Uncle Gene at the Brigade Open

An unlikely host for fight night at West Point.
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Here is how I came to be driving north from New York City with my Uncle Gene one evening, headed to the 56th Annual West Point Boxing Brigade Open. It is because Gene is a mensch, and I mean this in the traditional American Jewish sense, which is to say that he is a doctor—a surgeon, no less—and thereby beloved of G_d and his elders and desired by all women.

Less traditionally, perhaps, for a successful ENT—and more to the point—Gene had joined the Army after 9/11, serving a tour of duty in Balad, Iraq. He was also stationed for several years at the United States Military Academy, in West Point, and he was returning to campus that night in March to serve as a fight doctor in the tournament.

The fights were held in a spacious anteroom off the main floor of Eisenhower Hall, West Point’s large and well-appointed theater. A full-size boxing ring had been erected and blindingly lit for television—local TV and newspapers cover the event each year. Rows of folding chairs, cadets on one side and military VIPs on the other, flanked the ring.   

We arrived early to find the room still mostly empty. The ring announcers—two cadets in flashy, ill-fitting black suits, shoes shined, hair shellacked—were both channeling Michael Buffer as they tested the microphone. Someone handed me the night’s card—nine bouts, including a women’s fight—and then directed me to a ringside seat, between the judges and my uncle, who was chatting with other senior service-members (he is a Colonel) and surveying his supplies of towels, lubricated nasal packs, and other medical necessaries.

Several days earlier I had spoken with one of the evening’s fighters, a soft-spoken and unfailingly polite 139-pounder named Emmanuel Osei. When we spoke, Osei kept referring to me as “Mr. Ross.” I laughed, told him that name belonged to my father and that he should call me Ted. He didn’t laugh and continued calling me Mr. Ross.

Osei fought for the Army Boxing Team, and he would be taking on one of his teammates, a kid from California named Sebastian Mims. The Brigade Open was actually the final of a tournament that had been going on for a few weeks. The preliminaries, open to the entire cadet population—or, I should say, “technically open,” as it is rare for a fighter not on the team to enter, and rarer still for one to make it out of the prelims—had already taken place. The winners tonight would represent West Point at the upcoming National Collegiate Boxing Association Championships, held this year in Colorado Springs, on the campus of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Boxing, by the way, is a club sport at the collegiate level, having been dropped by the NCAA in 1960, after Charlie Mohr, a boxer from the University of Wisconsin, described at the time by Sports Illustrated as “a personable, intelligent, deeply religious and in all ways estimable young man, the very symbol of what a college athlete ought to be,” died of a brain hemorrhage following one of his bouts. West Point, perhaps not surprisingly, is a collegiate boxing powerhouse, having won the national title four years running, which meant that if Osei could get past Mims he had a fair chance of earning the right to call himself the nation’s best college boxer.

If Osei thought his prospects for winning were strong, he wasn’t letting on. He’d lost in the finals the previous two years, and besides, he said, Mims was a good fighter, experienced, and a friend. I asked him if he thought he was favored and he said, “I don’t know who is favored. We’re both very skilled.” Osei was born in Ghana and raised in a Roman-Catholic Ghanaian community in Dayton, Ohio. He had wrestled some in high school, played soccer and run track, but his favorite sport—then and now—was tennis. He had no fighting experience before coming to West Point. All male first-year cadets, he explained, are required to attend a nineteen-lesson boxing course (female cadets, for those interested in the gender politics of our service academies, can take it as an elective) in which they received instruction in the rudiments: on-guard stance, lead hand jab, introductory defense, rear power punch, lead hand punch, upper cut, and so forth. The more skilled and dedicated practitioners could then join the club team, as Osei had. I asked him why he boxed, what in particular he liked about it, curious to see if he would admit to the sort of violent impulses I associate not only with the sport, but with the military. He said only that he found it “fun and relaxing…a natural way to relieve tension.” He had scored just one knockout to date, against a young unfortunate from Lock Haven University.

“What was that like?” I asked.

“It was exciting because it was my first. Aside from that, nothing else to it.” He paused. “I’ve never been knocked out.”

