Spectators dressed in red or blue file in the arena. The hype music starts as people’s eyes are immediately drawn to a firefighter emerging from a cloud of smoke under a red spotlight. Eventgoers reach for high-fives and cheer as the fighter heads toward the center of the boxing ring to meet their opponent from the police force.
On April 17 at Baxter Arena, police officers and firefighters will go head-to-head in the annual Guns & Hoses Boxing Challenge to benefit the First Responders Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting men and women in red and blue.
Police and firefighters have held Guns & Hoses events for the past 15 years, said Dan Stolinski, battalion chief and First Responders Foundation Board Member. It started when a couple of guys would coordinate a pick-up game, and then again, a few years later. They still have smaller Guns & Hoses events that operate this way, such as softball and hockey games.
The organization’s main attraction is the Guns & Hoses Boxing Challenge. This event became what it is today in 2016 when Stolinski approached then-executive director Ray Somberg about partnering with the event. Stolinski took care of finding the fighters, while the foundation found corporate sponsorships and raised money for the event.
The First Responders Foundation acts as an advocate for police officers and firefighters. It helps responders work through post-traumatic stress disorder and assist police and fire departments with purchasing equipment and supplies that may not be in the city budget for the year.
“Supporting programs like PTSD, they [First Responders Foundation] have clinicians that come out to the departments that talk with personnel about job-related stress to minimize PTSD before it gets too far,” Stolinski said. “Suicide has become one of the leading causes of death for first responders. This program is really important for our departments.”
Along with helping first responders stay mentally and physically safe, the foundation also helps support the programming of Police Athletics for Community Engagement, which partners officers with kids in the area. “Police coach and mentor in this athletic association,” Stolinski said, “the idea is to get kids involved in sports and getting them to see that first responders are their friends.”
The foundation also raises money to put together Bleeding and Shock kits for fire vehicles in the event of casualties or emergencies. “The foundation is there as a resource, kind of like a big brother,” Omaha Police Department Officer Chad Frodyma said. “It goes down to the officer level, too. It is there as a resource and to have something to fall back on if we ever need to.”
The boxing challenge is a great way to bring departments and the community together. The First Responders Foundation is a prominent organization. Stolinksi said it is there to support first responders so they can be there for the community when needed.
Last year, the boxing challenge event drew its biggest crowd of about 4,000 spectators. Stolinski said the organization would like to sell out the arena, but as long as they sell more tickets and raise more money and awareness than in years prior, they will meet their goal for a given year.
The sign-up for the event goes out in November so fighters have plenty of time to train and learn about the sport, Stolinski said. Fighters from each department can then sign up on the Guns & Hoses website. Responders are matched based on height, weight, experience level, and age. Typically, out of 50 to 60 first responders who sign up, 12 to 24 participants are matched and able to fight. Some fighters who sign up may not match with another fighter, or someone may have to drop out from a training or work-related injury.
“I think the big draw for responders to fight is the challenge,” Stolinksi said. “Boxing is a high-intensity sport, so it is a good reason to get back into shape or improve physical fitness.”
Fighters have the option of training at Union Gym, a boxing facility reserved for first responders. Depending on their level of experience, they can start as soon or as late as they want. Some police and firefighters act as trainers and help new participants learn the sport.
Boxing is an intimidating sport, Stolinski said, so having a gym where fighters can go and see their colleagues training takes some of the pressure away. Before they had a dedicated space, event organizers would travel to various locations to see how the training was going and to get an idea of how to match up the fighters. Now, many of the fighters train in the same location.
“It is kind of a mix,” Frodyma said. “There is a group of officers that train together, some hire their own trainers. Then we come together for sparring, which is live boxing, to see where we are at. I like it where I can train with fighters. You can watch someone grow as a participant of boxing.”
First-time fighters often experience a lot of emotions and nerves, Frodyma said. “It is like getting ready for the first game back in high school. There is always a bit of pressure, because everyone wants to have a good fight. The winning side keeps the event trophy for the year.”
“The event is fun because we get to experience a sport that we wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to,” Frodyma said. “We push each other, because we take this seriously. It is a lot of sacrifice that is made by officers and firefighters. It is time away from your family and friends. You’re devoting all this time to make yourself better at the sport.”
When fighters arrive on the day of the event, they weigh in and get taped up for the fight, Frodyma said, and then it is the culmination of all the training.
There is such an adrenaline rush the day of the event, firefighter and competitor Jon Sandoval said. “Getting in the ring in front of 3,000 people, and most of them are colleagues or family. There is a little bit of nerves that go with it. You are trying not to stress yourself out before your fight.”
It is, however, a fun endeavor, Sandoval said. “I always become friends with the guys I fight. It is exciting to push yourself to a challenge level that you’ve never been to before.”
It has really turned into a good family event, Stolinski said, “I always hear from people who weren’t boxing fans that came and were surprised at how much they enjoyed it. Booths will be set up around the areas where guests can purchase red or blue T-shirts to support their side, and even buy red or blue-themed cocktails.”
He added that the master of ceremonies for the event always does a great job of getting the audience pumped up for the fight—from when the fighter first gets announced to the winning side being called out.
The police officers won the challenge last year, but the firefighters hope to take home the prize in 2020.
Visit gunsnhosesomaha.com for more information, including tickets.
This article was printed in the March/April 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.