Omaha Local 22 members Kristine Van Beek takes a breather during her fight during the Blue Collar Boxing Event on Nov. 25 of last year.
Photos by the United Way of the Midlands.

IBEW members perform the highest quality work, often in stressful situations. Many honorably served their country in the military. Still others perform countless hours of community service. Each of these reflects positively on the IBEW and its membership.

Apprentice Holly Finch gets a breather and listens to instructions from her trainer between rounds of her bout against Local 22 sister Kristine Van Beek.
Finch, right, and Van Beek embrace after Finch won their bout via decision.
Local 22’s Davie Boulier has his arm raised in victory after knocking out his opponent, an Ironworkers member.
Local 22 member Dave Boulier, a Navy veteran and low-voltage technician, stands over his opponent after knocking him down in the first round.

But it's not often that members choose to give back to their communities from a boxing ring with an opponent intent on knocking them out. For Dave Boulier and six of his brothers and sisters from Omaha, Neb., Local 22, it was a choice they are glad to have made.

"That's something you don't deal with every day, going up against someone who wants to knock your head off as much as I do to them," said the 35-year-old Navy veteran, now a low-voltage technician for Miller Electric in Omaha.

Boulier was one of the stars of Blue Collar Boxing, held Nov. 25 of last year as a fundraiser for the United Way of the Midlands and the Nebraska Center for Workforce Development and Education. He knocked out his opponent — a member of the Ironworkers — in 48 seconds in a light-heavyweight bout, earning some good-natured bragging rights among trade unions in southeastern Nebraska.

"I've always wanted to challenge myself," he said. "When I was in the Navy, we always challenged ourselves in this way."

The evening featured a series of three-round fights pitting members of unions in and around Omaha against each other. Holly Finch, Kristine Van Beek, Adam Darlington, Jarrod Barnes, Joe Wolf and Ben Novak were the other Local 22 members who fought on the card.

They didn't just show up the night of the fights and throw on a pair of gloves and a headgear. First, they took part in months of training, mostly at a gym set up by officials from participating unions that included veteran boxing trainers. They weren't allowed to coast.

It wasn't easy, but each said they left the ring that night with a tremendous sense of accomplishment, noting that many who signed up for the event didn't even make it through training. The adrenaline they felt entering the ring before a cheering crowd was unlike anything they've ever experienced.

"It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life," said Finch, a former college softball player who left the sport due to an injury and now is a fourth-year apprentice. "It was really intense, especially in the summer. I was working in a warehouse and going from that into a boxing class and then into an apprenticeship class was very draining. But it was so worth it."

Finch ended up fighting Local 22 sister Van Beek because they were two of the three women who signed up for the event.

Van Beek, a construction electrician, had only been a Local 22 member for a couple of months when she got an email asking for volunteers. She thought it would be a great way to get involved in the local. In hindsight, she didn't realize exactly what she was getting herself into, she said.

Still, she'd like to do it again.

"I thought it was awesome," said Van Beek, who credited her coach, Joe LaPuzza, for helping her work through the difficult times in training. "I wound up losing but I thought it was a pretty great event."

For some, training for boxing was an extension of things they routinely do. Boulier, for instance, has long practiced the martial art jiu-jitsu.

For others, it was a reminder of how great it was to be back in a competitive atmosphere. Novak, a journeyman inside wireman, qualified for the Nebraska state wrestling meet while in high school and also played high school football.

He signed up for the initial Blue Collar Boxing event in 2019 to lose weight but soon found a competitive itch he had not felt in nearly 20 years. He formed a close bond with his trainer, Dan Murphy, who fought professionally 68 times in the 1990s.

"I fell in love with it," he said. "It's some of the most fun stuff you'll ever do. The level of competition was just unmatched. That was the biggest thing for me, to prove I could just do it."

It wasn't an easy night in the ring, however. A few days before the fight, Novak fell from a ladder and suffered a separated shoulder. Withdrawing from the bout would have been the best course of action from a physical standpoint. On the other hand, the thought of giving in sickened him, even though he lost a decision to a member of the Plumbers and Gasfitters.

"I gave it a shot," he said. "I lost [the use] of my right hand in the first round but there was that competitive edge and I couldn't quit. There's that "don't quit" deal and it's for a good cause."

Injuries also slowed inside apprentice Jarrod Barnes, both on the night of the fight and for a few months afterwards.

Barnes got his arm caught in the armpit of his opponent in the opening round. When he tried to pull it back, he badly injured his shoulder and was forced to undergo surgery afterwards that kept him off the job until February.

Barnes loved the experience leading up to the fight, and like Novak, formed a close relationship with his trainer, Bill Novak [no relation], who fought professionally nearly 50 years ago.

"I lost my father at a pretty young age and I've always kind of craved that father-son relationship," he said.

Yet, he isn't sure he'll try it again because he doesn't want to risk being off work for so long.

"I loved it so much," he said. "But at this point of my life, I just don't know if I can afford it."

Novak and Boulier both said they will be back for next year's event.

"Losing was a dose of humble pie but it also lit a fire," Novak said. "I'm going to do it again. I can't leave on a losing note."

Boulier said he plans to learn from his mistakes — which, considering he won in just 48 seconds, can't be a long list — and return next year.

United Way officials in Omaha told local media they were hesitant about using an inherently violent sport as a fundraiser but that it has been a success. This year's event drew more than 2,000 fans, participants from nine unions and raised more than $320,000 — about $100,000 more than the initial event in 2019. The Blue Collar program planned for 2020 was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"It brings different people to the table who want to help their community and it's a really fun event," Shawna Forsberg, president and CEO of the United Way of the Midlands, told Omaha television station KMTV. "It's actually incredibly family-friendly. People have a really good time here."

Local 22 Business Manager Barry Mayfield came away proud of his fighting members.

"Knowing our brothers and sisters put in all that time and training for a good cause really is an inspiration to all our members, including me, and cheering them on brought all of us together," Mayfield said. "Like many locals across the United States, we've been a longtime supporter of the United Way. Strengthening that relationship is another reason I'm so proud we were part of this."