More than 40 boxers will converge on Bristol this weekend as the Bristol Boys and Girls Club will host the East Region portion of the National Collegiate Boxing Association’s national tournament.
As part of a three-region bracket, Bristol will crown 12 national qualifiers who will advance to the national tournament April 4-6 in Reno, Nev., which will host top boxers from the East, Midwest and West regionals.
The last two years, Lock Haven University in Pennsylvania has hosted the East Regional’s qualifying tournament. But this season, the UConn boxing team was approached by the NCBA to host because of the program’s exponential growth since it began in 2015 under the guidance of head coach Mike Campisano.
“Things have really been going headstrong. We came in like a storm into the region,” Campisano said. “With our numbers, we were doing pretty good, so we were asked if we would be interested in hosting the regional tournament. [The NCBA] noticed things were going great so they asked, ‘Would you guys be interested?’ So I said, ‘Oh yeah. We definitely would love the exposure. We’d love to do it. The program is headed in the right direction. The school is supportive. Let’s do this.’”
Campisano then picked out the Boys and Girls Club in Bristol as an option to host due to convenience and a lighter load on his limited budget.
Campisano originally looked to have the tournament played on campus in Storrs. Due to a lack of hotels in the area, however, most of the boxers would have had to stay in Manchester. That 25- to 30-minute drive is not something he wanted the boxers to have to stress about, so he then turned to Hartford. Again, a limited budget hampered him because it was too expensive to rent a ballroom at a hotel.
But Campisano then got thrilled about the idea of hosting in Bristol, where he lives. He contacted the Boys and Girls Club’s facilities director, Steve Beecher, who fell in love with the idea of hosting the tournament at the new Bristol facility.
“I met with Steve and said, ‘This is what I wanna bring to Bristol,’” Campisano said. “I live in Bristol. I love Bristol. I think it would be great for the city. We’re trying to revive Bristol. This is a great event. We’re bringing a national collegiate tournament into Bristol. I didn’t even have to ask. Steve was on board and said we’d love to do this. It was kind of like a marriage right from the beginning. They wanted us. We wanted them. And everything has worked out perfectly since Steve and I met. They have a beautiful fieldhouse, and it just worked out well.”
Campisano is hoping this weekend’s tournament in Bristol, which will host 10 bouts starting at 5 p.m. Friday and 12 matches beginning at 1 p.m. Saturday, will spark up the conversation on college boxing.
Campisano started the UConn boxing program in 2015. He boxed at Central Connecticut State before the program was shut down in the early ’90s.
After being an assistant boxing coach in the Coast Guard from 2011 to 2015, Campisano wanted to branch out and begin his own team. He approached CCSU about reviving the program, but was met with disinterest. When he pitched the idea to UConn, however, the school immediately jumped on board, and it has developed into a solid program in a short time span.
Campisano said his program began with 35 male and female boxers forming the team in 2015, and the club now averages 60 boxers each practice. Their all-time record was 83 boxers in a practice last year, which he said was “amazing.”
“[UConn] took it and ran with it,” Campisano said. “They’ve been very supportive, and we’ve had a lot of success there. In four years, we’ve had eight national qualifiers, one New England Golden Glove champion [Rich Brito, the 2018 New England Golden Gloves champion who is competing in Bristol this weekend] and two All-Americans. We’ve had pretty good success. With the numbers, we like to tout it as, ‘UConn’s fastest- and largest-growing sport.’”
Campisano says professional and amateur boxing has been big in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts for years, and he said that a pair of professional boxers from Hartford are supposed to be at the tournament this weekend - retired three-time world champion Marlon Starling and Anthony Laureano, who is currently 10-0 as a pro.
“Boxing has really been big in this area, especially Hartford, for years, so we’re trying to revive it. We’re trying to bring the college aspect into it, which has never really hit this area,” said Campisano, who noted Trinity College began a team in 2015 and the University of Hartford started a program last year. UMass also competes and has had a team for several years.
College boxing was big in the ’40s and ’50s, drawing crowds of 15,000 for some matches, Campisano said, at places like Penn State and Wisconsin, which he labeled as “the University of Alabama for boxing” decades ago.
But the NCAA dropped boxing from its list of sanctioned sports in 1960, and it wasn’t until the NCBA formed in 1976 that collegiate boxing started to gain steam again.
“There are about 10 schools that compete in our region, and we’re hoping to get Western New England University on board next year. They’ve shown interest,” Campisano said. “The problem is when you don’t box under the NCAA, you don’t get the exposure. When people hear about it, [they don’t think much of it]. But there’s a market for it. The market’s there for it. It’s just a matter of getting your name out.”
Campisano is certainly hoping word gets out about the UConn boxing program after this weekend. He is hoping the tournament goes well, which would help UConn’s bid to host the national tournament in 2021. Nationals are being hosted by the west this year and midwest in 2020, and he said that when it comes back east, UConn is “probably” going to be chosen as the host.
If the Huskies are chosen to host, there will be larger brackets in 2021 than there will be this weekend.
Normally, the qualifying tournament is a three-day event. But because of low numbers, there will be no Sunday matches in Bristol this weekend, as the East Region will feature only two- and four-man brackets instead of the typical eight-man field that will be present at the national tournament.
Despite the smaller field in the east, Campisano is excited about the potential for some thrilling bouts in the win-or-go-home format.
“These aren’t novice kids that have zero bouts. There are gonna be some returning national champions that’ll be fighting this weekend,” Campisano said. “These kids have some bouts under their belt, so it’s kind of like a whole year process to get them into the tournament. But it’s game-on. It’ just like any other tournament. You can go 0-10 boxing throughout the year, but when it comes time for the region and national tournament, you win five or six bouts and you’re a national champion. It’s a brand-new season.”
Zack Carpenter can be reached at (860) 973-1811 or firstname.lastname@example.org