fraternities gets closer to the coveted place of overall tournament champion.
But there’s a lot more on the line here than title belts and bragging rights. While Boxing Weekend’s great appeal to both fighters and spectators may be its three nights of action and after-parties, the fraternity boxing tournament is also the improbable champion of a longstanding beacon of hope for inner-city Knoxville youths: the Ace Miller Golden Gloves Arena.
Jerry “Ace” Miller, for whom the tournament has been named since his passing on the opening day of the 2012 tournament, took control of Knoxville’s chapter of the national Golden Gloves organization back in 1971. A renowned local boxing aficionado, Miller was in John Tate’s corner the famous night that he won the WBA Heavyweight Championship belt in 1979. One year later, three members of the local Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chapter approached Miller with the unusual request to start a boxing tournament at his gym.
“When we first did the tournament, Dad thought this would never last,” says Tracy Miller-Davis, who took over as tournament director and general manager of Ace Miller Golden Gloves Arena when her father died. “Each year as the crowds got bigger he would look at my Aunt Regina [Odom] from ringside and say, ‘This is my last year. We’re never gonna be able to do it again.’ But the people always came back and the support kept growing.”
By the time she was 12 years old, Miller-Davis already helped to sell popcorn and Coca Colas at the tournament. She shadowed her dad, unknowingly preparing herself to take up the reigns when he died of a heart attack at the age of 72.
“It’s an all family affair,” says Miller-Davis, who runs the tournament alongside her mother, Dianna Miller, who’s in charge of bookkeeping and registrations, and Aunt Regina, chief clerk.
“My dad loved these college kids so much and this tournament was a big highlight for him every year. He had everything set-up on autopilot. The family just kicked it into gear and kept going.”
As the Miller family plays a key role in the tournament, the fraternities also play an important part in keeping Knoxville Golden Gloves alive. Miller-Davis prefers not to talk numbers, but she acknowledges that even with the support the gym receives from the city of Knoxville Parks and Recreation Department, which provides the building and pay for trainers, it could not survive without the boxing tournament.
An excerpt from the letter she wrote for the event guide on Thursday night reads:
“Without the benefits of this tournament, the ‘Ace’ Miller Golden Gloves Gym could not continue to fund the mission statement that my dad lived more than 45 years striving to accomplish…He wanted to provide [kids] a safe place to go and assure them that when they were there, they were important and loved…[a] place where they could go for FREE so that everyone was welcomed without being turned away. Thanks to the support from this special tournament, BOXING WEEKEND, all of his dreams will continue to come true.”
With its annual profits, the tournament raises enough money buy new equipment, support three other boxing clubs in Newport, Wartburg, and Monroe County, and to register and travel a team of 12 boxers and their trainers from the region—East Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia—to the national Golden Gloves tournament in Las Vegas each year. Most importantly, it keeps the local boxing program free for 50 male and female boxers who range in age from 8 to 34 years old. And for six weeks every year, the gym is invaded by comparatively affluent fraternity members, a sharp juxtaposition to Golden Glove’s everyday boxers, but a welcome addition that helps prop up the program year-round.
Many of these kids come from difficult backgrounds. There are the threats of gang activity, crime, and poverty. The closest high school, Austin-East, is among the lowest performing in Knox County, with more than 60 percent of students rated at “not proficient” in the subjects of Algebra and English by the U.S. News and World Report’s education rankings.
Boxing is an outlet and a place of hope and success for youth like LeMichael Moulden, a 14-year-old with 12 amateur bouts who trains at the gym and who says he “wants to go far so he can make a better life for his family.” Miller-Davis says seeing the UT students train at the gym provides the kids in the program with the inspiration to stay in school and earn college degrees. A handful of the teenagers are even in the boxers’entourages as they enter the ring during the tournament.
Charlie Lindeman, executive director of Boxing Weekend, says that the 2016 goal for the entire event is to break last year’s record of 4,000 in attendance and $206,000 gross revenue (all of which is donated to Golden Gloves Charities). By championship night, he says more than 6,000 people bought tickets and revenues easily top $250,000.
