Sixty years later, boxer Charlie Mohr’s tragic death still resonates

Sixty years later, boxer Charlie Mohr’s tragic death still resonates

His friends always said the same thing about Charlie Mohr: If you didn’t know him, the last thing you ever would have guessed was that he was a boxer. He was a suburban kid from Merrick, on Long Island, and while he made the daily commute to The Bronx to attend high school at Bishop Dubois on 152nd Street, that was because he harbored dreams of the priesthood.

Naturally, by the time he graduated, in 1956, he’d been named valedictorian.

“He was,” said his father, Charles, himself a former boxer, a few years later, “about as straight-arrow a kid as you can find. He was just about perfect in every way.”

Still, the altar boy at Curè of Ars parish had been drawn to the gymnasium at a young age. Most figured it was a way to defend himself from bigger classmates who might be inclined to taunt a skinny, devoutly religious kid. Some thought it was either to honor his father — himself a former fighter — or to ward off his father’s occasional forays into temper.

But the first time he walked into the gym at the corner of Alabama and Beach Streets in Long Beach as a 14-year-old, he was hooked. The place was run by a good-hearted New York stockbroker named Frank A’Hearn who wanted to give local kids a chance to do something beyond killing time on the beach, or seeking out trouble elsewhere.

There, Charlie Mohr found his calling as a slight, slugging southpaw.

There, Charlie Mohr grew into a precocious left-handed middleweight. By 1956, he had qualified for the semifinals of the annual Golden Gloves amateur tournament at Sunnyside Garden in Queens, still looking like he’d mistakenly wandered into the gym, beating a list of rough-and-tumble longshoremen and construction workers seven and 10 years older than him before burning out.

Still, he was impressive enough that he caught the eye of John Walsh, the legendary boxing coach at the University of Wisconsin who’d guided the Badgers to eight NCAA championships. In 1956, that was like being recruited to play football for Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma, or to play basketball for Phog Allen at Kansas.

And Charlie Mohr excelled there. As a sophomore, he won seven out of nine bouts. As a junior, in 1959, he went undefeated and won the 165-pound national championship, although San Jose State had won the team title, which was always the holy grail in Madison, Wis. As a senior he lost but once, to San Jose’s Stuart Bartell.

And he would have an opportunity to avenge that: he and Bartell were squared off in the 165-pound NCAA finals on Saturday, April 9, 1960 at Wisconsin’s Field House. Over 9,850 fans crammed into the joint, and by 9 o’clock, everyone knew that the featured match would determine whether Wisconsin would win its ninth NCAA title — and first under Vern Woodward, who’d succeeded Walsh in 1958 — or if San Jose State would claim its third in a row. Fighting on one of the undercard bouts, future Hall of Fame referee Mills Lane of the University of Nevada won the 137-pound division.

Charlie Mohr climbed through the ropes, tapped gloves with Bartell, and allowed a thunderous roar to wash over him. It was just past 9 o’clock. Then the bell rang.

Charlie Mohr is embraced by his daughter Joan after his son fell in a coma after his NCAA boxing tournament bout. Eight days later, on Easter Sunday on April 17, 1960, he died. He was 22 years old.
Charlie Mohr is embraced by his daughter Joan after his son was in a coma after his NCAA boxing tournament bout. Eight days later, on Easter Sunday on April 17, 1960, he died at age 22.AP

College boxing’s peak had come just before and just after the war, when more than 80 schools fielded varsity teams, offering full rides to the best schoolboy boxers. Wisconsin had long been a stalwart, of course, along with both Idaho and Idaho State, which won five titles between them. LSU ruled the south. Catholic University of Washington, D.C., fielded a terrific team every year, and was national champion in 1938.

But by 1960, the sport had already withered down to just 33 participating schools, most of them out west. For years, Walsh had done his best to separate collegiate boxing from professional prizefighting, noting that the anything-goes craziness of the pros was virtually a different sport from the tactics-heavier college game, which mainly rewarded team efforts over individual glory. The gamblers mostly stayed away from college boxing, preferring the more user-friendly means of fixing basketball games.

And in many ways, Charlie Mohr represented precisely the type of athlete Walsh held up as a standard. College hadn’t changed him at all, although whatever visions he’d once held of wearing a Roman collar had vanished when he’d met Darlene Dobeck one summer when they both worked at a Sears-Roebuck in Schofield, Wis.

Nevertheless, each Sunday he rose early and drove with Father Philip Keyes to St. Paul’s, a girls’ reform school just outside Madison, to serve Mass. He’d decided he wanted to be a social worker when he graduated. When he wasn’t logging maniacal hours training, he worked as a waiter at Paisan’s, a local restaurant.

And it seemed he’d finally grown weary of boxing. He’d long held dreams of competing for the 1960 Olympic team, but confided in teammates he was weary of the grind. Losing to Bartell had shaken his confidence. He looked forward, win or lose, to leaving his boxing shoes in the ring when their three-round rematch was over, symbolizing his farewell. He had even bought an engagement ring for Darlene; he stashed it in his locker on April 9, 1960.

Mohr had also struggled with depression in the previous few months, briefly undergoing electroshock therapy. The dynamo who’d dominated the tournament in 1959 was still talented enough to scrap his way to the 165-pound finals a year later, and he fought the first round against Bartell with his quintessential style, letting his opponent’s overeager aggression set the bout’s pace, but being quicker than him at every turn. Mohr won the round easily.

But in Round 2, using the same philosophy, trying to outwit Bartell, Mohr came off the ropes and instead of dancing away, he walked flush into a straight right hand, the blow crushing into the left side of his forehead. He tumbled, regained his feet quickly at the count of 2 and took a mandatory standing 9 count. He came back for more, but was dazed and vulnerable. Bartell pounced.

Sitting at ringside, Darlene and Charlie’s two sisters, Carole and Joan, shrieked for the referee to step in and stop the fight. After a few more withering blows, he did. Bartell was the middleweight champ, the Spartans’ team champs, and quickly the boos inside the Field House turned to cheers as Mohr embraced Bartell and walked out of the ring.

Walsh, his old coach, hugged Mohr as he walked past, whispered, “Charlie, I’m so sorry about this.”

“I guess I zigged,” Charlie said, “when I should have zagged.”

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