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Hand-to-hand combat

The Baltimore Sun

In the center of the ring, they touch gloves and look right into each other's eyes. In just a brief moment, each fighter sees and knows everything possible about his opponent. Not just who he is, but where he's from, where he's going. Each also sees the hard truth behind the night's fight: To win, he must defeat one of his best friends. The bell rings, and the fighter wearing yellow fires two quick jabs, the second finding its target. The boxer throwing the jabs, B.J. Richardson, is a senior at the Naval Academy. He's fighting for his fourth consecutive title in the academy's Brigade Boxing Championships, a feat just 14 midshipmen have accomplished in the tournament's storied 66-year history - though none in his weight class, 147 pounds.

The jab doesn't faze his opponent, who counters with a right cross that sails over Richardson's head. The boxer wearing blue trunks is Dan Leahey. He's also a senior and has failed in three previous bids for a Brigades title. Leahey is hungry to leave the academy a winner in the ring and knows this is his last chance.

More than 4,000 fans fill Halsey Field House, including fellow midshipmen, family and alums. And though outside the academy walls the tournament receives little fanfare, inside this well-lit gymnasium, everyone delights in the night's ebb and flow like a carnival thrill ride. A giant American flag hangs on one wall. It's 38 feet across and 18 feet tall.

In here, the parents in the bleachers are a reminder that every fighter has a home. And the big flag makes it difficult to forget that every fighter is headed somewhere far from home.

Even without war as a backdrop, the boxing tournament is much anticipated every year, a way station for the tough - at an institution where toughness is an institution. Stepping inside the academy's walls is setting foot into a unique world, where the values and expectations are the same today as they were when the school opened its doors nearly 162 years ago.

The boxing ring epitomizes it all. Not just toughness, but competition, discipline and poise under pressure. That's why every plebe is required to learn to box, even the women. For Richardson and Leahey, fame is not waiting on the other side of that final bell. This is sport for the sake of sport.

On this night last month, with all that and a championship at stake, the two friends begin awkwardly, exchanging errant punches. Leahey is moving too slowly, cautiously feeling out Richardson, though by now the two know each other's styles and tendencies. After being hooked on boxing during their plebe summer, they've sparred together countless times and in the process have become good friends.

Finding a home

The first round is half over and Richardson paws at Leahey with his right hand. The crowd is loud but seems uncertain which fighter it prefers. Inside the ring, it's clear that the respect is mutual. Richardson admires all that Leahey has accomplished in school - Leahey is ranked No. 7 in a senior class of more than 1,000 - and Leahey respects what Richardson has overcome in life.

"B.J.'s greatest accomplishment wouldn't be graduating from here as a four-time champ," James McNally, Navy's veteran boxing coach, likes to say. "It'll be graduating from here, period."

Richardson was a fighter long before he found solace from a speed bag. For him, 12-ounce gloves are more than weapons. They're instruments of expression.

When Richardson was 3 months old, living in Jersey City, N.J., his parents began arguing one day. Eva Marie Richardson held a kitchen knife. It slashed across John Richardson's neck, killing him. Investigators ruled it self-defense. The mother sent her son to live with her sister in North Carolina.

"He was a jerk," B.J. Richardson says today of his father. "He didn't respect women. I grew up knowing that he was a person that I never wanted to be."

He saw his mother only occasionally. She moved to Florida and he remained in Raeford, N.C., where he grew up calling his aunt and uncle "Mom" and "Dad." He recalls a happy childhood, living and playing with cousins he regarded as siblings. But Richardson also recognizes that boxing is therapy for him, a better place than most to rid himself of whatever anger and sorrow his childhood layered into his life.

So every afternoon, Richardson visits the third-floor boxing gym in McDonough Hall, where he tries to understand himself as a fighter. On Fridays, though, he first stops by the Midshipmen Developmental Center where he meets with a counselor, trying to sort out what motivates him as a man.

It all seems more complex as he grows older. Last summer, he was back in Raeford visiting family. A family argument escalated and bullets chased Richardson from the house, the trail of gunfire leading back to a gun held by his uncle, the only father figure Richardson had ever known. According to Richardson and police, alcohol was involved. But that doesn't soften the hurt left by his uncle's words: "Don't ever come here again."

