Similar tournaments are held every year at Army, Air Force and Notre Dame—McNally has tried, without success, to arrange a dual match between his brigade winners and Notre Dame's Bengal Bouts champions—but none of the other schools match the zeal for boxing at Annapolis. In the '20s and '30s a powerful Navy program produced several Olympians and went 11 years without a dual-match loss under coach Hamilton (Spike) Webb. The school dropped the sport in 1941 and instituted the brigade tournament. Today all midshipmen, including female students, take a required boxing class in their sophomore year.
McNally, a former Philadelphia amateur who sparred in Joe Frazier's gym in the '70s and is now a top international amateur referee, doesn't let just anyone into the brigade draw—only team members and those who distinguish themselves in their classes or in intramural boxing sessions are allowed. They all train together for four months before the tournament, putting in extra conditioning runs before dawn and then sparring, shadowboxing and exercising in the gym in intense late-afternoon workouts.
The Navy club team has won four NCBA team titles and 34 individual titles in McNally's 15-year tenure, yet for his boxers the national stage can't compare with the brigade tournament. "This is the one you want to win," says Pat McCauley, a junior heavyweight from Dallas who wants to become a SEAL. "You're fighting in front of everyone, from your friends to the military leaders who are going to shape your career. There's a ton of pressure."
McCauley, a defending brigade champion and the hardest puncher on the team, lost the first two rounds of this year's heavyweight final to Jeff Watkins, a junior from the Bronx. But in the third round McCauley, about to be defeated in front of a dozen family members who were watching him fight for the first time, saw an opening: Watkins briefly lowered his hands, McCauley unleashed a left hook and a straight right that dropped him, and the ref stopped the fight with less than a minute remaining.
Another defending champion who won was 156-pounder Rick Weil, a sophomore from Huntington Beach, Calif., who 147-pounder Tiko Crofoot says is "head and shoulders above the rest of us as a boxer." Named after an uncle who died in Vietnam, Weil was raised by his father, a car salesman, in a single-parent home. Rick fell in love with boxing in high school and commuted 90 minutes each way by bus to work out in a gym seven days a week. In the final he patiently stalked his opponent, Augur Adams, a converted rower whose former teammates were providing loud support. Weil quieted them by repeatedly cornering Adams and pummeling him. "I'm the first person in my family to go to college," Weil says. "I want to create some great stories when I'm young so I can look back later and say I did something."
However, the bout of the night—"the best fight in all my years here," McNally says—was between Lonero and Clarke. Both whaled away with both hands throughout the final round, Clarke twice knocking Lonero's mouthpiece to the canvas, but Lonero landed a few more shots and narrowly won the round. The crowd roared as the final bell sounded, and after the announcement that the judges had awarded the fight to Lonero, the crowd roared more loudly still as the boxers embraced. "All the respect in the world," Clarke whispered in Lonero's ear as they stood in the middle of the ring.
Lonero was still the worse for wear at practice three days later—the welts on his face, stitches in his chin and cut on his lip evidence of what he had endured. "I've fought 50 college bouts, but never anything as wild as that," he said. "I kept telling myself, 'You're not going to lose; this is your last brigade final. Come on, keep going.' Now I can't walk five feet without someone telling me what an awesome fight it was. But I don't remember much of it. It was just a noisy blur."
Virgets only smiled and shook his head when asked about the fight. "There's a moment in every bout at every level when someone tries to assert his dominance over you, and at that moment you have to give it back or lose," he said. "Both [Lonero and Clarke] tried to dominate, and both refused to submit. That's when you get a great fight. You didn't see many boxing skills in there, but you couldn't miss the warrior spirit."