Dustin Lonero had waited a year for the chance to regain his title in the Naval Academy's Brigade Boxing Championships, and he almost lost it in the first round. A champion as a sophomore and then a loser in a rugged quarterfinal as a junior, Lonero was intent on winning a title again, this time at 165 pounds. "This means everything to me," he said several days before the fight.
Less than a minute into the championship bout he was on the verge of a knockout: his own. Tommy Clarke, a taller, long-armed junior majoring in quantitative economics, landed an uppercut followed by several combinations that drove Lonero into the ropes. As a crowd of 4,000—including past tournament champions, military brass and midshipmen wearing dress blues—rocked Halsey Field House in Annapolis, Md., the ref stepped between the fighters and gave Lonero a standing eight count. Lonero, stocky and thick-armed, blood dripping from a gash on his chin that would require 11 stitches, sagged into the ropes. "I thought, Dustin isn't even going to make it out of the first round," says Navy boxing coach Jim McNally, who oversees the tournament.
Boxers seldom capitulate so easily in the Friday night fight club that has anointed the toughest guys at the academy since 1941. The brackets in 10 divisions are filled mostly with novices, and whatever they lack in ring savvy, they make up for with a willingness to rumble. "The mission of the academy is to instill the warrior spirit in young people who could be leaders in combat, and nothing frames that mission better than the brigade boxing tournament," says Tom Virgets, who trained professional fighters Iran Barkley, Tommy Morrison and Razor Ruddock and now directs the academy's physical education department.
Lonero showed that spirit as he came out of the standing eight count fighting hard. Clarke continued to press him, but Lonero landed a right hook, and then another, before the round ended. Both boxers' shirts were spattered with blood as they turned and walked back to their corners. The admirals and the plebes were buzzing. "This crowd loves a war," McNally said.
"Other than the Army-Navy football game, no event generates as much interest and support at the academy as brigade boxing," says Andy Haffele, who won the 195-pound title this year and will soon join the SEALs, the Navy's elite covert fighting unit. "You've got violence, you've got blood, you've got friends competing. This is still primarily a male institution, and it's a highly competitive place."
The tournament has a starry history at a school where many customs have become sacred rituals. Oliver North defeated James Webb in the welterweight final in 1967. North would become a decorated Marine in Vietnam and later a key figure in the Iran-Contra scandal of the 1980s. Webb, too, would earn honors in Vietnam, and he would become a best-selling author (a novel about the Vietnam War, Fields of Fire) and secretary of the Navy in the first Bush Administration. "Jimmy has never gotten over losing that fight," says North, now a radio and cable-TV talk-show host. Future admirals and generals have also competed, including Charles Bolden, a two-star Marine general who became a space-shuttle astronaut, and Thomas Lynch, a rear admiral and superintendent of the academy.
Each of the three rounds in a bout lasts two minutes, and the boxers wear headgear and thumbless, thickly padded gloves. "Noses and pride are the only things that get hurt," McNally says. The goal isn't fame or a shot at the pros—the men fight for respect in the halls, a prime currency at the academy. That and a sliver of immortality: Six decades of winners are listed on plaques in the academy's old-fashioned brick boxing gym. "It seems like the whole Navy knows about the brigade championships," Lonero says. "When I interviewed last fall to get into nuclear power school [after graduation], it was all the admiral could talk about: How was I going to do in brigades?"
Like many other participants in the tournament, Lonero had never been inside a boxing gym before he arrived at the academy. Growing up in San Jose, he worked long hours for his father's lawn service and played high school football. "I was one of those tough little inside linebackers who ran around hitting everything," he says. He played lightweight football as a Navy plebe, then discovered boxing.
That spring he lost in the brigade final to a four-time champion. Then, as a sophomore, Lonero won at 156 pounds and advanced to the semifinals in the National Collegiate Boxing Association tournament, in which Navy's club team competes against Army, Air Force and three dozen other squads, including many from Division I schools. (The NCAA dropped boxing after a Wisconsin middleweight died during the national championships in 1960.) This year Lonero easily won two bouts to reach the final against Clarke, who had lived across the corridor from him for a year in Bancroft Hall, the academy's sprawling residence dorm. "That's the hardest thing about brigades," says Clarke, who lost in the 175-pound semifinals last year. "I can't think of anything more stressful than getting in a ring and fighting a friend."
There was nothing friendly about the second round of their bout. Both fighters dropped their guards and traded heavy blows, "basically agreeing to take punishment for the chance to give it," Clarke said. Blood from both men dripped on the canvas as the fans stood and cheered the unabashed aggression. "thought at first that it might be a tactical fight," Lonero said later, "but after the first round it was obviously just going to be a war."