He hasn't. The academy is his home for at least three more months, and that usually means the gym in McDonough Hall. This is his permanent place in Navy lore. The walls of the boxing gym are lined with plaques that list the name of every midshipman who has won a Brigades title. Richardson's name is already up there three times, but that's not enough. A fourth title would mean he could return years later, maybe with his own children, and show off an accomplishment so rare it marks him as extraordinary.

"That'd still be me - my name - up there," he says of the plaques. "That's my mark."

And now, on this night, only his good friend stands in the way. His many other friends and his girlfriend are in the stands cheering him on, but no family.

A study in contrasts

Just a few seconds remain in the first round and Leahey, wearing the shiny blue trunks, a blue Navy tanktop and white shoes, is eager to impress the judges. Because college boxing matches are just three two-minute rounds, there's no time to waste.

Leahey is walking Richardson around the ring. He's the aggressor now. "Get in there," he's thinking. Having shorter arms, he has to move the fight inside. If only Richardson would cooperate.

Richardson's legs move like pistons, and Leahey's own feet follow an aimless jab. Richardson sidesteps the punch and tags Leahey in the back of the head. Through the first two minutes of the fight, Leahey might as well have been shadowboxing; many punches seeming to lack a target.

At the first round's end, up in the stands, Leahey's family collectively lets out a sigh of relief. Mike and Karleen Leahey, a software engineer and a homemaker, have traveled to Annapolis from Morristown, N.J. They've made the trip each of the past three years, hoping to see their son win a championship. Could tonight be the night?

As the bell sounds to start the second round, it's apparent how different the two fighters are. Richardson is a left-hander with an unconventional style. Though his spindly legs branch out awkwardly, like a giraffe searching for balance, he moves constantly and fluidly, with a spring in every step.

Leahey seems to be a cutout figure from an old how-to manual. A right-hander, he moves methodically in the ring, studying his opponent. His upper body bounces in a steady rhythm, bobbing up and down like a buoy in the ocean.

"B.J. has more raw talent," says McNally, the boxing coach, "but doesn't always harness it. Dan uses his talent to the very best of his ability. The only problem is he doesn't have as much of it as B.J. does."

McNally knows that the differences extend beyond the ring. One of the beauties of the Naval Academy is that it takes young men and women of all backgrounds and molds them uniformly. So an African-American with a troubled past can create a military career alongside a white preppy from a loving middle-class family.

The bell rings again and Leahey knows that this round must be better than the first. "Come on! Take the fight to him," says Jim Searing, the assistant coach working Leahey's corner, himself a past Brigades champion.

Leahey's a planner. He'd planned his way through high school and now college. And he'd plotted out this fight many times - he'd be the aggressor - but already the bout is not going according to plan. As the second round begins, it's Richardson who again charges first out of the corner, throwing a series of quick combos. His punches do little damage, but they prevent Leahey from establishing an attack. Leahey is thinking he has seen Richardson move this way for three years. "So why can't I get to him?"

Leahey's brother is also a midshipman. He's in the stands, his face hidden behind a video camera. Leahey's girlfriend is here, too, having driven 400 miles from Duke University to watch him fight for the first time. She isn't sure what's more jarring, the image of her boyfriend of five years taking a punch or the idea of him throwing one.

"Let's go, Dan!" the shout comes from the stands. The words are timid, as much pleas as they are encouragement. "C'mon Dan! Let's get in there!"

Man with a plan

Leahey's parents were surprised when he announced that of all the sports offered at the academy, he'd chosen boxing. But the time, dedication and energy he's given to the sport - that was no surprise at all.

"When he puts his mind to something, he gives it everything he has," says his father. "He planned his whole life on how to get here. Everything he did, it was all planned out."

When Leahey was 10, he announced that he'd be a fighter pilot. As a freshman in high school, he mapped out a class schedule he knew would result in valedictorian honors and earn a post at the Naval Academy. And when he first walked into a boxing gym, he knew how he wanted to leave Annapolis. He saw the plaques filled with the names of past champs and imagined his up there, too.

"You see the other guys coming back years later and watching Brigades," he says. "I've already thought about how this is my last year and how much I'll miss it. Someday, that'll be me, coming back here and watching the younger guys get in the ring."

He lost in the semifinals as a plebe. He reached the finals his next two years, but lost both bouts. He was tired of cutting weight to box at 140, so he moved up to Richardson's weight class this year.

The 147-pound weight class is a tough one. Competitors need to be light on their feet yet pack their punches with plenty of pop. In some respects, tailoring a tough 147-pounder is like building the perfect soldier, one who can run several miles but still stand toe to toe in a slugfest.

