At USC, a school known for big-name Division I varsity sports, club sports generally get lost under a deluge of Rose Bowls, national championships and highly touted recruits. However, the USC boxing team, which started not so long ago as a couple of guys working out in the basement of a local gym, is exploding onto the regional boxing scene and is poised to make an impact on a national level.
Twenty-five members attend the team’s two-hour Tuesday/Thursday practices on campus, and anywhere between five and 10 Trojans make the half-hour drive to Gio’s Brooklyn Boxing Club in Burbank, Calif., for a more intensive workout on Monday and Wednesday nights.
Four practices a week, runs to stay in shape and actual fights represent a high level of dedication for a club sport. The dedication makes sense — the boxing club is home to USC’s best boxers because the Trojans have no varsity boxing team.
In fact, no school in the United States has one, since the NCAA outright banned collegiate boxing in the 1960s after a University of Wisconsin fighter collapsed during the NCAA championships and eventually died. The National Collegiate Boxing Association, which USC boxing belongs to, is the ruling organization for collegiate boxing — putting USC on a level playing field with any school in the United States.
Led by coach Ramon Espada and current president Evan Aguilar, a junior majoring in business administration, the team is preparing for its showcase on Friday, the L.A. Collegiate Boxing Invitational at the Los Angeles Athletic club. This event will be the first annual tournament for collegiate boxers in California, comparable to similar established tournaments in New York, Detroit and Seattle.
The USC boxing club has been the driving force behind the invitational, and to say it’s a big deal would be an understatement. The members will face off against fighters from crosstown rival UCLA and national champion West Point in a 10-bout event, headlined by the match between USC graduate student Jeff Sacha, who is studying sociology, and UCLA’s fighter Ian Cruz. Also fighting are USC students Garrick Lee, a senior majoring in fine arts and Elijah Oseguera, a senior majoring in international relations.
The team has come a long way since its inauspicious beginnings in 2006. Current assistant coach Mike Evanisko met Espada upon moving to Southern California after college. The two became good friends as Evanisko started to box as an amateur. After working as a real estate agent, Evanisko decided to enter graduate school at USC. According to Evanisko, “Ramon lit up” and proposed starting a team, and the USC boxing club was born.
To get recognized as a club sport, the duo needed more members to petition the idea to the university. Evanisko rounded up a few friends from the Marshall School of Business and submitted the application.
“At first, there was really only one member,” Evanisko said. “The rest of the guys showed up a couple of times.”
But the club grew and eventually had a group of 10 or so dedicated boxers training in the basement of a community center in South Central Los Angeles.
At first, just Evanisko fought, winning bouts at San Jose State, Santa Clara and Reno.
“At that point, it was just me and Ramon,” Evanisko said. “We’d leave L.A. as late as 10 or 12 most nights — I had school, and he had work. We’d drive through the night, find something to eat and somewhere to stay, and get ready for the fight.”
Evanisko qualified for regionals in Las Vegas in 2007 but was paired up against one of the top fighters at the tournament and lost.
NCBA rules state that graduate students only have one year of eligibility, so the next year USC lost its only competitive fighter. Despite the setback, which could have potentially dissolved the team, USC boxing continued to grow thanks to a dedicated core group of members. Every boxer who has served as president of the club is still involved with the team, and has been since the beginning.
Then in 2008, Lee took over as president, and Espada remained as the coach. The club continued to grow, and jumped between gyms to accommodate its growing membership, moving from the L.A. Boxing Club, to the Sands Gym Downtown, to Wild Card, where Manny Pacquiao — one of the best boxers in the world — trains.
Even with all the changes, the fighters have grown better and more consistent; two years ago, Sacha qualified for collegiate nationals in Maryland but couldn’t attend because of budget restrictions.
USC boxing has taken off in the past few years, yet members still have lofty goals.
“I’m hoping to send Jeff, Garrick, Elijah and Chris to the Western Collegiate Championships, and then maybe nationals,” Espada said.
Espada believes at least one of the fighters has a shot at grabbing a national title this year. Now that they’ve starting hosting shows, Espada hopes to eventually host a regional or national championship here in Los Angeles.
One of the problems USC boxing has faced is the lack of a consistent practice facility that is properly outfitted. Sacha solved that problem. USC boxing is working to build a gym at the Graf Pit at Pico Union, in exchange for teaching boxing classes to local kids. This would allow the team to not only have a steady, close practice facility but also to give back to the community and gain recognition.
Espada has loftier goals for the future.
“UNLV and UNR have big boxing gyms on campus, with all the gear they need, and around 100 fighters on the team,” he said. “We can do something like that.”
One thing is for sure — the club is going nowhere but up.
“This whole thing has been driven by Ramon,” Evanisko said. “As long as he’s here, the club will be around. He won’t let it die.”