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Warriors trade punches in championship

By Bob Kovach, CNN
Midshipman 1st Class Michael Anthony Steadman, in blue, trades punches with Midshipman Angelo Loreno.
Midshipman 1st Class Michael Anthony Steadman, in blue, trades punches with Midshipman Angelo Loreno.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Midshipmen face off in Naval Academy's Brigade Boxing competition
  • Well-known names have taken part in championships over the years
  • Coach says this year's champion is one of the best he's seen

Annapolis, Maryland (CNN) -- Several thousand hoarse voices raise the rafters of the old Halsey Field House on a special night each year on the Annapolis campus of the U.S. Naval Academy. There's plenty of testosterone and warrior machismo in the air as the midshipmen gather to watch their classmates battle it out at the annual Brigade Boxing Championships.

Every midshipman, male and female, knows what its like to tie on the gloves, Naval Academy boxing coach Jim McNally says.

"There's a lot of interest in the Brigades because they all take boxing, and they get a taste of it, and a lot of them would never have thought about boxing until they take it in a phys. ed. class."

The boxing team practices daily on the top floor of MacDonough Hall, beneath names and photos of teams and champions past that line the walls.

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There's not a modern weight machine, elliptical exerciser or yoga ball in sight. This is hard-core, old-school training. Leather heavy bags hang swing from chains as they are repeatedly struck. Jump ropes nick the wood floor in constant repetition. Mirrors are used for shadowboxing.

Three boxing rings quickly fill with activity as midshipmen lace up gloves, strap on headgear and spar with each other until they drip with sweat. The rhythmic pounding of leather on leather and leather on muscle creates a constant thudding and smacking sounds.

February's fights marked the 69th time midshipmen faced each other in the ring for the annual championships.

"It's a tournament with a lot of history and tradition here, and a lot of famous alumni who have graduated who have been brigade champions or brigade boxers," McNally said. "We've had generals and admirals, space shuttle astronauts, the secretary of the Navy and U.S. senators."

One of the most famous matches took place in 1967 between Larry North, whom many know today as Oliver North of Iran-Contra fame, and Jim Webb, now a U.S. senator from Virginia and former secretary of the Navy under President Reagan. North won the bout, and his name now hangs on the wall in the boxing room.

McNally has seen a lot of boxers in his more than two decades with the program and says Midshipman 1st Class Michael Anthony Steadman of College Station, Texas, is one of the best he's seen in a long time.

Steadman is a two-time national champion, McNally says. "He's one of the hardest-working guys in the gym, a great team leader."

Steadman is the team captain and boxes in the 175-pound weight class. Every ounce is chiseled muscle, from his calves to his shaved head. His eyes are focused and his look determined.

After graduation, Steadman plans to become a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and serve in the infantry.

"We here in the boxing program have a tradition of a lot of us tending to go to the Marine Corps or the [special ops] communities. Because boxing builds that warrior spirit, we like to really think we have the warrior ethos, and every time we step in the ring, it gives us a chance to test ourselves to the limit."

This is his fourth year in the brigade championships. He lost his first year but came back to defeat that foe as a sophomore.

Steadman dedicates all his fights to his mother, who suffered a stroke in 2007. "I draw a lot of strength from my mom and her situation, and I know that through her and all the sacrifices she's made for me, stepping in the boxing ring is nothing."

He calls her on his cell phone before every match.

Steadman is heavily favored in his fight against a plebe, or freshman, boxer named Angelo Loreno of San Jose, California.

Eight matches have taken place by the time the 175-pound weight class participants enter the ring. Steadman wears a navy blue shirt and shorts with gold trim; Loreno is clad in gold with blue trim.

Matches consist of three two-minute rounds, with a minute of rest in between.

Boxers who have traded blows in the ring now relax, socialize and cheer on the remaining competitors. It's hard to believe that only minutes before, they were taking swings at each others' heads.

"The Navy boxers here are like brothers," Steadman said. "We hang out on the weekend, call each other on break; we look out for each other. I've bled with them. I've fought with them. I've trained with them in the gym. It's just like a family."

At the bell, Loreno comes out hard and connects with a flurry of punches in the first round. But tonight is not his night. Steadman's strength and experience carry him through the fight as he scores with rights and lefts, uppercuts and jabs.

Loreno stays on his feet the entire bout and puts forth a respectable showing.

The crowd is clearly for Steadman. Those packed behind his corner chant "Mike, Mike, Mike, Mike" as the clock ticks down before the final bell.

Steadman is declared a three-time Brigade Champion, and his arm is raised high. The two midshipmen embrace, and Steadman walks Loreno back to his corner and gives him words of encouragement.

"He really rocked me in the first round," Steadman said. "I'm old Navy boxing. He's the future of Navy boxing."

Steadman was also singled out for a special award and was named the Brigade's Most Outstanding Boxer of the tournament.

It's not a surprise that boxing is popular at the Naval Academy.

"Being the nature of the institution that we're developing warriors here," McNally said, "you get a lot of individuals that say, 'I want to go our for a sport that's a warrior-type sport that's going to help me be a warrior in my career in the Navy or the Marine Corps.' "

With the introduction of high technology and specialization in athletics in recent years, McNally puts boxing and what his team does in very simple terms: "Boxing is as basic as it comes. As soon as man learned how to stand up on two feet and curl his hand into a fist, they've been fighting."