ITEM PHOTO BY OWEN O’ROURKE
Matthew Christensen speaks during an interview after training Feb. 17.
By DAVID WILSON
SALEM — Close your eyes. You hear grunts; breaths that almost sound angry. Swish, swish. Thud. Another. A pause. Wait; any second now. Thud, thud, thud.
Marblehead firefighter Matthew Christensen absorbs blow after blow from trainer Eric Kane. It’s a barrage most would flee.
“Keep your head up, keep your head up,” Kane says, his gloved fists hovering.
Christensen doesn’t run; he bites down on his mouthpiece. His face is red and, at times, pained. But with eyes on Kane, he’s energized, determined.
More heavy breaths; short spurts of laughter; an expletive or two, as Christensen, 33, and Kane, 35, continue five three-minute rounds at a home-turned-training facility in Salem.
After the fourth round, Christensen drops to one knee. “One more,” Kane says. “Yes sir,” he replies.
It’s not exactly a fair matchup. Kane, at 6 feet and 202 pounds, has 2 inches and 40 pounds on Christensen. But the Haymakers for Hope charity boxing event is three months away, and Christensen wants to be ready.
Now in its seventh year, the tournament is set for May 18 at the House of Blues in Boston. This will be Christensen’s first.
Haymakers for Hope — an “amazing charity,” Christensen said — has raised more than $6 million for cancer research, according to their website. Men and women are asked to raise $5,000 in donations before entering the ring.
As of Tuesday, Christensen is at $3,730. He needs to raise $1,300 more. But don’t call $5,000 a goal; Christensen quickly dismisses that figure as a “minimum.” He wants to raise as much as he can.
For Christensen, the connection to cancer is personal. When he reaches the subject, his already-deep voice drops; at times, he talks slower.
His mother battled breast cancer twice. After follow-up appointments earlier this year, she’s cancer-free and doing great, he said. He lost his grandmother to lung cancer. It was “so hard” watching hers progress, he said.
And Christensen knows he, too, is at risk. Sixty percent of firefighters will get cancer; twice as likely as the general public, he’s told. He recalls a recent fire in Marblehead; afterward, wiping his face, neck and hands to remove toxins and carcinogens.
But the father of three finds strength in his youngest son, Mac. His “little special guy” — just 7 years old — is autistic and nonverbal, but very high-functioning, Christensen said.
On their website, Haymakers for Hope features a quote from the late computer science professor Randy Pausch. “Brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to show how badly we want something,” it reads in part.
“Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want something badly enough.”
Thud, thud, thud. It’s the fifth and final round and Christensen is in “crash mode.” The winner in an amateur match is often the one who gives the most in the last minute of the last round, Kane said.
To the untrained eye, a lot of Christensen’s moves look defensive. But in unexpected moments, he delivers a blast of his own. In crash mode, more than before.
Christensen’s opponent in the Haymakers for Hope tournament has yet to be announced. He finds out next month. It will be someone similarly-matched; smaller and less experienced than, say, Kane.
But that doesn’t mean Christensen gets to take it easy.
Arrogance is one of the worst qualities for an amateur boxer, Kane said. It doesn’t look like he has to worry, though; it’s “very easy to be humble when you have complete confidence in your trainer,” Christensen says.
The bond between the two is just months old, but appears to have grown quickly. Christensen says he owes “literally everything” to Kane, while Kane says Christensen is “not even the same guy” who first walked through his door.
“He’s not just my coach; he’s my friend,” Christensen said.
A friend who will be cornering him on fight day, standing right outside the ring. “I’m not going into it without him,” Christensen says, looking to Kane.
Christensen’s focus, now, is fundraising, he said. And working on his form. And you know, maybe not talking so much while training.
“He’s a nice guy, so he says sorry sometimes,” Kane said.
And on May 18, Christensen will have an audience of thousands; his wife, Laura, and fellow firefighters among them.
“If I can get in the ring and get knocked around a little bit, dish a couple punches out, raise money for this charity, I’ll do it,” he said.
For a moment, it’s quiet; “I’ll do it more than once.”
Visit www.haymakersforhope.org/profiles/matthew-christensen to learn more about Christensen, to donate and to buy tickets (tickets purchased from Christensen’s page go toward his total, he said).
David Wilson can be reached at [email protected]