Scientist is throwing haymakers for cancer research
MEDFIELD — John Quackenbush is a scientist, a physicist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and a Harvard professor, who next month will toss his decades of experience and research squarely and willingly into a new ring.
Quackenbush, 53 years old, 160 pounds, and a whiz in biostatistics and computational biology, is about to become a boxer.
“Ugh, I’m a practical girl,’’ said his wife, Mary Kalamaras, clearly amused as she offered her opinion of a scientist/spouse so blatantly gone mad. “Like I told him, ‘Uh, John . . . your brain is your moneymaker.’ ’’
Yet it will be the sweet science for Quackenbush, who has joined the proud brigade of pugilists who will lace up gloves May 14 in the annual Haymakers For Hope charity fund-raiser at the House of Blues on Lansdowne Street. Just across the street from Fenway Park’s legendary Wall, Quackenbush and 29 other combatants, including four women, will hammer away at each other in the hope that their knocks will help in some small way against the much bigger battle that is cancer.
“I think we’ll have a big crowd there from Dana-Farber,’’ noted Quackenbush, who joined the Dana-Farber staff 10 years ago and is its director of the Center for Cancer Computational Biology. “I just can’t tell whether they’ll go because they love me — or if they want to see me get punched in the face.’’
Either way, Quackenbush is just fine with it, and will have trained four months in earnest here at FA Boxing under trainer Sione Finau for his moment(s) in the ring. Each of the 15 bouts on May 14 is slated for three rounds, two minutes each, which doesn’t sound all that arduous as long as you’re not the one doing the belting or playing the part of beltee. Haymakers For Hope is strictly for amateurs, though the cracking pain of a right cross to the chin is the same for champs and chumps alike.
Quackenbush, raised just south of Wilkes-Barre in eastern Pennsylvania, stumbled into this new chapter in his life last year while training at FA Boxing merely as a means to stay fit. He ran a little, participated in taekwondo with his 9-year-old son Adam, and had no aspirations of being a boxer. Until one early morning he found himself outside the gym, in the parking lot, invited there by the much larger Finau to try a fitness drill. To wit: lock up with the burly Finau in a standing position, drive him back 3-4 feet like a tackling sled, reset, push Finau again. And again. And again.
“I get halfway around the building, exhausted, and I’m thinking, ‘Phew, good, that’s over!’ ’’ recalled Quackenbush. “And Sione says, ‘Oh, no, we’re going all the way around the building.’ ’’
“He was dead tired, but he wouldn’t stop,’’ added Finau, a 2002 Northeastern University grad who has trained 13 fighters, all winners, for the Haymakers competition. “Right away I saw his heart and determination . . . the guy just never gives up. I told him right there, ‘Hey, you should do Haymakers.’ ’’
Haymakers For Hope (haymakersforhope.org) had its start in 2011, the brainchild of two Bay Staters, Andrew Myerson from Dover and Julie Kelly from Dedham, who were both living in Manhattan and training at Trinity Boxing. Inspired by the type of charity fund-raising typical among marathon runners, Myerson and Kelly felt the same pledge dynamic could be applied to boxing, and they quickly cobbled together a Haymakers inaugural at the Park Plaza Castle in Boston. In some four years and 125 bouts, Haymakers For Hope has raised $3.5 million for cancer research and survivorship.
“Over the years,’’ said Myerson, “we’ve even had five cancer survivors fight in Haymakers. Their record is 4-1 with three first-round knockouts.’’
The lesson in that?
“Don’t fight a cancer survivor,’’ said Myerson, who is about to complete his MBA at MIT’s Sloan School and then join FKA Ventures.
All fighters, who have ranged in age from 23 through 59, must wear protective headgear in the ring. They also must agree to train for four months, with fight clubs, according to Myerson, often waiving membership fees to the fighter-volunteers. Some fighters, noted Finau, hire personal trainers at $100 an hour to prep for the big night. A few of them might have spent $10,000 or more on training, all in the spirit of charity, all with the risk of waking up in a ring, flat on one’s back, after being knocked cold.
“Oh, yeah, that happens, it’s the real deal in there,’’ said a delighted Finau, referring to the knockouts. “Broken noses. Blood everywhere. That’s boxing.’’
Certainly not the typical day for Quackenbush, whose varied day job has him teaching, traveling, lecturing, researching . . . whatever it takes to beat down the broad-shouldered brute of cancer. He is sticking his chin out there for someone to pop, he says, because Dana-Farber is such a special place, that it stands on the cusp of more cures, and that, win or lose, he’ll dust himself off after his bout and skip joyfully and seamlessly back to his life as husband, father, scientist.
“I know a lot of people think I am crazy doing this,’’ said Quackenbush, his long, flowing hair, with ample streaks of gray, harkening back to the ’60s. “But I think what we’re doing is a metaphor for what patients go through. The training is hell. I hate it. My favorite part is when Sione tells me it’s over and I can go shower. Cancer patients fight their fight with such a quiet dignity. Win or lose on May 14 the fight will be over for me. I wish it was like that for all patients, that they could think, ‘I’ll get to that date and it will be over.’ ’’
The ring is ready. The fights are scheduled. The clang of the bell will call the fighters from their corners. Their fight, they hope, will continue to resonate far longer.