On February 28, 2009, the Blue Horizon’s floor literally trembled beneath a sellout crowd as Praveen “The Baby Face Assassin” Lingathoti made his way to the ring in a wooden coffin borne by four hooded figures dressed like Benedictine monks.

An 18-year-old Boys & Girls Club member named Jessica Sledge had just kicked off the fifth annual Fight Night with an object lesson in guts, belting out the national anthem unaccompanied by background music—or the duet partner who had been struck songless by the room’s unreal voltage. Now it was Lingathoti’s turn to face the glare. It would be an uphill battle for the Wharton second-year. He’d be giving up 20 pounds and three inches in height to Al “The Truth” Taj CGS’01, a third-year law student who entered the arena wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and handcuffs.

Escorting Taj was a quartet of what can only be called “lady cops.” Navy blue mini-dresses, eight-point police caps, black boots to the knee. Forget about the right to an attorney. Is there a right to be arrested by the cast of a midnight feature on Cinemax? No wonder Donal “The Lethal Leprechaun” McElwee felt pressure to live up to his ring moniker. An amateur fighter might be forgiven a disappointing bout, but his entourage had better give the crowd its money’s worth.

After the hoopla of their arrival and the ding of the bell, the opening combatants circled the ring tentatively. Their first clash turned quickly into an embrace. Feet shifted, arms flailed, and the two bodies locked together again. So the clinch-heavy theme of the first fight was set. The convict landed no blow worthy of a felony rap sheet. The assassin managed a few valiant flurries and bloodied his mark’s nose, but spent too much time leaning away from the action. Bottom line: neither man managed to send out the other in Lingathoti’s raw-pine conveyance. At the end of three rounds and a 2-1 split decision, the referee raised Taj’s clenched fist. The throng bellowed and booed. Penn Law 1, Wharton 0.

To even the score for the MBA side, Ryan “Rampage” Berger would have to go through all 210 pounds of Bill Stone, the biggest man on the card. It was hard to know what to make of this match-up. Berger, who once broke an ankle dancing around a make-believe jump rope at a wedding reception, had been playing it coy in the run-up to Fight Night. “No matter how much preparing I do, I’ll still be lost in the ring,” the New Orleans native said a month before his bout. “But hopefully the other guy will be too.”

The other guy wasn’t. Stone came out at the opening bell with haymakers still on his brain, stunning his smaller opponent with a shot to the nose that drew blood halfway through the first frame. As the clock expired on the opening 90 seconds, Berger looked astonished. “When you’re sparring,” he said later, “one and a half minutes seems to last forever. But this was totally different. When the ref said Round!, I was blown away. It felt like we’d just started.”

Only after Stone landed a second stiff blow in the next round did the Wharton first-year snap out of his daze, driving the bigger man into the ropes three times in rapid succession even as his own headgear slipped off. The Wharton contingent roared as the tide seemed to turn, and Berger blew the lid off in round three with the first proper wallop of the night.

“I don’t know where it came from,” he said afterward. “It wasn’t anything I’d planned. I just let my arm go. Before I even knew I had done it, the crowd was going nuts and he was going back. I had a good feeling then that if he didn’t come out of the standing eight count and put me on the ground, the fight was mine.”

The final bell sounded with both men still standing. The judges were unanimous: Berger had evened the score.

It wasn’t until the third fight, however, that the crowd fused into one primal mass and fell off its collective rocker. Tommy “1-2-3” Forr got cornered before the bell even rang. The rugby players in James Williams’ entourage backed him against the ropes with a Maori war dance—the haka performed by the New Zealand All Blacks before international matches.

It did not intimidate the second-year law student. Forr, who carried a 7-1 record as an undergraduate at Notre Dame, had scored a three-round victory in last year’s Fight Night.

The bell rang. Forr came out of his corner with leonine grace, feet sweeping over the mat in a balletic whirl, hands quickly recoiling after each probing jab. Williams moved almost as fluidly, but heaved more of his body with each lunge. A shot to his midsection caused him to stagger, yet it was Forr who first lost his balance, hitting the canvas after a glancing blow to the head.

He bounced back to his feet in less than a second, answered the ref, and flew back at Williams like a pinball from a paddle. Williams stepped into his charge. Clearly neither fighter would be playing it safe. A pulse of energy rippled out from the ring as Forr reclaimed the offensive, doubling Williams over next to the ropes. The throng came unhinged. The sound of the bell was almost inaudible five feet away from the clapper.

The next time it rang would be the last. Again Williams and Forr charged into the center of the ring with breathtaking speed. They clashed and spun, far from the corners, until one punch froze the action for good. Forr tossed a left jab that exposed his head just long enough for Williams to power through with a devastating right cross. The strike sent Forr’s head bobbling as though his neck was made of springs. His knees buckled. Williams followed with a gentle left hook that almost caught nothing but air. Forr was already falling away, his legs splayed fore and aft as his back collided with the mat.

“I have no doubt that he had me on points in both rounds,” Williams said later. “He was great. But my corner man said, ‘Throw the overhand right, and if you land that, he’s going down.’ So I listened.”

Forr rose to his feet more slowly this time, and walked to his corner. The referee looked into his eyes for a moment and then waved off the action. The judges held on to their scorecards; it was Williams by technical knockout. Wharton 2, Penn Law 1. The airspace above the ring suddenly filled with a spectator who had leaped out of the balcony in a lunatic victory dive. He thwacked the canvas on all fours and sprang up to embrace the victor. The hysteria of the crowd was total.


May|June 09 contents
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Ultimate Fundraising Championship By Trey Popp
Photography by Candace diCarlo

Praveen Lingathoti tangles with Al Taj.
Below, each fighter’s entourage.

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Last modified 4/30/09