Judging the Guns ‘N Hoses charity boxing match by what you can see with your own eyes, it’s a rip-roaring event punctuated by the occasional crowd roar as police officers and firefighters trade blows.
“You’ve got three one-minute rounds to prove yourself, so it’s not a defensive boxing-type of competition. It’s pretty exhausting,” said Mark Smith, a Clayton Police Department lieutenant detective. “You’ve got to stand there and make your point.”
But the real action happens in the lives of the families of the fallen first responders who get help from The Backstoppers by proceeds from the annual boxing card. The money generated by Guns ‘N Hoses, a non-profit organization of police officers, firefighters and paramedics now in its 31st year, provides immediate and long-term financial aid to the spouses and dependent children of all police officers, firefighters and volunteer firefighters, and publicly-funded paramedics and EMTs in the St. Louis area.
It’s the reason the fighters and police officers, Smith included, agree to take those bone-rattling body shots and dizzying head punches.
Having raised about $6.1 million over the first 30 years of Guns ‘N Hoses, including a record $653,000 last year, Backstoppers hopes to cross another threshold with this year’s event at 6:30 p.m., November 23 at the Scottrade Center.
The money makes a difference, one Smith and his fellow officers have seen first hand.
“When a first responder dies in the line of duty, we pay off the family’s debt and provide support for tuition from day care through college or university, health and dental insurance, and other extraordinary expenses going forward,” said St. Louis Police Chief Ron Battle (Ret.), the Executive director of The Backstoppers. “Our support is immediate and life-long. We will always be there.”
Not long after graduating from the academy, Smith attended his first funeral for a fallen officer, when one of his former academy instructors, Sergeant Richard Wienhold, was shot and killed in the line of duty in 2000.
Four years later, while Smith was preparing for his first Guns ‘N Hoses bout, Nick Sloan, an officer he had trained with in the same gym many times before, was killed in St. Louis City less than a month before his fight.
“The first two funerals that I went to for officers who died in the line of duty, Backstoppers and the Guns ‘N Hoses event helped out both of those families,” Smith said. “It definitely puts things in perspective for you and shows what kind of an impact an organization like this has.”
The training is rigorous and takes up a lot of free time, especially for untrained fighters, according to Smith.
“I was training three to four times a week up to two hours a day for three months, while working as in officer,” Smith said. “Taking all those blows — it was a sacrifice I was willing to make.”
Clayton detective Joe Stevens took part in the first mixed martial arts competition at Guns ‘N Hoses in 2013 and was the first fighter to get in the ring.
“I had a lot of admiration for that sport, so it gave me an opportunity to do something positive and meaningful while also doing something that I had a lot of fun competing in,” Stevens said “I kept thinking, even though I don’t know these people on a personal level, I’m just here to try to do what I can to help out.”
Both Smith and Stevens ended up winning their bouts, despite some nerves, as did Clayton officer Ryan Dunn, who boxed in 2012.
“Once you get the first hit in those butterflies go away and you start to go to work,” Stevens said. “I took one on the chin and kind of saw stars for a second but I got my focus together and got back into the fight.”
Last year, 18,038 people attended the annual event, the largest number to date.
Backstoppers provided $3 million in assistance to families of fallen heroes with a total of 66 dependent children last year and has supported over 160 families since 1959. Ninety cents of every dollar donated goes towards that assistance.
Though they won’t have a dog in the fight this year, the Clayton Police Department plans to send about 15 guys to spectate at the 31st annual event, just as they’ve done many times before.
“You want to beat the firefighters even though we’re friends with them and we work together well with them, but it really is a bragging rights event at the end of the night,” Smith said. “I know I and several other guys have been going for awhile now, and we’ll keep showing support.”