By that point the tournament can already be considered a success for the Boxing Weekend and Golden Gloves staff. But even with the signs of good things to come outside of the ring, there are still 13 champions left to be crowned inside of it.
Three weeks before the tournament, the boxers gather together in a weekly ritual at Ace Miller Golden Gloves Arena for a typical night of training.
Trainers start workouts with four rounds of jumping rope to condition the boxers’ bodies for the three rounds they’ll put in on each night of the tournament. Shadowboxing follows, with boxers throwing punches, shifting their weight, and dodging imaginary fists in front of mirrors to make sure that they don’t lose balance and trip over themselves. In the corners hang speed bags and heavy bags where they work a variety of attacks: jabs, crosses, hooks, uppercuts, combinations.
The bags are where the gap in knowledge is most obvious, as many of the fraternity boxers swing too hard and lose their footing or tire quickly and forget to bring their hands back to protect their faces. It is okay then since the bags don’t hit back, but in sparring—practice bouts to test the skills they’ve accrued and see how they work under pressure—the ones who don’t cover up gift their jaws as landing strips for their partner’s punches.
Garrett Froula, a biosystems engineering major and member of the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, walks from one set of bags to another and pounds into the vinyl with his muscular, bodybuilder’s arms. His physique and power tells of some experience, but he is actually competing in the tournament for the first and last time.
“I just wanted to step up to the plate as a senior and represent my fraternity the best I can,” Froula says. “I want to show what Lambda Chi really means in terms of our toughness and our work ethic.”
Many of the boxers repeat similar lines. They fight for their fraternities, not for themselves.
Colin Skinner, a real estate agent with Realty Executives and member of the suspended Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, competed in the tournament in 2011 and says boxing for the honor of one’s symbols is expected for fraternity brothers. It is a sentiment passed down from generation to generation.
“Before and during the tournament, the older brothers are guiding you the entire way,” Skinner says. “And they teach you how important it is to uphold the name on your chest, not the name on the back of the shirt. When we trained, it was really obvious that this was something much bigger than just us.”
In Skinner’s opinion, this boxing inheritance is partly the reason for the intensity of the chants heard on fight nights. While shouts of “He’s a pussy” or “Fuck [insert fraternity name]” are ubiquitous and generic, there are more complex chants that unaffiliated spectators miss.
“Some of these guys have no actual idea what Kappa Sig or Lamda Chi were like 10 years ago,” Skinner says. “But the boxing tournament preserves the stories and stigmas and clichés. If it weren’t for the tournament, those histories just get lost. There are legends that get passed on, like college football for the SEC—the tournament does the same for the Greek community.”
Being in Pi Kappa Alpha, which was suspended in 2012 following the infamous “buttchugging” allegations, Skinner empathizes with the frustrations shared by Froula and two other members of his fraternity who must box independently in the tournament after the Lambda Chi Alpha board of directors decided to suspend the UT chapter for five years in February.
“For many of these fraternity brothers, it’s the first time they’ve found an identity, so it’s hard when you have that plucked away,” Skinner says. “But it’s incredible how guys bond together when the chips are down. I’m sure these Lambda Chi guys will grow closer and be better for it. PIKE [Pi Kappa Alpha] is still something that lives deep within me, beyond what the university or what the public thinks.”
Despite everything at stake, not every boxer views the glory of potentially becoming a champion the same.
There are some like Trent Bibee, the defending middleweight champion from Alpha Gamma Rho, who was one of the few competitors to knock his opponent out cold last year.
“I blinked and the guy wasn’t standing in front of me anymore,” Bibee explains, politely adding “sir” at the end of his sentences. “When I looked down the crowd just erupted. That was almost a better feeling than when I won.”