The crowd, a blur of fresh-faced cadets, hair brutally shorn, filed in. The VIPS came later, accompanied by their wives, who were dressed as if for a Midwestern casserole get-together—church fashion plus hairsprayed updos. The boxers from the club team staked out one corner of the room, those on the card pacing about, shadow boxing, working up a sweat. Their teammates, eliminated in the preliminaries, surrounded them with a wall of muscle in Boxing Club sweats. I tried to keep a close watch on my Uncle Gene as he moved among the cadets and the coaches and the generals. What he was doing was, in some ways, more important to me than the bouts. I had come for a sporting event, but I also wanted to learn something about the military life, in the hope that I might understand my uncle’s role within it.

On the car ride up Gene told me how he came to join the army. He had, of course, been distressed by what he had seen on 9/11 and after, when he volunteered at aid stations in downtown Manhattan. Like many people, he had found himself swept up in the “fever pitch” of patriotism spawned by the attacks; that, he said, and “the recruitment letter from the Army was very nice.” He was sworn in March 20, 2003 at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, on the first day of the air campaign against Iraq. “I was taking the oath and the flag fell from the flag pole as I was doing it,” Gene said, laughing at the memory.

Gene said that he had “agreed with viability of the Afghan enterprise,” but that he was no supporter of what was being done in Iraq. But that was where he was sent, and he admitted to a certain personal satisfaction in being there. “I took great pleasure,” he said, “in celebrating Jewish tradition”—he lit Sabbath candles on Friday nights—“in an Arab country.” He smiled at this memory, too, although given the surgeries he performed in Balad, on mangled soldiers, wounded insurgents, and injured Iraqi civilians, it was perhaps his only fond recollection.

The cadet in charge of the sound system scanned the list of introductory music selected by the fighters, checking for affronts to decorous public consumption. Osei had chosen “Danza Kudoru,” a reggaeton anthem by Puerto Rican artist Don Omar, which, the cadet assured me with a single rueful glance, I would have known if I weren’t so old (I’m 39).

I introduced myself to Osei, who turned out to be a fierce looking young man, thickly muscled, his eyes heavy-lidded and as quiet as his voice. He was loosening up in a corner of the room with his hands taped, wearing blue trunks with a gold stripe, and a T-shirt embossed with some platitude about knocking out bad sportsmanship. We spoke for a moment, he muttered something about relying on his speed and then coming in with power shots, and then he returned to his warm up.

Moments later, an honor guard presented the colors, and I marveled at the sight of my uncle standing, with stern concentration, at attention. There were introductions, the bell was rung, and the first fight began. It was a wild and unstinting three round brawl between two 132-pounders, neither landing much in the way of solid blows. Kevin Jones, a third-year cadet from Holly Springs, North Carolina, prevailed in a split decision over Gavin Chapman, a stocky bruiser from the Bronx with slow hands who went by the nickname “Chappy.”

Gene checked both fighters after the fight, mopped up after Chapman’s split lip, pulled down on their hands, peered in their eyes. “Dance for me, Champ,” he said to each one in turn, getting them to hop a bit before letting them go.

Osei was next. Mims was the slighter and softer and lankier of the two, but with a boxer’s rounded and swollen facial features. He dismantled Osei, moving crisply and with a deceptive fluidity – bouncing on his toes, his arms low and loose, popping Osei with his jab whenever he got too close. Osei tried loading up with big, looping hooks and straight rights that never landed. When they did exchange blows, Mims was faster and more accurate.

“He’s first,” Uncle Gene said, after Mims threw a particularly stylish combination to Osei’s head and abdomen. “Every time he’s first.”

The club’s coach, Renard Barone, refereed the fights. He had dressed for the part, in a light yellow oxford, black polyester slacks, clunky black running shoes, and a black bowtie. When he wasn’t breaking clinches and barking at the fighters to keep their hands up, Barone coached, shouting “combinations!” and “let the hands go!” or gently offering advice between rounds. Barone was a large man with a brush-cut tuft of hair, deep set blue eyes, and a heavyweight’s anvil hands and bulky shoulders and flattened nose. He was also a retired combat arms officer and a college boxer with a Ph.D. in education, and had told me earlier that he taught himself to box as a teenager with a book borrowed from the library.

There was much confused chatter to be heard during the women’s bout, as the onlookers tried to determine how seriously it should be taken and if they should be amused or abashed or appreciative, with the latter largely winning out. “Look at the neck muscles on that one,” I heard from someone in the VIP seats. “These are tough ladies,” one cadet said.

