By the second round, blood was streaming from T Alford's nostrils and sprinkling Frank Parisi's shirt.
The referee's face creased with worry. He had already called a standing eight count to give Alford, a national collegiate champion and a three-time champ in the Naval Academy's annual boxing competition, a rest from Parisi's withering left fist.
But the sight of the blood seemed to awaken some force in Alford, a swaggering 21- year-old from Texas. At last, uncoiling like a spring, Alford launched a punch that sent Parisi wobbling to the ropes.
It was 8:51 p.m. Friday in the academy's cavernous Halsey Field House, and howls boomed from the hundreds of midshipmen in the stands. Some rose to their feet, shouting, "Go, T!"
If he defeated Parisi, Alford would be the 10th midshipman in the history of the Brigade Boxing Championships to win a title in each of his four years at the academy. Compared with Alford, Parisi was a nobody, an affable, soft-spoken 19-year-old from the Bronx who until a few weeks ago wasn't even good enough to make the school's traveling club team.
But Parisi had an advantage that Alford hadn't counted on. And by the end of the night, it would play a role in the biggest fight of Alford's life.
The Brigade Boxing Championship is warfare: the nation's future naval leaders testing their mettle through an exchange of bloody gloves. It is hand-to-hand combat relieved only by a referee and a stopwatch.
"A big part of the mission of the Naval Academy is trying to instill the warrior spirit in midshipmen," says the longtime boxing coach, Jim McNally. "Probably no other activity instills the warrior spirit like boxing."
All midshipmen take a required boxing class sophomore year, but most never set foot in a ring again. Only the roughest enter the brigade championship, a 61-year-old tradition that is equal parts rite of passage and blood sport.
In 1967, Oliver L. North, well before he became a central figure in the Iran-Contra scandal, defeated James H. Webb Jr., who would become secretary of the Navy and a best-selling novelist. Webb, it has been said, never forgave North.
This year, about 140 midshipmen entered the championships. Of those, 22 -- two in each of 11 weight classes -- made it to the finals.
Alford and Parisi are lightweights, 132-pounders standing 5 1/2 feet tall. They are not the academy's best boxers, their coach says. But their stories illuminate the divergent paths midshipmen take to the ring, and the role that character can play in determining winners and losers.
Alford, a senior, is a street brawler from Texas, with Harry Connick Jr.-like good looks and a cocksure way that has helped propel him to titles in each of the past three championships.
Parisi is the son of a funeral director father and a school crossing guard mother, a sophomore with soft brown eyes who has emerged through painstaking practice as a skillful boxer.
"This might be T's hardest battle," McNally said two days before the fight. "It will come down to Alford's will over Parisi's skill."
Family and fisticuffs
Alford had barely celebrated his fourth birthday when his father took down the swings behind their house in the Texas Hill Country and hung a heavy bag.
Before long, Alford and his younger brother, Seth, were squaring off on in the back yard.
Their father, as a teen, had excelled in the amateur Golden Gloves leagues. Later, he presided over his sons' matches, teaching basic punches and hot-dog moves like the "shoe-shine" -- a hail of shots to the abdomen.
"We'd take turns bloodying each other's nose and lips," Alford recalls. Their mother didn't come out to watch.
His parents gave him a one-letter first name because they couldn't decide between Tyler and Taylor. They wanted him to choose once he grew up. He has no such plans -- he likes having a name no one forgets.
Alford ran track and played football at his public high school in Houston. But school administrators knew him for his tendency to settle disputes with his fists.
During his first days at the Naval Academy's boxing gym as a plebe, he found his backyard boxing moves were no match for the academy's toughs. To improve, he jumped into the practice ring with any comer.
He'd return to his dorm with his white T-shirt purpled by his blood. "My roommates thought that I came here and got hit with a bat every day," Alford says.
It didn't take long for Alford, then 125 pounds, to make his mark as a featherweight with a piston-like fist. He was so clearly superior to his opponents that in two of his three brigade championships, referees stopped the contest midfight. His sophomore year, he won his division in the National Collegiate Boxing Championships.
Still, Alford has benefited from competing in weight classes with few contenders. And some of his victories have been the result of what even he calls "lucky shots" -- punches landed so powerfully that his opponents are stunned into momentary paralysis.
Where Alford has distinguished himself is resolve, a force akin to anger that boils up inside when his antagonist gets overconfident.
Alford was keenly aware that if he won Friday night, he would be one of 10 four-time brigade champions. "Boxing is not the kind of sport that if you lose and it's no big deal," he says. "It's a pride issue."
The analytical underdog
While Alford's love of boxing sprang from his father's tutelage, Parisi found inspiration from sitting in front of the TV set and watching Rocky Balboa fight Goliath-like opponents.
"He's the underdog who gets the shot and ends up surprising everybody," says Parisi. "That kind of story always appealed to me."
His Catholic grammar school ran a loosely organized boxing league one month each year. Parisi fought in it from third to eighth grade. He never lost a fight. In high school, while Alford was catching flak as a brawler, Parisi was doing the butterfly on a club swim team and arguing about capital punishment in debate club.
