When Julie Anne Kelly of Attleboro, Massachusetts, says she wants to knock out cancer, she means it. Both literally and figuratively.
After surviving a bout with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at age 22, this strong woman now throws the occasional one-two punch on behalf of others fighting the good fight.
In 2010, Kelly and her friend Andrew Myerson founded Haymakers for Hope (H4H), a 501(c)(3) cancer charity that hosts boxing matches to raise money to battle a deadly disease that affects so many.
Irony isn’t lost on the name. A haymaker is a boxing term for a forceful blow thrown in hopes of knocking out your opponent.
It was only natural for this two-time NYC Golden Gloves champion, former triathlete, and marathon runner to incorporate her love of boxing into a way to help others.
Both Myerson and Kelly knew firsthand how cancer changes lives, with Myerson losing a close high school friend and Kelly going through the battle herself. The two met in a boxing gym, got to talking, and the rest was history.
As a 501(c)(3), H4H raises money for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute through its yearlong fund-raising efforts. By the end of 2018, that translates to more than $10 million. And its events are raising money in the most ladylike fashion—by kicking some ass.
As women you’re told your whole life to act like a lady. If you’re aggressive, you’re a bitch.
On Oct. 10, the House of Blues becomes a raucous ring for one of H4H’s most popular fundraisers, the 6th annual Belles of the Brawl, where 32 courageous women from the Boston area step into the ring to compete in their first amateur boxing match. Each has only four months of training under her belt but a will that is champion sized.
“As women you’re told your whole life to act like a lady. If you’re aggressive, you’re a bitch,” Kelly tells Exhale. “There’s none of that in boxing. It’s a competition. It’s your time to be aggressive. You’re not acting like a man, you’re acting like a boxer.”
“Belles” are every woman. This year’s fighters are choreographers, investment professionals, teaching assistants, and IT specialists, to name a few.
“People say I don’t look like a boxer. What does a boxer look like? It can look like anyone,” Kelly says. “The women you meet in the boxing gym come from all walks of life. They can be stay-at-home moms, models, doctors, nurses, classical musicians. For these 32 women, it doesn’t matter who they’re fighting. They’re a family.” At the end of each bout, both belles hug. No matter who they are, they’re all in this with the same mission: to KO cancer.
For women, it really gives you self-confidence and teaches self-discipline. Once I started boxing, it allowed me to redefine my purpose.
Boxing not only strengthens the body as an all-encompassing workout that leaves every muscle down for the count, but it also empowers the fighter. This assisted Kelly through her post-treatment struggles with depression and feelings of isolation.
“For women, it really gives you self-confidence and teaches self-discipline,” she explains. “Once I started boxing, it allowed me to redefine my purpose. It really instilled a ton of self-confidence.”
Consider them bouts to benefit. While learning the ropes of footwork, jabs, and bobbing and weaving, each fighter is tasked with fund-raising efforts that culminate in the main event.
The inaugural Haymakers for Hope fight was in 2011 at Castle Park Plaza. “We thought it would just be our parents and family, and 1,000 people came,” she recalls of this first event that ended up raising $190,000. And with that, H4H grew, adding Rock and Rumble in 2012 and Belles in 2013, as well as expanding into New York City and Denver.
While most fight on behalf of H4H itself, boxers also can choose another 501(c)(3) cancer charity to support, “as long as there’s a cancer focus for the dollars, whether it’s treatment, survivors, or awareness,” adds Kelly. On par with the money donated for Belles is the time and ring space during lead-up months.
“We owe a lot to the gyms and trainers,” she says of this year’s supporters, which include Everybody Fights, Grealish Boxing Club, Jim McNally Boxing, Combat Sports, and more. But it’s no surprise to Kelly that these pros have welcomed the women into their rings during the journey.
“What people find is that once you’re in a boxing gym, the people are so kind and welcoming,” says Kelly. “Typically boxers are centered and calm. It’s not the stereotype of an aggressive and intimidating person. Once you find what you’re capable of, you find an inner peace.”
And when it comes to cancer, an inner peace is certainly worth fighting for.
Tickets are available to attend Belles of the Brawl for $85 general admission on the floor or $500 ringside.