Bibee keeps a photo of the championship belt as the wallpaper on his cell phone, displaying it with pride to whoever asks. He started training back in October to make sure he was ready to prove last year’s title was no fluke. In the gym, he offers advice to his two fraternity brothers as they run through drills, mimicking his trainer Jay Dudley, who he says reminds him of the Mickey Goldmill character from the Rocky films. (Bibee will later lose to Chase Davidson of Alpha Tau Omega during a qualifying round Friday night, a major upset.)
Longtime trainers like Dudley and Jack Rose number about a dozen in total, and provide vital wisdom and experience for these mostly new boxers.
One of the veteran trainers, Judge Hill, has taught boxing at Golden Gloves since the 1970s. Hill worked the first fraternity event in 1980, then called simply the SAE Boxing Tournament. Like “Ace” Miller, Hill was in the corner of former Olympic bronze medalist John Tate, who trained at the same gym off Magnolia Avenue, when he won the heavyweight title against Gerrie Coetzee in South Africa.
“Take it easy, Big John,” Hill was quoted saying to Tate in a 1979 Sports Illustrated article. “Don’t get all fired up. Don’t forget the battle plan.”
Although the words are different now, Hill speaks in the same manner to his latest protégé, Mitchell Sexton of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, as he spars in the ring with a fraternity brother.
“Boxing is relaxation to me,” Hill says, taking a break from softly shouting instructions to Sexton, but still keeping his eyes on the boxer. “It’s like a man going out and playing golf. It unwinds me at night.”
Sexton is SAE’s great hope in the tournament and one of the boxers competing for a chance at entering the Hall of Fame. Since 1986, there have been 29 men to earn this exclusive honor, reserved for boxers who win three tournaments in at least two different weight classes.
But, unlike Bibee, Froula, and Mitchell Nguyen (who says winning a belt for Sigma Chi “is everything” for him) Sexton is remarkably cool about it all. The lanky light heavyweight is kind of a goofball and almost unconcerned about collecting his third championship.
“I went to the tournament freshman year and it seemed kinda…wait, can I take my mouthpiece out?” Sexton asks, still in his headgear and gloves from sparring a few minutes earlier. “It looked pretty fun.”
But Sexton’s unruffled demeanor should not be mistaken for dullness. Sexton is an industrial and systems engineering major, but in the ring he looks like a killer, using his long arms to hit his opponent with stinging punches, leaving them with their gloves up to protect their chins as he bounces around picking his next shot. When Hill shouts a direction, he responds instinctually, a trait even more noticeable at the tournament itself.
Sexton didn’t put his championship belts anywhere special like Bibee. They’re both in the playroom at his house back in Memphis. He doesn’t watch any boxing, either, but he saw Conor McGregor of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) fame fight in the summer and thought he was entertaining. If Bibee ends most of his sentences with “sir,” Sexton ends them with “I don’t know,” followed by a wide grin.
“Winning is honestly more of a relief than anything,” Sexton explains. “Ahh, it’s over finally. You’re up there in front of a lot of people and, you’re not necessarily nervous, but you’re anxious. When you win it kinda relieves the anxiousness and you can get back to focusing on school and everything else.”
The honesty and vulnerability in Sexton’s words is somewhat surprising. There’s no bravado, even though he’s way ahead of most other boxers in terms of skill and composure in the ring.
At weigh-ins the Sunday before the tournament, Sexton’s delivery is much the same.
Most fighters are dehydrated as they undergo physicals with Golden Gloves staff and step on the scales to make weight. One boxers wears a garbage bag as he runs on a treadmill to sweat out the final 2 pounds he needs to make his original weight class, even as trainers urge him to just accept that he’ll need to move up one division.
In most combat sports, weight cutting is a staple. A combatant sheds anywhere from 10 to 30 pounds through intense dieting and intentionally dehydrating themselves hours before stepping onto the scale to give themselves a size advantage against their opponents. The idea is to maximize a height and natural weight advantage by fitting into a smaller fighter’s division, then rehydrating up to your natural weight by fight time. This is no different when it comes to fraternity boxing—another tradition that is passed down from older brothers along with links to online instructions like “How To Lose 20-30 Pounds In 5 Days: The Extreme Weight Cutting and Rehydration Secrets of UFC Fighters.”