For Leahey, beating his friend is literally his biggest test. Richardson is almost 6 feet, giving him more than a 2-inch edge. Richardson's long arms give him an important reach advantage, too, and he's naturally much quicker than Leahey.

For his part, Leahey has improved dramatically in 3 1/2 years - he has calmed down, he's stronger, he follows his punches, his footwork is better - though through 1 1/2 rounds, he has mostly hidden these refined skills.

Leahey gives continued chase after Richardson. But each time he gets near, his pursuit is stopped by a ball of leather. The round is half over and Richardson throws a wild hook. Leahey counters with a left and promptly blocks four quick punches from Richardson before connecting again with a soft jab.

The midshipmen in the crowd are an even mix of partisan supporters. Both fighters are well-liked on campus: Richardson, friendly and approachable, and Leahey, a natural leader.

Leahey was a company commander last semester, but there's a time-honored rule that in the boxing gym everyone is equal. Seniors instruct plebes to drop the formalities and use first names at boxing practice. Still, they refer to Leahey as "Sir." Even as he tries to be one of them, he's regarded as a superior.

His mother remembers a time when Leahey wanted to throw a post-prom party at his uncle's house on the shore. "But he couldn't get any of his friends to come because they all wanted to party and drink," she says, "and they knew this wouldn't be the environment that would include that." He still had the party. His girlfriend showed up, along with an exchange student from the neighborhood and maybe a couple of others. But most of the kids were interested in kegs, not kayaks.

Everything about the academy, from its organized culture to its rigid lifestyle, suits Leahey perfectly. Even boxing has been a good learning experience. For the most part, everything has come easily for him, seemed so natural, except for boxing. He's in with a man for whom nothing came easily, except for boxing. Richardson knows he'd be lying if he said the thought of leaving the academy had never crossed his mind.

In the ring, they fall into a steady rhythm, neither man truly effective. While Leahey is having trouble landing any punches, Richardson's are having little impact. The bell rings, sending the two fighters to their corners.

Familiar foe

Richardson looks across, and his mind briefly wanders away from the fight. He prides himself on his focus in the ring, but now, standing in his corner, Richardson realizes, maybe for the first time in his career, this time his opponent is not faceless.

"Man, that's Dan over there," he's thinking. "That's my friend."

He quickly shakes the thought. Richardson had told McNally, the boxing coach, before the fight that he knew the inherent dilemma, and he knew he'd have to pound a familiar face to reach his goal. That's part of what makes the Brigades so unique - the competition is against teammates, friends, men you'd stand next to in lunch line and maybe someday in battle.

The tournament began two weeks earlier, a total of 140 fighters, whittled down to the top two in each of 10 weight classes. Richardson and Leahey, two of the boxing team's three captains, have known for a while they'd likely meet in the title fight.

And now they have just two minutes left in their final Brigades bout.

Two minutes to see who's the best.

"I'm not dumb. I know the other guy in the ring is always going to want it," Richardson says. "But I'm always going to want it more. No matter who it is. It's like, when I'm in the ring, my mind goes somewhere else. You throw me in there and I see just one person and everything else just fades away. It will go dark except that one person. It's like there's a light shining on him."

Two more minutes chasing the light.

As the bell rings to start the third round, each man believes the winner of this final round will win the fight.

Richardson tries to find Leahey's eyes. That's the key, he says, locking in on the eyes, digging deep into your opponent's psyche and just as importantly, daring him to look into yours. Last year, for Richardson's third title, he beat a mid named Denny East. East says what he saw in Richardson's eyes was a passion and rage unknown by most fighters.

"But when it's over, it's over," Richardson says. "At the end of the match, we know that we're still going to be friends. It's not like that one fight, Oliver North and that Webb guy."

Tradition and history is a big part of the academy culture, particularly around the boxing program. While Hollywood tried to capture the spirit of the Brigades in the 2006 movie Annapolis, the tale that gets bandied about the gym, the dorm rooms and the mess hall stems from the 1967 championships. A junior named Oliver North, who'd rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel, squared off against class rival James Webb, who would become secretary of the Navy and a U.S. senator.

"Jim Webb had a problem. His problem was Ollie North," Robert Timberg wrote in The Nightengale's Song. "It was March 1967 and North stood between Webb and the 145-pound Brigade boxing championship he had coveted for nearly three years."

