To Beat the Devil

Written + Photographed by Chris Pestel
originally published September 28, 2015 in West Point Stories

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ROUND 1

27:17

Plebe boxing is a rite of passage. Since 1905 each and every male West Point Cadet has experienced plebe boxing. And not coincidently, each and every one of them has their own elaborate plebe boxing story. Its the source of many demons from that first year — the essential ‘kick-me-while-I-am-down’ situation. Plebe year sucks & plebe boxing makes it worse.

Each morning that boxing was on my schedule I woke up thinking about it. I would sit in calculus, chemistry or computer programing class thinking about boxing. It didn’t matter that I had tests or other graded exercises in those classes. Boxing dominated my thoughts.
- Dave Anderson (
West Point — Plebe Boxing & Leadership)

Rites of passage are important and plebe boxing is also the source of tremendous confidence, courage, pride, camaraderie and among the ranks of alpha males, bragging rights. Boxing is a great equalizer. Status vanishes. Race vanishes. Religion vanishes. And you are left with raw passion, physical prowess, and controlled agression. Enter that proving ground and no matter where you hail from, you are only in that ring. You’re from nowhere. Its just you vs your opponent…you vs yourself.

You’re now here.

It’s time. Ding-Ding…


ROUND 2

Where’re you from? Where’re you going?

I come from just the other side of nowhere

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West Point Cadets are routinely asked: So, where are you from? Here are eight typical answers:

Ozark, MO (Cadet Gray) - Chicago, IL (Cadet Kroc) - Colorado Springs, CO (Cadet Anderson) - Phoenix, AZ (Cadet Freiberg) - Dugway, UT(Cadet Estes) - New Orleans, LA (Cadet Bingham) - San Antonio, TX (Cadet Alvarado) - Taos, NM (Cadet Reyes)

And as they make their way towards graduation, there’s usually a common follow-up question: So, where are you going (i.e. what’s your first duty station)? Again, here are eight typical answers:

Italy - Arkansas - Kentucky - Washington - North Carolina - Anywhere in the South, please - Colorado - Texas

Where are you from and where are you going? West Point is like a permanent waypoint in that journey for these future leaders of our country. Future leaders in the ring, on the field, on the court, in the classroom, on the battlefield, in the board room, etc, etc, etc. Travel is a big part of life in the Army. Travel is also a big part of attending the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Few (almost zero) cadets are attending their local college, university, or institution. So, everyone is from somewhere else and no one is home.

In fact, West Point’s admission process purposefully fills the annual 1100 available slots from All 50 states, US territories, and even some international neighbors. West Point is a cross-section of America — its ideals, beliefs and socio-economic statuses. That sort of cross section is unrivaled within most higher education. It’s almost a modern day Ellis Island (West Point, NY is actually situated just 67.1 miles due north, straight up the Hudson River, of Ellis Island).

Now there is a downside to this. Its no secret that West Point’s marketing impact actually suffers from this ‘anonymous American’ situation (enter the 2015 athletic re-brand). Cadets are simultaneously from everywhere, and hence, nowhere.

Tell them that the pride of just the other side of nowhere’s goin’ home — Kris Kristofferson

Identity is important to the institution as well as the individual. Solidifying a geographic identity for marketing purposes is tough with no discernible or obvious location (it’s so bad that I’ve actually been asked, “Where is West Point? Is that in Annapolis?” If you are familiar with West Point, you know how infuriating that question is…but before you or I blow a gasket, let’s get back to travel).

For Cadet-Athletes travel becomes an even bigger part of the West Point experience. Cadet-Athletes’ travel goes beyond winter, spring, and summer breaks — routinely traveling to tournaments, bouts, away games and exhibitions.

Often those travels are organized to bring awareness of West Point & US Army opportunities to those that could benefit from them most. Such was the case over this particular September weekend in Chicago, IL.

So, without further ado, pack your bags and join me as we travel (I can’t promise I wont steal your arm rest) into the world of boxing for the first time together. Hopefully, not my last…


ROUND 3

AWKWARD INTRODUCTIONS

stomach full of empty and a pocket full of dreams

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With the help of the Joe Mislinski West Point Society of Chicago, Mike Joyce of the Celtic Boxing Club of ChicagoMAJ Wennblom of U.S. Army Recruiting Battalion (Chicago) and a bevy of Old Grads, Army Boxing traveled west from New York to expose the often violent south side of Chicago to an alternative route courtesy of the US Army, West Point and…uh, um, the violent sport of boxing?!?! A bit of contradiction, I’m aware. But, not everything is always as it seems.

