The annual pugilistic debate between Cambridge and Oxford may never match the Boat Race for glamour nor the Twickenham rugby fixture for grandeur, but there was no telling the eighteen fighters and 1300 supporters who crammed into the Cambridge Corn Exchange on 9th March that this was a sporting anachronism of minimal significance. Meetings of minds might be more common between the two universities, but, since 1897, barring the interludes of two World Wars, eighteen men—and, on occasion, women too—have been selected for a meeting of fists in what is now the oldest annual amateur boxing fixture in the world.
This particular encounter makes for a story of the most curious proportions: the story of, initially, 200 deeply intelligent students at two of the best universities in the world, who, over the course of 16 weeks, are expected to transcend the absolute sum of their parts and become, in short, boxers. Their end goal—collectively, to achieve victory over the old enemy; individually, to become one of nine anointed Blues—looms irresistibly throughout.
We begin on a bitterly cold Thursday evening towards the end of January. 500 or so people fill the intimate setting of the Cambridge Guildhall: amongst them are University students, nearby locals and a group of men who have travelled with Billericay ABC. There’s a heavyweight up their sleeve who’ll debut later in the night. He’s nicknamed, ominously, "Klitschko".
The night is known as "Town vs Gown": Cambridge University fighters, the "Gown", face their local counterparts, the "Town". For those hoping to make the Varsity team, this is potentially the final opportunity to impress.
The "Gown" lead 3-2 when Borna Guevel, the University captain, steps into the ring. A middleweight of brooding intensity, he claps his gloves together as the noise level rises a notch or two. The crowd senses that this could be seminal.
I watch the fight from ringside, next to someone studying Medicine. ‘I know Borna,’ he tells me. ‘We go to the same lectures every day.’ A short right lands: a fat glob of blood splashes the floor before our feet.
Guevel, a former Oxford Blue, as well as a British Universities kickboxing champion at middleweight, begins the fight at distance, his slick footwork and raking jab the hallmarks of a boxing education deeper than many of his less experienced teammates. But, as chants of "Borna, Borna" soak through the venue, he can’t avoid being drawn into increasingly close quarters with his stocky opponent and, by the second round, they are inflicting vicious violence on each other. By the third, they are quite literally out on their feet. The action is unusually brutal, especially for amateur boxing. Guevel eventually wins a majority decision.
The next day, though, there is no respite. At 9 am, somehow, Borna arrives at the same lecture theatre to resume work. Something about pathology.
This is the life of the few who are selected to join Cambridge and the fewer who are then chosen to box. ‘I spend most of my waking hours working or boxing,’ Stefan Lavelle, a first year economist, tells me. ‘But I’m much less productive as a whole: after training, I want to relax, so it’s difficult to stay motivated to work.’
Lavelle, at 19, is the youngest member of the team. Unbeaten through four fights before the Varsity encounter, he hadn’t boxed for two and a half years after the closure of his local club. ‘Boxing is the ultimate challenge,’ he says. ‘It differentiates me from other people playing more conventional sports. Not everyone can cope with the intensity,’ he adds.
William Wakeford, fighting at 75 kilos, describes the experience as a balancing act of ‘great difficulty’. ‘Endorphins get me through the mornings,’ he tells me, ‘but that’s about where it ends.’ Wakeford, taking a degree, like Borna, in Graduate Entry Medicine, trains for twenty hours a week. He spends, on average, another sixty studying.
The allure of a Blue, though, is irresistible. The highest sporting honour either University can bestow upon a student, boxers are awarded a Blue blazer and eternal recognition so long as they achieve victory against their Varsity counterpart. ‘Achieving full Blue status means everything,’ Lavelle admits a week or so before his fight. ‘It would be one of the biggest achievements of my life so far,’ adds Wakeford.
