Recollections of Yale, across the decades. Send your own memories to be considered for posting to, with subject line “For Memories.”
Ico print Print | Ico email Email | Facebook | | RSS

A very short career in Yale boxing (May/June 2005)

I had to go out for boxing as a Yale freshman. There wasn’t any question. I demonstrated no significant ability to box; but my older brother Roger, at Harvard, had knocked out all of his opponents in a tournament and become the university’s 165-pound boxing champion. I had cheerfully followed in Roger’s footsteps during our early years—track in high school, modern European history in college—and boxing was no different.

The freshman boxing tournament was scheduled for a few weeks after I had started to learn the sport. At 6 feet 1 1/2 inches and about 150 pounds, I had let myself be persuaded to compete in the 155-pound division. My first opponent was a burly student, and from what I observed of his workouts, he would have flattened me. Fortunately for me, a few hours before our match he cut his forehead with a squash racquet. I advanced to the semifinals by default.

I never learned much about the ability of my second opponent, but it didn’t matter. Two days before our scheduled fight, he came down with the flu. So, without lifting a glove, there I was in the finals.

The varsity and freshmen championships were held on the same night in the cavernous Payne Whitney gymnasium. Twenty-five hundred people were in the audience, anticipating an evening of mayhem and violence in the varsity matches. No one knew or really cared about what to expect from us freshmen. The referee was a law student who had been an all-American football player and national boxing champion at the University of Michigan.

My opponent in the championship was Dave Longmaid ’42BArch, who showed up relaxed and ready for the bout. Longmaid was a slender, gangling fellow with long arms that he knew how to use. He had attended the Hill School in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where boxing was the major sport; fights took place in a ring used for one of the heavyweight championship bouts between Gene Tunney and Jack Dempsey. At the Hill School Longmaid had been the champion of his weight class. He had also been the champion of every other weight class.

Understandably, there was concern among the coaches about how I would fare. So it was decided that Mosey King, the legendary varsity coach, would be the second in my corner to help me as much as he could.

Each round was to last two minutes. About 30 seconds of the first round passed without either of us striking a blow, while we tried to figure out each other’s style. When the crowd started to boo, Longmaid began to hit me, and he continued to do so without much resistance for the rest of the round.

When I went back to my corner, Mosey started telling me what to do and not to do, but the bell for the second round interrupted him. I may have landed an occasional soft blow in the next two minutes, but I have no recollection of it. Before the third and final round began, Mosey tried again to talk to me, but I was so frustrated that I wouldn’t listen. I told him I did everything he told me to do and all that resulted was that I continued to be pounded unmercifully.

At the start of the third round the referee watched carefully and hovered near us. The crowd shouted encouragement to me, but Longmaid’s barrage continued, and finally, the referee stopped the fight mid-way through the round.

Angry and doubtless punch-drunk, I turned toward the referee and deliberately landed the best of my few blows of the match on his chin. The crowd erupted with the loudest applause of the evening.

Afterward, there were no marks on the referee or Dave Longmaid to indicate that I’d hurt them. But I spent weeks recovering from a bruised chest, a dislocated thumb, and a broken septum. The next week, the Yale Daily News described my fight as “a fisticuff tea party with Longmaid pouring and Downs receiving.” It was accurate.

Now let’s skip to the mid-1960s. President Lyndon Johnson liked to claim that the trouble with Republican congressman Gerry Ford ’41LLB was that he had played too many football games without his helmet on. But don’t you believe it for a minute! It was my blow on that night in 1938 on the chin of the future president that marked him for life.

My only regret has been that I haven’t had the opportunity to punch two other presidents—who shall be nameless—with even harder blows. The world might be a different place today!

Vermont attorney and newspaper columnist John H. Downs ’41, an army veteran, has served as a state legislator and a civil rights lawyer. He has stayed out of the ring.

Filed under 1940s, boxing
The comment period has expired.