Nguyen cut 25 pounds in two-and-a-half weeks to make the 125-pound featherweight limit and felt so bad that he consulted a doctor who told him he had ate away much of his muscle and practically “destroyed his body.” Back in 2011, Skinner cut 30 pounds and was so exhausted by the process that he could barely make it up The Hill to get to class in the cold winter weather.
Sexton looks fine at weigh-ins, but he also dropped from 200 pounds to 182 in six weeks and hasn’t eaten a single thing since morning when he makes weight at just after 2 p.m. The first thought on his mind is to get some of the Thin Mints at a nearby table in his body as soon as possible. He also has eyes on the spaghetti and banana pudding provided by Golden Gloves staff.
When asked if he’s even more excited to compete now that losing weight is no longer a concern and he can just focus on boxing, Sexton responds, “Yup…it’s all downhill from here.”
Surely he means the opposite: it’s all uphill from here?
“I don’t know, man. I’m just hungry, I guess,” he says before filling his plate.
As championship night starts, the late “Ace” Miller’s black leather jacket—emblazoned with large golden gloves—hangs on the back of a chair once reserved for the godfather of Knoxville boxing.
Cavalaris makes the introductions and the first two boxers, featherweights Chris Letsinger of Sigma Nu and Mitchell Nguyen of Sigma Chi, walk toward each other and let the haymakers fly. By the end of the first round, both men are exhausted from swinging wildly. Even though these are the championship bouts on the card, the quality is not much different than on the first two nights: dozens of missed punches, exhausted boxers falling all over the ring and pushing back into each other to stop themselves from falling forward. It’s not the best technical boxing, but it is entertaining. The crowd doesn’t distinguish between Tysons and tomato cans—the chants are just as vociferous for the worst boxers as they are for the best.
Even with 13 bouts on the card, the night progresses smoothly with most fights ending in judges’ decisions after three 1-minute and 30-second rounds. Wearing headgear to protect against concussions, the fighters need to have a lot of power to actually knock out an opponent.
The crowd is already rowdy by the time Letsinger’s hand is raised as the first of the night’s champions. A handful of the police officers working security escort intoxicated spectators out of the building for throwing things at the ring or for trying to spark their own fights in the audience. Empty airplane bottles of Fireball and Smirnoff line the murk of the port-a-potties on the far side of the building. Even though alcohol is not sold at the tournament, the main sponsor is Budweiser, and Boxing Weekend directors provide Buds to spectators in the VIP section—a collection of tables a few rows deep on each side of the ring. Other attendees try and fail to sneak in their own alcohol, much of which is confiscated by officers at the entrance.
“Please do not throw anything in the arena. You will be ejected and you may go to jail,” announces Cavalaris over the microphone, trying to calm the crowd after Jonathan Cain of Sigma Chi defeats Alpha Gamma Rho’s Jay Robinson in one of the welterweight finals. Pandomonium erupts from the crowd as it slings Solo cups and water bottles in a shower of cheers.
During all of this, Sexton sits in the back waiting for his turn to make the walk to the ring. In an orange fleece, with his boxing trunks sticking out of his gray sweatpants, he listens to music: Yo Gotti, Dire Straits, artists that couldn’t be more different. A student walks in the back and bows his head with Sexton, speaking to him in what looks like a prayer. It is his opponent from the night before, Garrett Smith of Beta Theta Pi.
“It’s not about you, Mitchell. This tournament isn’t everything. There’s something greater than this tournament and you know what it is,” Smith tells him.
Two fights before he goes into the ring himself, Sexton walks out of the curtained-off room and stands in the queue next to Hill. The boxer who isn’t a boxer and trainer who couldn’t be more of a trainer share words. Hill wears a special SAE vest with “Judge” imprinted on the back, entrusted by the fraternity to lead its boxers to glory.
“You know what you have to do tonight,” Hill says to Sexton. “Don’t change anything. Stay with the jab. The uppercut is gonna be there for you.”