The list of Blues pre-dating this bunch of hopefuls is an impressive one. Oxford greats include the pioneering aviator Douglas Douglas-Hamilton and the recent chairman of the Olympic Games, Lord Moynihan, while Lord Byron and, most famously, the Marquis of Queensberry both boxed at Cambridge. Such was the quality of competition in the 1920s, meanwhile, that Olympic gold medallists Eddie Eagan and Ronald Rawson both fought for Oxford and Cambridge respectively.
Rawson was the last British heavyweight to win gold before Audley Harrison. Unlike Harrison, however, Rawson’s post-Olympic state is abundantly more impressive. After the First World War, he fought and won 28 fights. 27 of those victories came by way of knockout.
Fighting in the 1923 Varsity match, meanwhile, Eagan would represent Oxford at two weights in one night, boxing at light heavyweight in the first bout of the evening and at heavyweight in the last. He would win both by second round stoppage.
‘I looked out on the strangest audience before which I had ever appeared,’ Eagan noted after the fight. ‘Like crows in convention on a Virginia rail fence, the students sat massed on the bleachers, dressed in black gowns and mortar boards... Only the ‘townies’ in their customary clothes looked natural.’
Indeed, the fighters might have changed, but the atmosphere Eagan described remains eerily similar nearly 100 years on at the 106th rendition of the Varsity fight. This year, 1300 spectators packed into the Corn Exchange, including distinguished academics in tweed suits and slanting ties, rows of imposing figures in powder blue jackets, as well as students—hundreds and hundreds of them—shouting and screaming their support for every blow landed.
The Oxford team arrived as defending champions of the True Love Bowl after 6-3 triumphs in consecutive years, yet the Cambridge side—buoyed by victory in "Town vs Gown" and fitter than ever before—brought renewed vigour and confidence. Both teams featured three fighters from previous years.
The night began with two warm-up bouts, both of which were won by Cambridge fighters in Daphne Tsalli and Jamie O’Neill. The former particularly impressed with her consistent work rate and adaptability: facing a taller foe with a sharp jab, Tsalli recovered from a tough first round to breach her opponent’s defences increasingly consistently and earn a gritty decision.
If, however, the crowd was initially polite in its applause, the arrival of both teams to the ring for preliminary introductions saw reticent students transmogrify into caterwauling partisans. Oxford fighters were booed vociferously while the Cambridge side was treated to the kind of adulation reserved for conquering Kings and Queens. It is hard, at this point, to think of anything comparable elsewhere in the amateur boxing world, especially when sterile crowds and empty arenas have contributed so heavily to the likes of Anthony Ogogo turning pro so recently.
The first Varsity fight pitched Nick Melgaard of Cambridge against Michael Davis of Oxford. Thick chants of "Cambridge, Cambridge" drained through the heavy air as the bell rang, yet the rangy Melgaard was quickly pinned to the backfoot by the frenetic Davis, whose wheelbarrow hooks testified to a distinctly agricultural aesthetic. Indeed, despite occasional success with his straighter punches, Melgaard was nonetheless ground down over the three round distance and Cambridge were forced to suffer an early defeat.
Oxford’s lead was quickly doubled when the previously-unbeaten Lavelle was stopped after being folded in half by a huge right hand from James Watson and, with the Oxford captain Tom Eliasz up next against Xiaofeng Li, the buoyed crowd seemed notably to deflate. As Eliasz, moreover, strafed Li to the body with firm shots throughout the first round, that gloom deepened; however, Li—who names Shiming Zou among his biggest influences—displayed some lovely boxing skills through the second round to render Eliasz an increasingly gauche, ineffective fighter. Check hooks lacerated the Oxford captain’s face, while insistent jabs denied him the chance to bridge the sizable gap in speed and geography. When Li was finally announced as the winner, the home crowd treated him to a resounding standing ovation.
