Marine Sgt. Robert Castillo fights Royal Logistics Corps member Nathan Chester at Goettge Memorial Field House, Camp Lejeune, N.C., on April 18th. (Randy Davey photo)
CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — If it was supposed to be an exhibition fight, no one told James Ronan.
The wiry British soldier — a light-welterweight from the http://www.army.mod.uk/rlc/units/13aa_regt/index.htm">13th Air Assault Support Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps, visiting Camp Lejeune April 18 for a rare chance to take on the http://www.usmc-mccs.org/sports/boxing/index.cfm?sid=ml&smid=2&ssmid=3">U.S. Marine Corps Boxing Team — caught Sgt. Robert Rocha with a right jab as the Marine wobbled off-balance, sending Rocha to the canvas as time expired in the first round.
Some 232 years to the day of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Revere">Paul Revere's famous midnight ride, it seemed the British were coming again.
His first-round knockdown struck a chord with the mostly Marine crowd, which erupted in anger as Rocha went down, and energized a British team that until then just seemed happy to be invited. Minutes before, the soldiers watched silently as Marine Sgt. Robert Castillo easily dispatched their first boxer of the night, bantamweight Nathan Chester.
"Nice, Jimmy, nice," one teammate cheered from the corner, where the handful of British soldiers huddled together. "Way to go, Jimmy," another called.
Two uneventful rounds later, the soldiers had their first win.
Heavy underdogs coming into the fight, the British team is one of many in the service. Unlike their All-Marine team opponents — which select the best boxers from across the Corps — every member of the British team came from the same unit, thus limiting the talent pool, a worry for the British coach.
The night began as a joke among the Brits, who generally look for an event each year outside of the United Kingdom. It's rare to fight a U.S. team, however, other than in a sanctioned match such as the http://www.cism-milsport.org/eng/d_world_game/d4_2007.html">Military World Games, scheduled for Oct. 14-21 in Hyderabad, India.
But someone spoke to someone who knew someone else, and suddenly the event seemed like a real possibility.
"We sort of kidded ourselves into it, and it just sort of happened," said British Sgt. Johnnie Griffin, the senior head coach of the team. "It's just a great experience, really. The kind of thing you tell your grandchildren about."
Especially if you win, which the Brits did often enough, finishing the night's eight matches in a respectable 4-4 tie with the Marine team.
After Rocha's loss, both the crowd and the Marine team seemed ready to get one back. Catcalls from the audience — "This is our house," one Marine yelled — sent middlewieght Sgt. Rashawn Rawls charging into the ring to attack British opponent Martine Fisher. But Fisher took an errant blow below the belt, forcing an early break in the action, and earning the Brit a seat and a moment to catch his breath.
The pause seemed to break Rawls' rhythm and Fisher stayed strong, hanging in for the first two rounds. In the third, the Brit took the advantage, catching Rawls with a shot that sent the Marine to one knee for a six-count. When Rawls stood up, still dazed, the referee stopped the match.
At the end of three, the Marines were down 1-2.
They fared no better in the fourth match, as heavyweight Lance Cpl. Kelvin De La O — fighting in his first match for the Marine team and his first after a two-year hiatus — took a pounding from big Brit Max Dhilwayo but managed to stay vertical. Although the Marine refused to go down, the referee stepped in and stopped the fight in the third round.
The score after four: Marines, 1. Brits, 3.
Praying for a comeback
By the fifth match, the crowd of more than 400 spectators was calling for blood, much to the delight of Marine Cpl. Juan Hernandez. Fighting in the super heavyweight division, Hernandez sent the crowd into a frenzy in the second when he cornered Mataisi Vave and pummeled the Brit, causing him to stumble and flop into the ropes. With Vave still taking a beating in the third, Coach Griffin threw in the towel to end the match.
After a brief intermission — which many in the crowd spent cooling off outside, smoking and lamenting the Corps' 2-3 deficit — the event picked up again with the night's premiere fight, Marine ace Lance Cpl. Samuel Martinez against Brit Nicky Burndred.
Martinez, fresh from a recent upset win in the light welterweight division at the 2007 Armed Forces Boxing Championships, has already secured spots at the Olympic trials in August and the Military World Games in October. The Marine spent almost three rounds pounding Burndred, who took an eight count midway through the third before grabbing the ropes for support. With the Brit standing lost and dazed, the referee stopped the fight.
Tied 3-3, things were looking up for the Marines going into the seventh match. But Marine Cpl. Ruben Gutierrez took a hard shot from Brit Mo Patel early in the first round; the punch leveled Gutierrez, who fell flat on the mat. As the crowd spewed venom and the stunned Marine tried to stand, the referee stopped the fight and called for a medical team, inciting the crowd further.
Going into the last match down 3-4, the crowd's hopes rested with Cpl. Erick Earvin, a 201-pound welder who — along with Castillo, Rocha and Hernandez — finished second at the Armed Forces championships in his weight class, heavyweight. The son of a former all-Navy boxer, Earvin is one of the team's longtime members, active for more than two years.
The once-quiet British bench had moved closer to the ring, just behind the back row of the floor seats, for a clear view of their boy Andrew Chilcott. The crowd got into the action, screaming for a win, as the first round came and went uneventfully.
By the second round, the big Marine was going for the knockout, pounding Chilcott until the bell sounded and the dizzied Brit went to the wrong corner, bewildered.
Coach Griffin had seen enough, stopping the action and giving the Marines the win needed to end the event in a draw.
With that, fight night was over. Someone in the crowd said the British team's next stop after their scrap with the Marines was a visit to Boston.
Seems fitting. Tea anyone?