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Photo by Rachel Gianatasio.

Rumble in the Rockies Throws Punches at Cancer

The second-annual boxing event brings amateur fighters into the ring to raise money to knock out cancer.

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If you’ve ever wanted to punch cancer in the face, here’s your chance: Haymakers for Hope is currently holding sign-ups for its second-annual Rumble in the Rockies, an amateur boxing event in Denver sanctioned by USA Boxing that raises money for cancer-fighting charities.

A Boston-based nonprofit, Haymakers was founded in 2010 by Andrew Myerson and Julie Anne Kelly after they fought in the 2009 New York Golden Gloves boxing tournament (which Kelly won). Kelly had survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 22, and Myerson had lost a good friend to cancer, so leading up to the tournament they decided to raise money for cancer research.

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Because they were successful raising money in 2009, the pair was inspired to launch the first Haymakers event, according to Brian Schroy, regional fight manager for the Denver event. The first Haymakers fights took place in Boston and the concept quickly expanded to New York City, which is where Schroy learned about it. He thought of it as the entry to boxing for people who hadn’t spent years learning the sport. Last year, Haymakers made Denver its third event location.

Haymakers events are for true amateurs—no previous fight experience allowed. Anyone can sign up online for a shot at one of the 30 to 32 slots. Haymakers arranges boxing gym access and coaching for the participants and covers the costs for those who don’t have a preexisting boxing gym membership. In return, Denver participants pledge to raise a minimum of $5,000, which will be donated to the cancer charity of their choice after the event or, if they don’t specify a charity, to one of Haymakers’ existing beneficiaries (First Descents, an organization that provides free outdoor adventures for young adults impacted by cancer, is one of the main charities they partner with in Colorado).

Mike Brown, 38, was last year’s exception to the “no boxing experience” rule. About 17 years prior, he’d taken a mandatory boxing course at the United States Naval Academy—and finished the course by losing the boxing match that served as the final. Brown, who describes himself as “more of a lover, not a fighter,” had no desire to ever return to the ring.

But in 2017, Brown’s dad was diagnosed with kidney cancer, which, after being treated in May and sent into remission, came back in October. At the same time, two of his neighbors were dealing with breast cancer, and the girlfriend of his business partner was undergoing treatment for lung cancer. Rumble in the Rockies wasn’t just boxing to box—there was a purpose behind every punch—so Brown threw his name into the ring. He ended up raising $25,000 with his two fists, more than any other Rumble participant, and he gave the funds to an organization that supports lung cancer research.

For Jessie Blake, 30, who was one of six women to participate in last year’s Rumble, being able to choose the charity that would receive the money she raised made the whole experience more meaningful. In the middle of her training, a friend who was 29 at the time was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer, so she called Haymakers and designated her money to go to colon cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Overall, last year’s event raised more than $200,000.

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For four months leading up to the event, participants train while also fundraising. They learn boxing techniques, build up their physical conditioning, and develop the mental skill to fight smarter, not harder. Schroy makes appearances at a lot of the training sessions.

“I kind of play matchmaker for the fights,” he says. He makes sure everyone’s showing up for their training sessions and putting in the work to be ready for fight night. “We want to keep everything as safe as possible and make it a fun and equal experience for everyone … It takes a lot to get someone in the ring for the first time.”

Matches are determined based on height, weight, age, and ability, so as soon as the participants are selected, they’re given a potential match. But depending on how training goes, their opponent could change.

Prior to fight night, the participants have a media and sparring day. Haymakers brings in a professional production team to make walk-out videos that are played at the fight to introduce each participant, and everyone spars—or does a mock fight—against their match.

On the night of Rumble in the Rockies’ big event, participants gather in the back of the Fillmore Auditorium on Colfax. They wrap their wrists and confer with their coaches. Some keep to themselves, headphones in, game faces on, while others distract themselves by chatting through their warmups. Each fight is made up of three two-minute rounds, and between each round, a cancer survivor enters the ring to hold the card announcing the next round.

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Last year, Blake’s coworkers joined the crowd wearing matching T-shirts that had a boxing glove with a snake on it and read, “Blake the Snake.” Before she put on her gloves and entered the ring, she wrote the initials of the people she’d lost to cancer or who were still fighting on her hand wraps.

“You’re fighting, so I’ll fight, too.”

If you go: This year’s Haymakers for Hope event will take place on June 6 at the Fillmore Auditorium, 1510 N. Clarkson St. Those interested in participating can sign up through January 25. Learn more at haymakersforhope.org.

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