By Rebecca Liebson and Darius Kwak
A red-faced Kyle Burkhardt gasps for air but no one can hear him. The staccato rhythm of gloves slamming into punching bags fills the Westbury Boxing Gym, drowning out his heavy breathing.
Up until June, Burkhardt had never stepped foot in a boxing ring. On Nov. 20, he and 17 other volunteers will put on the gloves at the Long Island Fight For Charity to raise money to help those with autism among other causes.
“When the bell goes off at the end of the round, whether you’ve won or lost, you feel like you’ve accomplished something,” he said.
Founded In 2002, by local businessmen Jamie Austin, Jeff Cohen and Matthew Silver, the fight pits white collar professionals against each other to raise money for Long Islanders in need. Last year alone, the event raised roughly $100,000, adding to a total of over $1.1 million since the first fight.
The idea started as a way for Cohen to help Family Residences and Essential Enterprises (FREE), a local organization which serves the developmentally disabled. Cohen became heavily involved with the group after his friend’s son was diagnosed with autism.
Along with FREE, this year’s beneficiaries include a group providing educational programs for those with autism and The Long Island Community Chest, which helps Long Islanders overcome temporary financial hardships.
“There’s no other event on Long Island where people step so far out to do something for others,” Cohen said. “These boxers are taking time away from their family and friends to get punched in the face and then ask everybody they know for money.”
Raising the required $5,000 was easy for volunteer Christen Pellegrini, but the training posed a great challenge. “I’ve never boxed or done anything like this so I sort of had no idea what I was getting into,” she said. “Some days are a lot better than others. I definitely have been discouraged but I have amazing trainers.”
To make sure everyone is in fighting shape for the big night, boxers must attend at least two training sessions a week for six months.
Aside from being a necessary safety precaution, Joanne Hutchins, one of the trainers for the fight said extensive preparation is needed to put on a good show. With an audience of around 1,500 each year and tickets starting at $135, expectations run high.
“It is a sweet science,” Hutchins, who oversees training for all participants, said. “Once they learn it it’s a great thrill for them and even for the coaches, when they get it to see it all click.”
Volunteer and part time UFC trainer Brian Weiner was surprised at how difficult the preparation was. “After the process continues it wears on you a little bit,” he said.
Last month, just as he was hitting his breaking point, Weiner got the chance to meet the people he was helping first hand when he and the others visited FREE. “They referred to me and one of the other boxers as Power Rangers and said that we were their heroes,” he said. “It just kind of revitalized me and made me have more of a drive again. At the end of the day, you’re doing something that’s really going to help and benefit someone else so sacrifice is not a big deal.”
With less than a month left before the main event, Cohen said the final push for fundraising always comes down to how many people decide to show up at the Huntington Hilton, where the event will take place. “I always tell people, you don’t have to box to fight for charity, just buy a ticket.”