Intermission came next, in the form of one “Mean Gene” B. Roth, a 59-year-old plumber and slide guitar player from Highland Mills, New York. Roth, who counted Coach Barone among his plumbing clients, sang “American Soldier’s Lullaby,” a ballad for the nation’s veterans with a certain aggrieved bent to the lyrics: So good night America/Sleep tight America/No apologies are necessary/All that you’ve given/Will not be forgotten/By we who love and defend liberty. Roth never served in the military, so the “we” in the song is somewhat notional, but nonetheless, he has played this upbeat little number at the Brigade in recent years. Past news reports, which described standing ovations from a moved throng of listeners, seemed to me a sure sign of a military subculture enamored of itself and hostile about how it is perceived. The truth, that night at least, was that the VIPs applauded with only bored comportment, and the cadets, distracted by the arrival of a large stack of free pizza, largely ignored him.

The fight that I paid the closest attention to that night was the 175-pound bout, between a plebe named Jacob Conley and Jon Maddux, the son of Brigadier General Jonathan Maddux, Commander of the Picatinny Arsenal, Joint Center of Excellence for Armaments and Munitions, in Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey.

Before the fight, Maddux nodded to friends, smiled easily, and looked very much the general’s son doing precisely what he should be doing in precisely the place it should be done. He seemed aware of this in a dutiful and yet still possibly joking kind of way. Maddux battered the overmatched Conley, snapping jabs, stalking him clinically around the ring, and doling out punishment. He fought as if he wasn’t particularly interested in hurting Conley. Instead, he was content to throw exotic combinations from all angles, but without much malice. He prosecuted the fight with a slack-shouldered relaxation that bordered on, but never quite crossed into, disrespect for his opponent. He was just better, and more handsome to boot. What, I wondered, would this kid—handsome, lantern-jawed, clear-eyed, destined from birth for the Army—make of Uncle Gene, the Jew doctor who joined the military from an excess of patriotic emotion and eccentric drive? Would he praise Gene’s bravery and daring, or would he consider him a military parvenu, an outsider, someone who didn’t belong?

Gene seemed untroubled by such valuations. “I feel very grateful and content and fortunate to be a member of this wonderful community and society that has accepted me,” he said. As for Maddux, “it’s good to be him,” was all Gene offered when I asked his opinion, and he seemed to mean it. After the fight, when he examined Maddux, he called him Champ like everyone else.

In the last fight, a foreign student, Mikus “The Latvian Hammer” Igaunis, pounded his opponent, Kevin Rose, until bloody, but with none of Maddux’s style.

With the night complete, the boxers were cheered. The honor guard marched the colors back out with ceremony, and the room felt still as a church—which, with the old regimental and colonial-era American flags hanging from the walls, was what it was, albeit of a very specific sort.

I have always admired and respected my uncle’s choice to join the Army and loved him for making it. But I have done so while fighting an instinctive reaction against any of “our sort”—educated, affluent, Jewish—joining the military. I have read my Portnoy’s Complaint, so I know that Jewish men are as virile as their goyim counterparts; I am aware of Israel and its martial belligerence and am duly impressed by the Krav Maga feats of athletic men burdened with the same body hair as mine; and I know that American Jewish men have fought with distinction in our wars. But still, the message in the back of my head kept repeating, quite against my will: Jews just don’t do this. They don’t join the Army, they don’t inhabit this world, not because they can’t, or because they are afraid, but simply because it is not for us. And yet here my uncle was, in pressed fatigues, saluting when required, accepting salutes with aplomb and great pleasure, making nice with the generals, at ease in the military world.

This was why I had come to the Open, to see the fights, yes, to admire the cadets, who undoubtedly deserve it, but most important, to see my uncle in this element, and to see how he had succeeded in making it his own.

Illustration by Morgan Ramberg


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Comments

Loved this, though the Philip Roth that it brought to mind was not Portnoy's Complaint, but Defender of the Faith, a short story from Goodbye Columbus, where a Jewish officer tries to maintain his integrity while a fellow Jewish soldier kind of manipulates him for favors and plays off his guilt.

Anyway, for a few reasons, I'm not sure I agree 100 pct that "this is not for us," but I appreciate the sentiment. Service academies might be an exception to this, but the military draws from poor and working class populations that Jews largely aren't a part of. I'd venture that this has as much to do with it as our cultural otherness, or whatever.