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Striking a blow as a Rhodes Scholar

Email|Print| Text size + By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / March 4, 2008

BURLINGTON, Vt. - In 1969, John Lennon sang, "Christ, you know it ain't easy." Today, newly named Rhodes Scholar Adam Levine feels the same way.

It's two hours before Adam Levine's first amateur fight in the Vermont State Golden Gloves Championship, and the Dartmouth University senior has a lot going against him. He has driven all day from his native New York City, where he was lecturing on the canonization of Jesus Christ in art history. His contact lenses never arrived from the ophthalmologist, so all he sees are fuzzy figures. And because his light heavyweight class was filled, he volunteered to box in the heavyweight class.

His mother desperately tried to fatten him up for the fight. His training food of choice: Thai takeout.

Levine, 21, is in the midst of researching and writing three senior theses. He is a triple major in anthropology, art history, and mathematics and social sciences. He's the president of the Dartmouth Boxing Club. He's also a realist.

"This might not be pretty," he confesses in a prefight interview conducted between layers of the velvet curtains on the stage of the ancient Burlington Auditorium, out of sight of the other fighters so as not to draw attention to himself. And he's more comfortable t alking about the image of Jesus than about his ring experience.

Wait a second, isn't he a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx?

"I am a nice Jewish boy from the Bronx," Levine says. "But a lot of the great art historians who dealt with Christian iconography have been Jews in their own right. I'm not tethered to a strict belief. Because I don't believe in Christian doctrine, I can look at it more critically."

Levine is impossible to rattle. The 6-foot-2-inch former high school basketball player has the spirit of a young Bill Walton.

" 'Unique' is definitely the word to describe the circumstances, at least tonight," he says.

His IQ is probably higher than his weight of 187. So why take a chance at having your brains scrambled like eggs?

"You can go to the gym and work yourself out, but I missed having someone kick your [butt], having that coach push you," he says. "And boxing has this MO of being the best workout possible.

"So I showed up for boxing and fell in love with it. It came pretty easily to me because of the footwork. I weighed in at 187, which is a miracle. I got up 9-10 pounds."

No fear

Earlier this year, Levine was one of 32 Americans selected as Rhodes Scholars at the University of Oxford in England; he hopes to study there for a doctorate in philosophy and a degree in classics. The two-year minimum scholarship puts him in select company. Former president Bill Clinton and former Knicks star and Senator Bill Bradley were both Rhodes Scholars.

Levine is eccentric. He titled one of his theses, "One God, Two God, Old God, New God: The Evolution of the Image of Christ and the Age of Synchrotism in the spirit of Dartmouth graduate Dr. Seuss."

"That's eclectic," he says.

He looks skinny.

"That's wiry," he says.

And he's smart, maintaining a 3.92 GPA at Dartmouth.

And defiant. He wears a Mets cap and has his shorts in a New York Giants bag in a Red Sox/Patriots stronghold.

While the other fighters are taping their hands and shadow boxing in the bowels of the Burlington Auditorium, he's down the street blissfully enjoying a last supper of sorts.

Behind his back, the young fighters call him "Dartmouth Adam" with a sneer.

But Levine says he is not scared.

"No, because I view this exactly the same as I view an academic test," he says. "Am I scared of failing a test if I've studied as hard as I can? No, because I've done everything in my power.

"I'm going to go in there under weight, but I'm prepared. I'm quick and I'm in as good a shape as I've ever been. If I get beat up, I'll just go home."

Either way, he'll go home, sleep his usual 3-4 hours, head for the gym at 6 a.m., hit the bag for 15 rounds, do his Navy SEAL exercises, study, and then head back to the gym at night.

"Thank God for coffee," he says.

He's the antithesis of the dumb jock.

"First of all, I wouldn't consider myself a jock," Levine says. "People tend to focus at things they are good at, and jocks . . . find themselves to be very good in sports. And it makes more sense to focus on their sport than the school work, so sometimes grades can suffer as a consequence.

"But we all know that guy who worked his or her [butt] off to get good grades who wasn't that smart, either. It goes both ways. Just because you don't try hard to get the best grades doesn't mean you're an unintelligent person. The underlying message is jocks aren't inherently dumb."

Bad rap

Levine insists boxing is not barbaric.

"First of all, what does barbaric mean? Done by Barbarians. When you're in there, you're not even aware of the fact that you are trying to injure another person. You practice so much on inanimate objects. It's all abstract, muscle memory, and hitting a target. The target just happens to be his face.

"You're not thinking, 'I'm going to break this guy's nose.' At least I'm not. For me, boxing isn't so much about hitting someone than about not getting hit.

"The hitting comes from not getting hit. That's why boxing is beautiful. That's why I love it. It's an organic sport. If I duck to my right to get under a jab, I've set myself up for a right hook, so in the process of avoiding something I've opened up a punching opportunity for myself. Everything stems from not getting hit."

Levine thinks boxers get a bad rap.

"If you've ever heard Mike Tyson speak, you automatically assume he's unintelligent," Levine says. "But if you ever heard Mike Tyson speak about boxing, he sounds as if he could be a Rhodes Scholar."

The secret of boxing is to have an exit strategy.

"The people who have been universally successful tend to get out early," he says.

Levine pauses, and his face lights up with a smile.

"Hey, Elvis," he says, as the coach of the Dartmouth Boxing Club extends a hand.

"This is the national champion of Barbados. He's my coach."

Elvis Lowe speaks softly to his young fighter.

"We'll wrap your hands and then you can relax," he says. "You're not going to fight till after the break. Heavyweights are always next to last."

Lowe says Levine has "gotten a lot better. He's got the killer instinct in him . . . I didn't even know he was a Rhodes Scholar."

Tournament director Ernie Farrar stops by with a frown.

"Levine's guy didn't show," he says. "He called, he's not coming."

Levine says he is heading back to Dartmouth. Too much to do, too little time. "I guess that means I'm 1-0," he says with a laugh.

The following Saturday, Levine fought John O'Neil of Windsor Boxing, giving up 14 pounds. He lost a split decision.

"Whatever, such is life," Levine says. "The most important thing learned is you can pour yourself into something 100 percent and not get it. This is the first time I've tried really, really, really hard and not gotten it.

"It's very hard for a professor to throw a loop at you. You're either ready for a midterm or you're not. But I'll fight again in the spring and hopefully at Oxford. As a life experience, it'll be cool to reflect on."

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