He’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction — Kris Kristofferson

The team arrived late Friday evening as heavy storms delayed flights and postponed High School football games. Head coach Ray Barone & the 8 cadets were met by Old Grads from the Long Gray Line. Old Grads they had never met before; ones who graciously opened their homes to off-set travel expenses and provide a home away from their home away from home (you may have to read that last line a few times for it to make sense).

They also met me. I too am an Old Grad, but I wasn’t offering hospitality. Instead, I offered a bit of awkwardness…with no introduction…in the form of a camera…in their face…in the bathroom…at baggage claim…in O’Hare International Airport.

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It got a little weird, but…then it wasn’t.

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And sometimes this is how I get to introduce myself to people.


ROUND 4

BOXING CLINIC AT LEO HIGH SCHOOL

You see, the devil haunts a hungry man,
If you don’t wanna join him, you got to beat him.

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West Point’s 6-time National Championship (now 8-time) Boxing program teamed up with the US Army Recruiting Battalion Chicago & Leo High School to conduct a Boxing Clinic for the inner-city youth. The program started with Mike Joyce (Leo Boxing & Celtic Boxing Club of Chicago) giving the cadets a tour of the school, including a look at Leo’s historic boxing room.

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The clinic continued with an informational talk by US Army Recruiting Command’s 1LT Bryant (West Point graduate and boxing team alum) about the opportunities provided by the U.S. Army and the United States Military Academy at West Point, and his unlikely journey from the inner-city of Washington, D.C.

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The focus then shifted to the personal stories of 3 cadet-athletes:
- San Antonio to West Point to Boxing to Chicago;
- Chicago to Culinary school to West Point to Boxing to Chicago;
- Slums of New Orleans to US Army to Iraq to West Point to Boxing to Chicago.

After cadets Alvarado, Kroc & Bingham shared their 3 very different paths to West Point, the group went outside for a hand-to-hand session.

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Leo High School is located in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood of Chicago. The southside of the city is notorious for its violence. During this otherwise average, late summer weekend in Chicago there were 50 shootings; 5 of those shootings were fatal (this total has been updated ***Friday, Sept 25*** to 9 dead/44 injured).

One of the victims was 14 year-old Tyjuan Poindexter. His mother could be labeled as overprotective. Reports stated that she refused to let him go out past dark. On the night she decided to let him go out her violence-riddled neighborhood had produced her greatest fear — he was killed by gun-fire.

By contrast, in the 9+ calendar months of 2015 there have been 3 US deaths in Iraq.

It is the daily efforts of Mike Joyce and the Celtic Boxing Club of Chicago to give the youth a constructive daily goal. They are in dire need of a way to make a change. For some, that change is a way out. For others, there is no leaving, and that change is the need for defense, armor, shelter from the storm.

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On this weekend, West Point cadets supplied the armor. They told their stories of rising above their surroundings and they offered a defense strategy. Maybe they inspired action to change.

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Only time will tell. But West Point’s Boxing team plans to make this trip an annual check-in. After all, you can’t have proper leadership without accountability & ownership.


ROUND 5

MIKE JOYCE & CELTIC BOXING

Friendly shadows

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The first thing Mike Joyce told me was that I kinda, sorta, maybe in an off-beat way reminded him of country music legend, singer, songwriter, musician, actor, philosopher, boxer and U.S. Army veteran Kris Kristofferson (ah ha, all these Kris Kristofferson references make sense now). We then proceeded to rap about Pangloss and Candide, perspective and photography. I liked Mike, instantly.

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However, the only comparison I am comfortable admitting to having in common with Mr. Kristofferson is that routinely “I fumbled through my closet for my clothes And found my cleanest dirty shirt”

A few days later, I found-out that Mike’s young son, Jake, has a certain grandfather named Muhammad Ali. Maybe you’ve heard of the guy.

Now, usually I don’t get too geeked-up about celebrities...usually. But this time I found myself…well…for boxing royalty…I will concede to geeking-out a bit. As did the young men of the boxing team.