After losing two championship fights earlier in the night, SAE is looking to Sexton to win its only belt of 2016. There is so much pressure: the Hall of Fame, the belt, a chance to gain the vital point to give SAE the overall victory for the tournament.
Hill and Sexton walk in toe to the corner as Cavalaris announces his name and that of his opponent, Charles Walton of Sigma Nu.
As Sexton climbs each of the six steps on the ladder leading up to the ring, Hill takes his place in the corner with Moulden, as well as two other young boxers from the gym. Hill is showing them the ropes, guiding them as he has done for Sexton over the last six weeks. “On fight nights, we all become one,” Hill says.
Sexton bounces around on his toes and takes a proper stance, one foot behind and diagonal to the other. Walton charges him and Sexton unleashes a flurry of jab and cross combinations. His punches collide into his opponent’s skull and crunch into his rib cage. Hill screams “Relax, Mitchell” as Sexton pulls away and starts to work the trademark jab, keeping Walton at a distance and hugging him in a clinch when he get too close.
By the second round, Walton tires and Sexton takes advantage to knock him on his backside. One minute into the third and final round, Sexton traps Walton in a corner and pummels him with big straight-rights and uppercuts, forcing the referee to jump in and call an end to the fight. Shouts of “Hall of Fame” rise deafeningly from the SAE section of the crowd and now beer from the Solo cups soars high above their heads as Sexton, veins bulging from his arms, breathes a big sigh of relief.
Onsite doctors inspect Sexton after he steps out of the ring and, after being told he is okay, he walks to the back to get changed into his street clothes.
“Can you please mention something about giving glory to God?” Sexton asks as he puts away his gear. It’s not him trying to be cliché. It is that vulnerability again, not wanting to sound like a phony. Sexton is the kind of guy who makes a person rethink all the fraternity stereotypes in movies like Animal House and Revenge of the Nerds.
“This means a lot for Judge,” Sexton says. “He is such a calm guy. He’s made me so calm and confident. All of the guys—they’re such great guys. It’s such a relief to win this for them.”
By 10:30 p.m., barely two hours after the fights started, Sexton and rest of the champions reassemble on stage to claim their belts. Miller-Davis, who has been scurrying around the Expo Center all night with her staff, says it has been an “emotional, unreal” tournament. One of the trainers walks by and says to no one in particular, “another one bites the dust,” and he and Hill chat about having to come back on Sunday to tear down the ring.
Despite entering the Hall of Fame, scoring two technical knockouts, and winning the tournament for SAE, Sexton isn’t given the award for best boxer. But he doesn’t seem to care. With a big grin on his face, he poses while his older brother, a military man who drove from Virginia to see him compete, takes pictures from behind the ropes.
Barely anyone is left in the audience by the time the belts are awarded.
Outside of the tournament, Boxing Weekend’s main attractions are the after-parties thrown by the different fraternities for the thousands who come in from other universities throughout the Southeast. The big Saturday night after-party takes place at The International, hosted by SAE, Sigma Chi, Phi Sigma Kappa, and Kappa Sigma, which brought in rappers Juicy J and Afroman of “Because I Got High” fame to entertain the crowds.
Some of the boxers make their way through growingly inebriated groups of people dancing badly as Afroman gets on stage around midnight. As he sings “Colt 45” while sipping his own Colt 45, the crowd continues to get bigger while the lines outside dwindle. One of The International staff says they’ve been told the party will go until 2 a.m., although she isn’t expecting to leave that early.
Sexton isn’t at the party.
“I sold my tickets,” he says in the curtained-off room hours earlier. “I’ll probably just go to a bar and hang out with my brother and some friends. Drink a Budweiser. Soak this all in one last time. I don’t know.”
PHOTO GALLERY: Blood Sport: UT Frats Battle at Boxing Weekend
Brian Canever is the content manager for the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace & Society. A native of New Jersey, he relocated to Knoxville in 2011. Canever explores the people behind the sports we love, and writes primarily about soccer, tennis, and combat sports.
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