He says he never got into fistfights. He liked going to Manhattan for movies or gathering around the dinner table to share family gossip.
He applied to the academy to train to be a flier. The day after the academy's swim coach told him he wouldn't make the team, Parisi walked over to the boxing gym at MacDonough Hall.
Just three weeks into Parisi's plebe summer, he met Alford, then a junior. Parisi walked into the boxing gym, and McNally introduced Alford as a brigade and national champion.
"There was definitely an aura," Parisi recalls.
If Alford was the sort to throw himself into the rapids to learn how to swim, Parisi was the scientist, breaking down each skill into its component parts.
Last year, as a plebe, he lost in the 139-pound-division championship quarterfinals. So this year, he took steps to hone his technique and build stamina. He lifted weights and ran the Marine Corps Marathon, his first.
He also began training with a midshipman who shared his analytic approach to the sport. "We'd break down punches into three parts: the shoulder, the arm, the hips," says Parisi.
In October, in an intramural bout, Parisi defeated the rival who beat him in last year's quarterfinals.
As Friday's fight neared, Parisi recognized that Alford was the more accomplished fighter.
But Parisi is a southpaw, a left-hander whose fists strike from directions unfamiliar to Alford.
Both boxers would be out of their element. Neither had fought a championship at 132 pounds.
A few days ago, on the third deck of MacDonough Hall, assistant coach Jim Searing said of Parisi, perhaps only half-jokingly, "We call him Frank the Giant Killer."
In his dorm room Friday evening, Parisi slipped a DVD into his computer and watched the final scene in Rocky. The unknown Italian Stallion goes 15 rounds before losing a decision to the world heavyweight champ, Apollo Creed.
Parisi arrived at Halsey Field House an hour and 15 minutes before the opening bell. He stretched and jumped rope. He climbed in the ring for a minute as if rehearsing the fight in his mind.
Alford sauntered in a half hour before the fights. He joked with friends, talked to reporters.
Parisi caught sight of him and approached. He put an arm around his rival's shoulder.
"Let's give them a good show tonight," Parisi said warmly.
Over the years, Alford had learned the value of intimidation, and he responded in that vein: "They're looking for a knockout -- So go down."
In the stands, his father, Terry Alford, admitted feeling uneasy. "He's really relaxed tonight," he said. "It worries me."
Into the ring
A roar rolls out from the 750 onlookers as the ring announcer introduces the lightweights. At 8:47 p.m., the opening bell clangs.
Alford flies into the ring. He wants to control the tempo, get Parisi to fight on his terms.
But when he throws a jab, Parisi slips out of the way and fires counterpunches at Alford.
Alford drives Parisi against the ropes. Parisi releases a blast of punches to free himself, but winds up stumbling backward.
Alford swings. Parisi ducks. Alford's fist hits air.
Parisi connects to Alford's head, which jerks to the side. The referee stops the action and counts aloud to eight. The standing eight count is an unexpected turn of events so early in the fight, a sign of official concern for Alford's safety.
Some in the crowd boo. Alford, glowering, throws up his arms in exasperation.
When the fight resumes, Alford moves menacingly, but his punches miss. Parisi relies on his time-tested left cross and slams Alford's face. He then delivers a machine-gun fire of shots, pitching Alford against the ropes.
A ringside doctor brings gauze to stop Alford's nosebleed.
The bell rings, ending the second round -- but Parisi fires another punch. Alford scowls. He complains to the referee.
In the third and final two-minute round, the two tired fighters fall into a kind of embrace that offers a moment of rest. As they disentangle, Alford lands a hard punch in Parisi's face. The crowd explodes.
Parisi recovers and strikes back. Then, the final bell. Both are drenched in sweat, their chests heaving, their faces slack.
The five judges at ringside tables tally their scores. The referee stands between the boxers, holding Parisi's left hand and Alford's right. Alford's father and brother watch from a few aisles away from Parisi's family.
Then, as the crowd jumps to its feet, the referee raises Parisi's hand into the air -- all five judges have awarded him the fight.
Alford stalks away from the ring, accepting a hug from his father but tearing away, prematurely it seems, from one from McNally.
Parisi's mother wraps him in her arms. "Good job," she says, her eyes seeming on the verge of tears.
Parisi approaches Alford behind the partition. He praises Alford, saying he landed one punch so hard that his stomach still smarts. They spend a few minutes chewing over the turning points in the fight. Parisi apologizes for the punch thrown after the second bell, saying he hadn't heard it ring. Alford says not to worry.
Alford isn't sure how much more boxing he'll do until graduation, when he will begin his tour on a submarine. He says he'd like to help train the next crop of young boxers, maybe even help Parisi sharpen his skills.
One variable Alford said he had not prepared for was Parisi's likable personality. He fights best against foes he can detest.
"I knew I needed to make war," he said. "It takes a certain amount of resentment and dislike, and it's hard to do that against Frank."
But these reflective thoughts pass quickly, and soon Alford is sounding like himself again.
"If I had three more rounds," he says, "it would have gone my way."