Kelly Kennon

Boxing isn’t a sport that attracts many female competitors, and Kelly Kennon may never have taken it up had it not been for a good cause — The BackStoppers Inc.

A nonprofit organization that provides immediate financial aid and long-term financial and other support to the families of police officers, firefighters and EMS workers killed in the line of duty, The BackStoppers has special meaning to Kennon, a 25-year-old female firefighter with the Union Fire Protection District.

Kennon, who grew up on a 90-acre farm in Perryville and currently lives in Dogtown, got into boxing in 2011 when she decided to compete in the annual Budweiser Guns ’n Hoses charity competition that pits police officers against firefighters as a fund-raiser for BackStoppers.

The rounds are shorter than usual — three rounds, each one minute long (cut down from the usual 1 1/2 to 2 minutes per round in order to get more fights in), but in the ring even that one minute can feel like an eternity.

Kennon won her 2011 bout, knocking her opponent down. She repeated her victory in 2012.

Originally Wanted to Be a Police Officer

Being in a competition of police officers versus firefighters is interesting for Kennon, who started out thinking she wanted to be a police officer, but has ended up working as a firefighter.

While she was still in high school, Kennon attended the Missouri Cadet Patrol Academy and was the first female in 36 years to be commander of her class.

Later, a friend convinced her to volunteer for her hometown fire department in Perryville. She took the advice and once she started responding to calls, felt she had found her own.

“I could see everything the guys on the ambulance could do, and I wanted to do that too,” said Kennon. “I wanted to be able to do all of it — fire, EMS and police.”

In college, taking classes in criminal law, Kennon realized she preferred fire service to police work. So she narrowed her focus and enrolled in the IHM Academy with Abbott EMS to earn a paramedic license.

While she was in medic school, Kennon acquired a personal trainer certification and worked as a personal trainer as a way to make some money.

After earning her paramedic license, Kennon worked for Abbott for three years and also began volunteering with the Affton Fire Protection District while she waited for her name to be called up in the lottery process for self-sponsored students at the St. Louis Fire Academy.

At the academy she did well, serving as team leader of her class. When she was hired by Union, she became the district’s first full-time paid female firefighter.

Firefighting isn’t an easy field for women to break into, Kennon admits, but for her, any added challenge that came with the career has been worth it.

‘I Like the Adrenaline’

Long before Kennon decided to take up boxing to benefit The BackStoppers, she looked for athletic activities that would get her adrenaline pumping.

In high school, she ran track and cross country. After graduation, she sought out mini triathlons and ultra marathons.

Last fall, Kennon took part in a Tough Mudder competition, a 10-12 mile obstacle course designed by British Special Forces to test all-around strength, stamina, mental grit and camaraderie.

More recently, Kennen has starting “grappling,” which she described as “group fighting without punching.”

She seeks out these new challenges to keep herself sharp mentally and in shape physically, which she feels are important for her work as a firefighter.

“I like the adrenaline . . . having something to constantly train and push myself toward,” said Kennon.

“I know I’m not big, so I have to stay in the best shape I can to do my job.”

Entering the Guns ’n Hoses competition was another one of those challenges. The fact that it was all for such a good cause only motivated Kennon even more.

“It’s three minutes of adrenaline, anxiety and possibly pain,” she said, “but it’s nothing like what the families who’ve lost people have to go through.”

Trains Year-Round

While many boxers who compete in Guns ’n Hoses will begin training in August for the event, always held the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, Kennon prefers to train year-round, just adding some more boxing skills the closer she gets to the event.

She trains at USA Martial Arts in Eureka, where she is a regular member. She has a team of four coaches, including two firefighters and one police officer.

“They show up on weekends to help me fix something I’m doing wrong, like if my hook is off or if I need to work on endurance or my footwork,” said Kennon.

The training is “more about building your technique.”

Kennon’s daily fitness routine includes simple things like lifting weights and running distances between three to six days a week (using a treadmill on days that she works), as well as some cross-fit training skills, like flipping an old fire truck tire across the firehouse parking lot and hitting the same tire with a sledgehammer.

“You don’t want bulky muscle for boxing,” Kennon explained. “You want leaner muscle. So I do more reps rather than adding more weight.”

When Kennon first started training as a boxer, she had headaches constantly from sparring, which she often did against men who were close to her size. This wasn’t just from blows to the head.

“Boxing, especially having a match, is mentally harder than any other sport,” said Kennon.

“It takes a lot more time than people realize to learn how to move around your opponent, to catch on to your opponent’s weaknesses.”

Before getting in the ring at the 2011 Guns ’n Hoses contest, Kennon made her boxing debut that summer at Marine Week, where the crowd was about 8,000 people. A few months later she stood before a crowd of some 18,000 at the Guns ’n Hoses contest; though the number of spectators isn’t as intimidating as you might expect, Kennon said.

“You get such an adrenaline rush waiting to go in, all you’re thinking about is getting in the ring with your opponent,” she remarked. “You don’t notice the crowd or anyone else around you.”

While Kennon hasn’t received any major injuries from her two bouts at the 2011 and 2012 Guns ’n Hoses contests, she has plenty from her day-to-day training — black eyes, bloody noses, busted lips . . .

Walking around with those kind of injuries can make for uncomfortable encounters in public, especially if she’s with her fiance, Jimmy D’Angelo, who sometimes has similar injuries since he’s taken up boxing as well.

“We get some weird looks,” said Kennon, noting D’Angelo is a reserve firefighter with the Eureka Fire Protection District and a full-time paramedic with Abbott EMS.

Still, she appreciates that he understands what she’s going through in a way only another boxer could.

“It’s a lot of help having him there with me,” Kennon commented. “When I’m going through the mental stuff before a fight, he gets it too.”

‘I Plan to Do It as Often as I Can’

There aren’t a lot of women who sign on to compete in Guns ’n Hoses. When Kennon competed in 2011, she said there were just two female bouts. In 2012, there were three, out of a total 21 fights.

Winning her bouts was a rewarding feeling, Kennon admits.

“When they held my hand up (as the winner) . . . it’s awesome,” she said, with a smile.

“I plan to do it as often as I can.”