Plenty of student-athletes have played sports both contact and non, but combat sports are a world unto themselves. All the safety gear in the world still can’t mitigate everything about getting hit, choked, or joint-locked. These sports aren’t for everyone; that’s why they call them Rebels.
In the fight capital of the world, UNLV Boxing has been a touchstone for practitioners of the sweet science on campus since 1996. While the sport isn’t widespread among university campuses, here it’s a crucial link between the UNLV and the culture of the city writ large.
The city’s highest-profile athlete, Floyd Mayweather, Jr., has used UNLV Boxing’s dedicated gym the McDermott Physical Education building in the past, as has pro Joseph Parker.
Boasting around 30 active members, UNLV recently saw its own, Michael Alvarez, reach the finals of the 147-pound National Collegiate Boxing Association regionals. The club’s leaders — president Daniela Rodriguez, vice president Xavier Williams and treasurer Arjan Jousif — hope to raise the profile of amateur boxing on campus and in the city to a level befitting the world’s epicenter of pro boxing.
Participation isn’t for everyone — about half of people who come to try the sport leave it as soon as they get hit — but it does have certain benefits.
“As a woman, [self-defense] is one of the primary reasons I like it, as well as a stress relief,” senior pre-professional biology student Rodriguez said. “It's a great stress relief to punch a bag sometimes.”
The discipline needed to box has carryover effects into the rest of an academic career, as well.
“When you're in a fight, you have that fear in your soul, like ‘I'm scared for my life even though I know I have the skills, the ability to beat this person,’” junior business major Williams said. “If you can get in there and risk your life, you can do anything you put your mind to. You take that into the real world, you're unstoppable.”
Once upon a time, UNLV boasted a nationally ranked NCAA wrestling team. Since 1984, though, the sport has been fallow on campus. Last year Drew O’Neill, a doctoral student in mathematics, changed that, helping get wrestling off the ground as a club sport with an eye on restoring the team to its sanctioned glory.
With 15 student-athletes, UNLV Wrestling competed last year in the National Collegiate Wrestling Association’s Division 2, against regional schools like University of California, Los Angeles; Fresno State; and Dixie State.
With a foundation board led by UFC fighter Miesha Tate, the wrestling club has allies in its corner, but it still would need to generate enough money — and find a compatible women’s sport to bring along — if it were to rise into the NCAA ranks. O’Neill, though, thinks it could be a possibility within two years.
“All these guys are coming out of high school, even though they're 18, they've trained their whole lives to wrestle. They've almost mastered a sport, then they come here and that’s all that's gone,” O’Neill said. “The least I can do is get them some sort of competition.”
A young club, UNLV Taekwondo has only been around since 2015. Co-founded by psychology major Anthony Riviera and now-alumna Lazara Gonzalez, this 22-member organization is for both veteran and new practitioners of the Korean martial art.
Though the club, which boasts two black belts, doesn’t currently travel to competition, Riviera hopes to soon see the group start to square up with students from other clubs at UNR and Arizona State.
“You can go to a gym every day and see the same faces and lift weights and all that,” Riviera said. “But going to a gym and training with other people is different; you're moving around and you're striking and learning how to effectively strike.
And, he said, you’re building skills like collaboration. “It's a good bonding time with other like-minded individuals. It builds camaraderie, and it's a good stress relief. College is stressful. Even for the smartest people it's stressful. Taekwondo is a good way to release, and it's a good way of being active."
In the mixed martial arts capital, it’s no surprise that UNLV’s Jiu-Jitsu Club has been in operation for 10 years.
Though this isn’t cage-fighting — strikes aren’t allowed at all — the UNLV club does practice full-contact, with the name of the game forcing an opponent to submit from a joint lock or choke hold. With 30 active members, UNLV Jiu-Jitsu is a registered student organization, but graduating club president and history major Michael McNeiece hopes it once again becomes a competitive club sport.
“There's a lot of jiu-jitsu practitioners (among the student body) who aren't active in the club, and I think that would change if we were an official sports club, going to tournaments as the official UNLV jiu jitsu team,” he said.
That would also make it easier to raise funds to grow the club and pay for tournament fees. “The sport is expensive, unfortunately. It shouldn't be. On its face, it's a minimal art; I just need another person to choke, and I can get better at jiu-jitsu,” he said. “But every gym is over $100 a month. Every piece of clothing is $50. Tournament entries are $100 each. It all adds up.”