Normally, they're partners in public safety. But next month, Baltimore police and firefighters will be pummeling each other inside a cage – for charity.
The Sept. 30 mixed martial arts event at the Du Burns Arena is being billed as a "night of live cage fights that include active law enforcement and firefighters," battling it out to raise money for injured officers. It's the first of its kind locally, though such "badges vs. hoses" matches have been growing in popularity across the country.
"Although there's a professional rivalry, police and firefighters have always felt themselves to be part of one family," said Robert Ross, a homicide detective and martial arts enthusiast who is organizing the event. "It's no different than officers playing softball or hockey, but now they are doing it for a great cause."
For years, police and firefighters have squared off in boxing matches and other sports, and organizers say mixed martial arts competitions – a full-contact sport that is a mix of karate, boxing and other disciplines -- are a natural progression as the sport gains popularity. One organization, called "911 Fight Club," features a league that includes fighters from agencies including the Los Angeles police and fire departments, the Palm Beach sheriff's office, the Orange County fire department, and the Las Vegas metro police department.
The irony, of course, is that those who are competing to raise money for injured officers could themselves be injured during the event. Interest in mixed martial arts has taken off in recent years in part because it is much more fast-paced – and violent – than traditional boxing or martial arts.
Wayne Womack, a firefighter from Southern California who organizes the 911 Fight Club, said he pursued mixed martial arts as an alternative to boxing after a Phoenix police officer died during a charity boxing event. But while Ross said the Baltimore match will allow kicking and punching, Womack said his league only allows grappling, due to potential liability concerns.
"We tell our guys, 'You're not trying out for the UFC.' This is a gentleman's league," Womack said. "You have to go back to your day jobs when this over."
The Baltimore fighters have various martial arts backgrounds, though many will be getting into the ring for the first time. Among them: 64-year-old Regis Flynn, a lieutenant in the special investigations section of the Police Department, who will spar with a firefighter who is 20 years his junior. "I'm the only fighter on Medicare and the only Vietnam veteran," Flynn joked.
"Everybody's a bit nervous, but we're looking forward to showcasing our guys in a good-spirited contest," he said.
Ross said a portion of the proceeds from the event will go to injured Baltimore Police Officer Teresa Rigby, who was badly hurt after being thrown from an elevated part of Interstate 83 when a car careened into hers as she assisted a disabled motorist.
The Police Department has given cautious approval to the event, saying it is not sanctioning the event but supports the efforts. Spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said officers who participate are "doing so on their own time to raise money for the noble cause of supporting families of injured first responders who have fallen on hard times."
"Whether it's a marathon, an amateur fighting tournament or a community football game, the men and women of the police and fire departments are part of a family that participate in a variety of benevolent events to support and look out for one another," Guglielmi said.
But the city Fire Department had a more tepid reaction: "The BCFD does not endorse or promote members' participation in such an event. Any involvement by any member of the department is totally voluntary and the department does not accept responsibility for any injury suffered by engagement in such recreational activity," said a spokesman, Chief Kevin Cartwright.
The idea for the Baltimore event traces to Colorado, where one of Ross' former colleagues put together an event to help raise money for a partner who was injured in a car chase. There have now been six such cage fight matches in Colorado, and the organizers reached out to Ross to start an "East Coast circuit" in hopes of growing the league.
Ross said participants are mixed martial arts enthusiasts who take part in the sport already, and he said the competition will be no different from officers playing other contact sports in their spare time.
Ross' day job is homicide detective, and he's been with the city since 2002. He's solved high-profile cases including making three arrests in the fatal shooting of a blind mentally disabled man whose body was found in Leakin Park.
But in his private life, he's a martial arts expert with more than 30 years' experience with Shizendo karate and other styles. He also has a side job as the executive director of a defense tactics company called Dynamic Defense Systems, which has taught lethal-force options and knife-fighting techniques to "thousands of law enforcement officers across the country."
Though he's organizing the event, Ross won't be participating in the fights.
Flynn, a 37-year veteran of the Police Department, hasn't fought anyone in a ring since the 1960s, when he was an amateur boxer. The Navy veteran said he's kept in shape and is ready to square off. He said he's dedicating the fight to God, his family, the Police Department, and Vietnam veterans, "many of us who were treated so badly when we came back."
It's not just the male officers and firefighters who will be taking part. There will be at least three bouts involving women. Paramedic Terri Smith said in an interview on 105.7 FM The Fan that's she been training in Muay Thai for 11 months and has spent several hours preparing each day.
She joked that she'd be in a good position to medically treat her competition should she land any brutal blows. "I'll fix them afterwards," she said.
And then there's the bikini competition for "ring girls." Ross said wives and girlfriends of police officers and firefighters have expressed interest, though they'll have to compete with others at tryouts Friday nights at clubs at Power Plant Live that were scheduled to start last week.
"The winner will receive $1,000, and be part of a nationally distributed XCW ring girl calendar," Ross promises.