As the decade opens, Wisconsin’s Charlie Mohr is one of the country’s best, and nicest, collegiate boxers. In his horn-rimmed glasses and green tweed cap, he didn’t look like much of a fighter, but in 1959, the 22-year-old from the south shore of Long Island was voted outstanding collegiate boxer and was the reigning NCAA champ at 165 pounds.
He also won the NCAA trophy awarded to the boxer “whose sportsmanship, skill and conduct perpetuate the finest attributes of collegiate boxing.”
A devout Catholic who often assisted at Sunday Mass at the State Girls’ School in Oregon, they called him ‘the saint with boxing gloves.” When he prayed before a bout, it wasn’t to win – it was that he wouldn’t hurt his opponent.
And he probably had more friends than anyone in Madison. Including nine-year-old Tommy Moen, whom Mohr adopted as the team mascot.
Son of a butcher and a clerk at Western Union, Mohr came to Wisconsin on a boxing scholarship, and worked as a waiter at Paisan’s restaurant.
In the spring of 1960, the stylish southpaw is captain of a fabled squad; since its intercollegiate start in 1933, boxing had been the UW’s best athletic program by far, with nine undefeated seasons and an NCAA- record- setting eight national championships.
On April 5, Mohr is named first team All-American at his weight class. Two nights later, the NCAA tournament opens at the UW Field House.
Wisconsin State Journal sports columnist Roundy Coughlin, a big boxing fan, is in his element. As the tournament enters its second day, he sets the scene in his unique style. “I seen all the NCAA boxers the other day they got more boxers here than people thought Wisconsin would beat Washington in the Rose Bowl and that’s a mob.”
Ten thousand are there when the tournament climaxes on Saturday night the ninth, with six Wisconsin fighters in the finals. The atmosphere is electric as Mohr climbs into the ring to take on a friend, San Jose State’s Stu Bartell, a navy veteran and former football player at LSU.
Several Badger boxers had already lost; Mohr has to win for Wisconsin to take back the crown from the California crew.
The first two-minute round is close, with Mohr probably ahead. Then, about halfway through the second, Bartell lands a terrific right cross, flush on Mohr’s left forehead. Mohr gets up at the count of two, takes the standing nine count, and is cleared to continue. The boxers spar and clinch a bit; then Mohr’s legs buckle, and his hands hang limp. The ref stops the fight at 1:49 of the second round.
Mohr makes it back to the dressing room unaided, even signing autographs on the way. He apologizes to coach Vern Woodward and the team for losing. “I guess I zigged when I should have zagged,” he says.
Mohr seems physically fine as coach and teammates tell him not to feel bad about losing.
Then he says his head hurts and lies down. And the convulsions begin.
Word quickly spreads through the Field House. “I’m sorry I hurt your friend,” an anguished Bartell tells the young Tommy Moen. Mohr’s father writes Bartell, absolving him of any blame. He calls the injury “part of God’s plan.”
Mohr is rushed to University Hospital, but by the time Dr. Manucher Javid operates, Mohr is already in a coma, with a tear in a major vein and a blood clot in his brain. The difficult three-hour operation stops the bleeding and drains the clot, but Javid knows there’s little hope and says so. The situation is so dire, Mohr is given the last rites of the Roman Catholic Church that night. A score or more of Mohr’s teammates and friends maintain an around- the- clock vigil at his bedside.
Coach Woodward says he’s worried that if Mohr suffers permanent damage, it could mean the end of boxing at Wisconsin.
Later, influential fans of the program claim boxing wasn’t to blame— they say Mohr had an aneurysm that could have burst at any time and just happened to do so during a bout. Whether they believe that or just say it, it isn’t true; but with boxing already on the ropes in Madison and around the country, they hope to convince others it is.
At 8:40 a.m. on Easter morning, April 17, Charlie Mohr is pronounced dead.
It’s not the only loss the university suffers that weekend. Thomas E. Brittingham, Jr., a founding trustee and later president of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and son of the lumberman/philanthropist who created Brittingham Park, dies Saturday of a heart attack at age 61.
Two days after Mohr’s death, reporter Elliott Maraniss reveals in the Capital Times that he had suffered from depression, was questioning his life as a boxer, saw a psychiatrist a few times, and even had electroshock treatment. Team and university officials won’t say whether they knew about these issues before the fatal bout.
It was later revealed that Mohr’s teammates had been aware of his emotional state, and that he stayed in the program because he needed to keep his scholarship. One friend had pleaded with coach Woodward to pull him from the tournament. Woodward, in his second year after succeeding legendary coach John Walsh, said everything would be all right.
Around the state, debate begins on the future of what the legendary journalist A. J. Leibling called “the sweet science of bruising.” Dr. Anthony Curreri, UW professor of surgery and chairman of the boxing rules committee of the NCAA, calls Mohr’s death “a real tragedy,” but says college boxing is basically safe, and should continue. But the secretary to the state athletic commission, himself a former boxer, calls it barbaric, and says it should be banned. The Milwaukee Journal agrees, editorializing that university officials have the “clear duty” to end it immediately.
On May 9, the UW faculty meets in Music Hall. Ignoring the Athletic Board’s formal request for a referral, and without consulting coach Woodward, the faculty overwhelmingly adopts a resolution declaring that boxing “is not an appropriate intercollegiate sport, and . . . so should be discontinued.” And it is.
And since the Big Ten requires that faculty have total control over athletics, the resolution stands, with no appeal to the administration or the regents.
On May 11, the Daily Cardinal blasts the faculty for ending 27 of boxing tradition after only 20 minutes of discussion. “They didn’t rely on committees, they relied on their immediate whims and fancies,” the paper editorializes. “It is dangerous to give such an irresponsible group so much power.”
Other schools soon follow Wisconsin’s lead, and in January 1961, so does the NCAA.
There would never be another NCAA boxing tournament after the night that Charlie
Mohr fell at the UW Field House.
And that’s this week’s Madison in the sixties. For your award-winning, hand-washing, physically distant WORT news team, I’m Stu Levitan.
Arthur Vinje photo courtesy Wis. Hist. Soc. Archives WHi-105057