The fight went the distance, and North won by a unanimous decision. Webb reportedly complained that North was given preferential treatment by boxing coaches leading up to the bout.

In the 40 years since, as the two combatants rose to prominence, the fight has been mythologized in academy lore. It's also noted because, unlike many Brigade bouts, North-Webb was not a match of friends. Webb seemed to harbor a grudge years later. Around McDonough Hall, they remember Webb making a tour of the boxing gym a decade ago with a television crew. When the cameras weren't rolling, Webb threw punches against a heavy bag and grunted that he'd like another shot at North.

Richardson finds Leahey's eyes, but sees nothing there he can use. Similarly, Leahey sees no animosity in Richardson's. Forty years from now, neither man will want another shot at his friend.

Bigger battle looms

After a series of ineffectual flurries by both men desperate to score points, Leahey lands a pair of soft right crosses. Richardson backpedals and Leahey gives chase, throwing a straight right that snaps Richardson's head back. It's Leahey's hardest, cleanest punch of the night, and for the first time, the future pilot shows a flash of fight, a spark of momentum.

The sudden burst of energy in the ring causes competing chants to break out. Half of the Halsey Field House comes with "Lea-hey! Lea-hey!" The rest counters with "B-J! B-J!" The midshipmen chant in a shared voice, another reminder, as the giant flag above them is, that all these young men and women are on the same team.

War talk is omnipresent at the academy. As Webb and North represented a generation of midshipmen whose lives would be defined by military action, Richardson and Leahey entered the academy facing very similar prospects. They realize boxing is just another discipline intended to prepare mids for a bigger battle, their fists just another weapon to study and master.

"It's real out there, I know that," Richardson says. "You can't wait for the first bullet to zip over your head before you start to do something. It's all about anticipating and reacting quickly."

Says Leahey: "When you sign up, you know that the mission is much bigger than you. What we're really doing here isn't about class rank or engineering or boxing. You never forget that."

Richardson and Leahey started at the academy in 2003, shortly after the United States invaded Iraq. They knew that studying in Annapolis included a real-world postgrad education that most college students can only experience on cable news networks. "A parent's pride and a parent's nightmare," is how Mike Leahey described it.

Both fighters are scheduled to graduate in three months. As a rare straight-A student, Leahey will have the option of studying for his master's before entering pilot school. Richardson will enlist in the Marines. After six months of training, he expects to be in Iraq. He says he's not afraid of what that might mean. "When it's your time, it's your time," Richardson says.

And the winner is ...

As the bout enters its final minute, both fighters know their time in the ring has come. His first Brigades title there for the taking, Leahey throws punches in a fury, desperation igniting each launch. Similarly, Richardson has discarded defense, abandoned strategy and tactics. There's no time left for thinking. In his head, it's simply, "Go, go, go! Faster, faster!"

The crowd is still chanting, and three judges sit around the ring, clicking a counter every time they see a clean punch. The seconds tick away, and the round becomes a blur of arms and yellow and leather and blue, each man operating on adrenaline that's not set to expire until a bell rings.

Just 20 seconds now. Leahey pushes Richardson into a corner.

Now 10 seconds. Heads down, hearts pumping, fists pounding. The field house rings with inaudible voices and appreciation. Leahey and Richardson hope to land the one punch that wins the fight. A left, a right. With each punch they throw, their skill levels, unique histories and earnest ambitions collide and explode, until ...

Bell.

And the fighters, the two friends, head to their corners.

At their corners, they remove their gloves and headgear. They wait while judges hand in their scorecards.

The referee calls Leahey and Richardson again to the center of the ring, where they started 10 minutes earlier.

The referee holds each fighter by the wrist. There are no more bells. The next sound anyone hears will announce the toughest boxer in the toughest tournament at the toughest school.

"Our winner ... " the ring announcer says, " ... and the 15th four-time champion ... B.J. Richardson!"

The referee raises Richardson's hand. He is now a part of academy history. Leahey smiles, showing no disappointment or remorse as he congratulates his friend. Family, fans and mids cheer. The boxing coach stands at ringside clapping.

In the center of the ring, the fighters embrace. Beneath the giant flag, they look like miniature figurines. Soon they'll leave here - Halsey Field House, the Naval Academy, Annapolis. Everyone at the academy is heading somewhere. But for just a brief moment, they're not boxers, not students, not warriors in the making. Just two friends hugging, linked together forever by six minutes of boxing that each will retell and relive for the rest of his life.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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