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Champion Gonzaga boxer Eli Thomas dies at 93

UPDATED: Mon., April 18, 2022

From staff reports

Two Final Fours and long stays atop the polls have made Gonzaga a household name in college basketball, but the Bulldogs’ lone national championship remains the NCAA boxing title it won 72 years ago.

Eli Thomas, the last living link to the group that brought that trophy to Spokane, passed away last month at his home in Saratoga, California, on his 93rd birthday.

Thomas won two national titles for Gonzaga – at 155 pounds in 1950 and 165 pounds the following year – and was part of Coach Joey August’s three-boxer entry that shared the team championship with Idaho in 1950.

Thomas also won two Pacific Coast Intercollegiate championships, and was 34-0 over his final two years of competition at Gonzaga, which made him a charter member of its athletic hall of fame in 1988.

Competing during the sport’s collegiate heyday – the NCAA discontinued sponsorship in 1960 – Thomas could overwhelm opponents with a swarming style and still prove to be an elusive target to hit. He was a regular on GU’s boxing cards even during his first year in 1948, though freshmen bouts were considered no-decision exhibitions.

It wasn’t until 1950 that Gonzaga, with the help of its Ringsiders Club boosters, put together enough money to send the contingent of Thomas, Carl Maxey and Jim Reilly to nationals with August. Thomas pounded out an easy decision over Bucky Ennis of Catholic University in the semis and then beat Pat Helms of host Penn State for the championship. Two fights later, Maxey won the 175-pound title and GU had its share of the team title – which could have been won outright had Thomas not received a first-round bye, which carried no team points.

His repeat in 1951 came harder – split decisions over Leon Hamilton of host Michigan State in the semis and Dick Diaz of San Jose State in the finals. He scored all but one of Gonzaga’s points in a sixth-place finish.

“Eli Thomas deserves a medal for guts,” August said. “He won his second title under the handicap of a continued illness that kept him underweight all the time.”

Thomas was born in Butte, Montana, on March 2, 1929, as the youngest of 11 children of Joseph and Mary Thomas. After graduating from Gonzaga, he served in the U.S. Army for two years, stationed in Germany, and boxed for the Sixth Army team. He married Dorothy Walsh in 1958, and operated stores in Butte and Anaconda before moving to California in 1964 and opening a men’s wear store. The couple raised nine children.

He was appointed to the California State Athletic Commission by former governor Jerry Brown, and also lent his services to San Jose State’s Spartan Foundation, the San Jose Police Activities League and the San Jose Sports Hall of Fame.

Thomas is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and eight of his children – daughters Michele and Nicole and sons James, Christopher, Eli, Greg, Anthony and Daniel – as well as 15 grandchildren. A son, Francis, preceded him in death. A memorial mass is scheduled for April 30th in Saratoga.

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