A look at what boxing does for soldiers and why they want it back.
Photos provided by Tavarus Roberts
The nation's long tradition of military boxing may be in jeopardy. Earlier this year, it was reported that the boxing program in the United State Air Force has been discontinued, and the trend appears to be spread across all military branches. The shutdown comes as a result of the AIBA's ruling to remove the use of headgear at the elite levels of amateur competition, a decision that went against a requirement for military personnel to compete in combat sports. Air Force enlistees aren't exactly happy with the situation.
"Boxing has done a lot," says Tavarus Roberts, 791st Missile Security Forces Squadron response force leader and former captain to the team. "I'm stationed in a place where it gets up to negative 75 degrees, so it just created a morale for me. Boxing was a way out. It was a way out for me to do something, to feel like I'm achieving something, and honestly, it helps out the Air Force as well, because I'm able to fight. That's what we do. We fight."
Roberts is stationed at the Minot Air Force Base, home to over 5,500 enlisted men and women in the Air Force armed forces. True to its name, it is located in Minot, North Dakota, where moments pass slowly, and weather conditions can be harsh. It is also the nation's only base housing two components of the nuclear triad and responsible for providing global strike and nuclear deterrence, a critical responsibility to say the least. When I asked Roberts what he thought about the program being cut out of safety concerns, he said, "They say that [boxing] is dangerous, but being in the military itself is dangerous."
Perhaps the biggest impact is the closure of the annual Air Force training camp where fighters would endure a rigorous regimen in order to prepare for tournaments in the broader amateur network. Air Force athletes have found considerable success as a result, taking away a number of trophies at highly regarded tournaments such as the Golden Gloves and the US Nationals. At Olympian levels, military branches have historically held a strong presence. Between the Navy, Army, Air Force, and Marines, the armed forces have produced 36 Olympic boxers, 12 of whom that medaled. Over recent years, however, that presence has been significantly diminished. Roberts believes it is due to the gradual reduction of the training program over time.
"I think that's because of the budget cuts. Before the program used to be for a whole year straight, then it was 9 months, then it was 6 months, then at the end it was about 2.5 months," Roberts tells me. "I'm out on my base, and I'm security forces, so I respond to any and every alarm to ensure the protection of our ICBMs [Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles]. I'm supposed to work 12-plus hours, and go train after work, so it's harder now, you know what I mean?"
Officially, enlisted members are still allowed to pursue the sport outside the military base with approval from commanding officers, but the closure of the training camp has made that pursuit that much more of a hassle. The base in Minot has since removed any sort of pugilistic training equipment, and has filled the space with an array of treadmills and elliptical machines. Those wanting to continue their amateur careers are required to train off base, and no longer officially represent the Air Force at amateur bouts. The changes have driven some to take the next step and transition into the professional ranks.
One such fighter is Dustin Southichack, who won his pro-debut via 1st round TKO in January of this year. Though Southichack is still enlisted in the Air Force reserves, Roberts said that ending the base's amateur program drove Southichack's decision to turn pro. Others are in talks of leaving the military completely.
"I have to think about what I'm gonna do because I've talked to a lot of athletes as well and a lot of them are now trying to get out of the Air Force because they don't have the program here," says Roberts. "They do love their job [at the Air Force], don't get me wrong, but being a part of the Air Force team was something special. The Air Force is a family, but [the boxing team was] a tighter knit group, a special group because of what we go through because not everyone could do what we did."
The situation leaves soldiers-athletes like Roberts in a precarious position – dedicated to their military service, but left with an unrequited love for a sport that they are no longer permitted to practice. Roberts sends me screenshots of Facebook posts from soldiers who have recovered from debilitating injuries, reconciled emotional traumas, or simply met physical fitness goals because of the boxing program. For Roberts, the entire situation is mind-boggling since the training helped soldiers stay sharp and fit, a crucial asset needed for those tasked with jobs such as those in Minot.
Roberts and a few others continue to fight in the amateur ranks and still don the Air Force gear at tournaments despite there no longer being a program. He tells me the fighting reputation of the Air Force continues to intimidate opponents, and inspire plenty of fans that approach them after the fights. "I still represent the Air Force even though the Air Force won't represent an official boxing team," Roberts jokes to me. In speaking with Roberts, I don't get the feeling that he harbors any hard feelings towards the Air Force, it just seems like he and many others simply want to box again on base.
"Boxing does good for the Air Force. It shows our strength. It brings a point of positive light. I've had commanders of all sorts and other leadership has come to my fights and I had the opportunity to give them and other airman morale through my boxing performances," Roberts says. "I just wish they would understand how important the program is for people, and [how it helped] how other people saw at the Air Force."