Mike and Jamillah Ali-Joyce opened their home to the boxing team between the clinic and the evening’s exhibition. With warmth and grace, they provided sustenance and respite and awe for a group of future leaders who happened to find personal bliss in the sport of boxing. You could feel the potential of this collaboration begin to take root.

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ROUND 6

BOXING EXHIBITION AT BEVERLY WOODS

Come up here boy, and show us what you are

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West Point’s Boxing Program has produced 6 of the last 8 NCBA (National Collegiate Boxing Association) Championship teams. That’s one more than Navy’s total of 5. #BEATNAVY. And while Air Force’s 19 is the clear clubhouse leader, they have just 1 National Team Championship in the past decade. If you are looking for a ‘Winning Culture’ along the banks of the Hudson, look no further than coach Ray Barone’s Boxing Program.

Those 8 cadets all traveled to get to West Point…they traveled from different distances, different environments, different geographical locations, different socioeconomic situations and different circumstances. They traveled to become part of a National Championship Boxing program and the greatest Army in the world. And that journey now found them, this night, in Chicago.

It was time to compete. It was time for 3 rounds of pugilist vs pugilist.


ROUND 7

DO YOU GET TO TRAVEL MUCH?

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The guys on the team relayed a story of a previous trip to up-state NY where their exhibition took place outside in the parking lot of a biker bar. Amateur boxing is a far cry from the pomp and circumstance of the big-time, pay-per-view events.

On this night Army boxing took 6 out of 8 bouts. Not a single fight was a blow-out. Each bout was hard-fought with grit and toughness. Awards were presented by community & civic leaders, former boxers and West Point Alumni. Those present were treated to a fine example of the sport of boxing.

Those present witnessed local young men battle with West Point cadets. Those cadets were there to inspire. Their presence amid the reality of Chicago violence is testament to their need to be there. They were there to offer an example. To those willing to accept, they offered a challenge. A challenge that would expose them to a course-of-action to work their way out of (or to defend themselves from) their surroundings. A challenge to lead in their community…the challenge to embrace their own potential.

Do you get to travel much?

This was a question posed to me by one of the West Point cadets who made the trip to Chicago with Army’s Boxing team. We sat in Beverly Woods Restaurant as the minutes slowly passed until the lights went down and Saturday night became alright for fighting.

I have thought about that passing question a lot since it was asked to me. The short answer is yes I get to travel, about once a month. The long answer is a little more elaborate (If you despise the act of answering a question with a question or you don’t get excited for philosophical conundrums, I apologize…but). My first reaction was: what does it really mean to travel?

So, lets start with a definition:

trav·el

make a journey, typically of some length or abroad.

But, must that distance be physical? what about emotional travel? mental travel? Can perspective travel? is any of that even important?

If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough. — Robert Capa

Many creative pundits fault photographers that apply the above quote merely to physical distance…claiming it has as much to do (or more to do) with emotional closeness or put another way…empathy or compassion. Empathy & compassion, after all, beget understanding. And we all want to be understood and conversely, to understand. All forms of travel can help us connect.

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My camera is my passport & permission slip. But that passport is not regulated solely to the boundaries of buildings, countries or nations. It’s far more powerful. It allows me to travel inside the lives of others. To observe how they live, to experience their passion & process & routine. With good fortune (to be read good preparation, good rapport and good light) I get the chance to capture the essence of their passion, not just action photos. And then, through the combination of images + words, I get to communicate that to you, the viewer.

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Boxing is a passport & permission slip for these young leaders, these cadets, these future Officers. It allows them to travel inside the lives of others and help communicate that principles applied in the ring can be applied outside the ring…in the street…to make a difference.

So, how do you beat the devil…

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Proverbs 27:17

As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.

I’ll offer this straight-forward solution. You travel…you take a passionate journey, you encounter a few rites of passage, you boldly conquer those rites, you slay your dragon with your talisman and all the while you stay sharp with the help of your fellow travelers.

And then you go back home and tell those willing to listen exactly how you did it…with compassion, empathy and understanding.

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Compassion? Empathy? Understanding? Yup. I am pretty sure thats not what you expected to hear when you clicked on a Photo Essay about Army Boxing.


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