Boxing Event To Raise Money For Kleen Energy Victims

Mat Munroe comes off as an affable guy with an easy smile. At 28, he's a devoted family man, proud ironworker and loyal union brother.

But it's obvious he has another side. There's the skull and bones inked on his neck and, among his other tattoos, the letters F.O.A.D. on the knuckles of his right hand. It has two meanings, one the serene "For only a day." The other is too vulgar for print.

While working out one day this week at the Lion's Den gym in Middletown, he was wearing a T-shirt for Hatebreed, a New Haven hardcore band that he started listening to as a teenager growing up in Enfield. On the back of the shirt is the title of one of the band's songs, "Smash Your Enemies."

And that's the attitude Munroe plans to step into the ring with Saturday at the Connecticut Convention Center for the "Fight the Good Fight" boxing event to benefit the families of the six men who died in the Kleen Energy plant explosion in February.

Munroe and 17 other Middletown police officers, firefighters and union members are doing what their family and friends keep telling them is nuts: With little or no boxing experience, they have taken up the demanding and brutal sport and will put their bodies on the line in the ring.

It wasn't a tough decision for Munroe. He's the guy who would lean on co-workers to contribute when fellow union workers were injured on the job. His union representative signed him up for the fight before even asking.

"I said I'd fight anyone," Munroe said. "What's going to happen to me? I'll get beat up? I'll go back to work. I'll see my kids. Those guys won't see their kids again."

The Middletown officers and firefighters involved in the fundraiser all responded to the Kleen Energy accident, which remains under investigation. The memory of it motivates them.

"I saw the devastation first-hand," said Middletown police Lt. Dan Petrulis.

The men have buckets of good intentions, but the reality of their challenge began to settle in when they started training in April. The Lion's Den, a boxing and mixed martial arts gym that opened in 2008, is sponsoring the event and gave them free memberships and training.

Since then, some have been training for up to 30 hours a week, missing overtime at work and sacrificing their days off and time with families. Learning the basics of boxing, along with the grueling training, brought them a new respect for the sport.

Police Officer Marc Del Mauro said the experience has been humbling, a sentiment often expressed at the gym in the past few weeks.

"I thought I was in shape before, but these guys kicked my butt," he said.

With all the broken and bloodied noses, burning abs and sweat, a trial-by-fire camaraderie has taken hold among the rookie boxers.

"I definitely feel it's a team," said Middletown firefighter Steve Beeler. "We all support each other."

Craig Salamone, the gym's vice president of operations, is training about half the fighters and knows what they're going through. Now 41, he didn't start boxing until he was in his 20s and didn't turn pro until 28. People told him he was crazy, but he earned a record of 17-3. Salamone is an imposing presence and talks in a Brandoesque mumble, only his words come in fast bursts, like a flurry of punches.

""We've got a bunch of good, good guys," he said.

He's seen guys lose weight, up to 30 pounds, seen them quit smoking, give up drinking. (His rule that they be celibate for a month before the fight — "You need the testosterone" — has met with less success.)

All beginning boxers face that moment when they catch that first punch that rattles the brain and turns their legs to rubber. That's when a lot of would-be boxers decide it's not for them, but not this group, according to Salamone.

"They'd quit for a day, an hour, a second," he said. "Then they come back."

Perhaps no one is facing a bigger challenge than John DeSena, who in the main event will fight Jose Canseco, a former Major League baseball player who was named the American League's Most Valuable Player in 1988. He's probably better known these days for his admitted use of anabolic steroids and his claim that many other major league players also used them. More recently, he has competed in boxing and mixed martial arts.

Canseco is a friend of Lion's Den owner Doug Cartelli and said in a telephone interview from his home in California that he was eager to volunteer for a fundraiser to help the Kleen Energy victims.

"I think it's a great cause," he said.

Canseco, 45, said he's in good shape at 6 foot 4 and 250 pounds.

DeSena, 43, says he feels tiny these days. A weightlifter since he was a teenager, he was 290 when he started training. He's now 260, eating seven times a day and lifting less weight but doing more, faster reps.

"We need to make him mobile, agile and hostile," said his strength trainer, Alex Shiling. "Jose always swings for the fences."

DeSena, who owns Mobile 1 Lube Express in Middletown and also is a friend of Cartelli's, fought for the first time last year when he and Cartelli sponsored a benefit for the American Cancer Society. Other than that, he says, his only experience is the street fights of his youth, which has limited value in his current endeavor.

"In the ring, it's just you and him," DeSena said. "You can't grab a brick off the ground, you know what I mean?"

He's confident that he can take Canseco, but mainly he's pleased that such a big name has joined the cause. The Canseco name will sell more tickets, which means more money for the families of the men who died in the accident: Peter Chepulis, Ronald J. Crabb, Raymond Dobratz, Chris Walters, Kenneth Haskell and Roy Rushton.

Those men motivated Munroe, but his competitiveness has kept him going. He was a wrestler at Enrico Fermi High School in Enfield and has always been athletic, but he hadn't stepped into a gym as an adult.

From that, he found himself stepping into the ring Tuesday to spar three rounds with "Iceman" John Scully, who fought twice for world championships and ended his professional career in 2001 with a 38-11 record and 21 knockouts.

At 6 foot 5, Munroe had come down from 210 pounds to 186 and was in the best shape of his life. He had started to entertain thoughts of sticking with boxing, maybe even turning pro. "I'm 100 percent confident," he said of Saturday. "I am not going to lose that fight."

But facing Scully was another matter.

"Kind of intimidating," he said, as he waited for the bell.

He came out fast, throwing punches and dancing around the ring. Salamone, coaching from the corner, had said Munroe throws a harder right than any beginner he has ever trained.

"Stay low, man," Salamone shouted. "Like a laser. Stay low. Double up. Hands up, hands UP, HANDS UP."

He was energetic and focused through the second round, even after Scully tagged him with a right, trying to test him without hurting him.

By the third, Munroe said he didn't want to go out. He was drenched in sweat, gasping for breath. His arms and legs felt leaden. Scully toyed with him and he threw as many punches as he could.

Recuperating later, he said as much as he hated the last round, he loved every second of it.

"It brought my confidence level way higher," he said. "I know I can weather the storm."

The doors open for the event at 6 p.m., with bell time at 7 p.m. The card also includes five other amateur fights.

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