Any momentum for Cambridge was checked, however, when Conor Husbands, a Physics and Philosophy undergraduate from St. Edmund Hall College, stopped Seb Pender after three rounds of violent dominance. With a 3-1 lead, Oxford’s Dan Bailey would have hoped to put the Bowl almost totally out of Cambridge’s reach when he clashed with Will Nyerere-Plastow, yet Nyerere-Plastow—oozing attitude as he eye-balled Bailey from across the ring before the fight—wowed the adoring audience with his slick defensive skills and raking combinations. Given his brief career—before this bout, Nyerere-Plastow had only fought four times—the technical mastery he brought to the ring was as surprising as it was refreshing and would eventually earn him the award of fighter of the night.
At 3-2 down, Cambridge would have harboured expectations of drawing level when captain Guevel came to the ring. As chants of "Borna, Borna" rained down from the crowd, Zacchariah Sammour, his Oxford opponent studying for the Bachelor of Civil Law at Somerville College, could be seen calmly praying in the blue corner. Sammour, who will soon pursue a career as a barrister, had previously boxed for Chelmsford ABC and KO Bethnal Green, and he instantly set to inflicting barely legal cruelty on the shocked Cambridge captain, who bravely withstood a barrage of heavy right uppercuts and mean left hooks, not to mention two genuine knockdowns, to last the distance.
Now trailing 4-2, however, the Cambridge team knew that a further defeat would return the True Love Bowl to Oxford hands. William Wakeford instantly set about correcting that equation, beating Iain Holland to the punch repeatedly over two rounds and, despite wilting desperately in the final stanza, managed to grit out a majority decision to pull Cambridge back into contention.
The pressure, then, was on Tinashe Murozoki of Churchill College, Cambridge, to overcome Harry Miller and make sure the upcoming heavyweight clash between Dan Fountain and Laurent Kotch would be a decider. A third year engineer, Murozoki’s incessant head movement meant he was able to fight Miller in close quarters despite the Oxford fighter’s significant height advantage. As the bout progressed, though, the action became ever more undisciplined and unedifying as the two struggled desperately to seize control and enact greater cruelty. Yet undignified as this might have been, there was no denying the excitement. Indeed, in many ways, this particular clash encapsulated most precisely the paradox of cerebral students getting physical which has made the Varsity fight an enduring attraction. To the home crowd’s despair, though, Miller was awarded a dubious majority decision before, dispirited and disappointed, Fountain was knocked down and out by a swinging overhand right from Kotch.
And so we end, on another bitterly cold night, this time in March, with Oxford retaining the Bowl on a final score of 6-3, while tying up the overall standings at 51-51, to the disappointment of nine Cambridge fighters and 1300 supporters. Yet though their names will not be inscribed on this particular trophy—and though they will not all be able to call themselves Blues—this Cambridge side managed to inscribe indelible memories in all those who watched them pursue their moment of greatness. Sixteen weeks is scant time in which to get fit and prepare to fight; even more so when those weeks are spent balancing sport and study. The disappointment etched across Guevel and his teammates’ faces was palpable, but the chance to rewrite any wrongs shall arise next year as the two universities fight on, into the distance. It was ever thus—and long may it continue.
Michael Davis (Oxford) UD3 Nick Melgaard (Cambridge)
James Watson (Oxford) TKO1 Stefan Lavelle (Cambridge)
Xiaofeng Li (Cambridge) MD3 Tom Eliasz (Oxford, capt)
Conor Husbands (Oxford) TKO3 Seb Pender (Cambridge)
Will Nyerere-Plastow (Cambridge) UD3 Dan Bailey (Oxford)
Zachariah Sammour (Oxford) UD3 Borna Guevel (Cambridge)
William Wakeford (Cambridge) MD3 Iain Holland (Oxford)
Harry Miller (Oxford) MD3 Tinashe Murozoki (Cambridge)
Laurent Kotch (Oxford) KO3 Dan Fountain (Cambridge)
By Oliver Goldstein. Thanks go to Jethro Thompson for photography, to former Cambridge captains Ssegawa-Ssekintu Kiwanuka and Peter Joy for their help accessing archival material, as well as to all the Cambridge fighters and coaches for providing access to training throughout the build-up to the fight.