Reunion for fighters and coaches
“Enemies” in the ring. Associates in the force. Lifelong friends outside the ropes.
That was the sentiment shared by the large crowd attending the 2012 Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department (LASD) Boxing Team dinner and awards bash held Friday night at Steven’s Steakhouse in the City of Commerce.
This was a banquet for the amateur boxers, coaches, fellow officers and their families to get together at this special affair–a reunion of sorts. Many hadn’t seen each other for years after first meeting decades ago.
All shared a love for the fisticuffs after competing in various Police Olympics, Western States Police and Fire Games, the World Police Games and more.
I caught up with the “Blue Crew” to hear all about their weekend celebration saluting those in the LASD boxing circle. I’ve known several of the men and women through their annual “Fight for Life” live boxing shows benefiting the City of Hope and I’ve seen their dedication on and off the canvas.
This was the second gala of its kind hosted by the LASD, who recently were part of the December “Fight for Life” event pitting LASD vs. LAPD.
In attendance were Las Vegas’ boxing official Robert Byrd, who was a California Highway Patrol (CHP) for many years before heading to Nevada, the World Boxing Hall of Fames’ Gwen Adair (referee/judge) and Josie Arrey-Mejia (Bell Gardens Police Boxing Team), 1988 Olympian George Lopez (who represented Argentina in the Olympic Games) California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) Inspector Mark Relyea, California Boxing Hall of Fame Inductee and trainer Hank Nagamine, LASD Boxing Coach Mike Young, among many others.
The “main event” of the night was the award presentation where statues were presented to six honorees. The bronze trophies, sculpted by boxing trainer and artist Steve Harpst, were commissioned by Bell Garden’s PAL program coordinator and judge Josie Arrey-Mejia and female boxing pioneer Gwen Adair.
The 2012 award winners were a group of former boxers and/or trainers Sergeant Mike Young, Detective Al Fraijo, Deputy Joe Valverde, Deputy Hank Nagamine, Sergeant Easie Williams and L.A. Corrections Department’s Ernie Tell (posthumous category). Byron Woods proudly accepted Tell’s bronze statue. “Ernie was my trainer,” Byron explains. “He spent 23 years with Men’s Central Jail and was a great coach too.”
A photo display and video presentation of past fights was showcased as well as a “Ten Count” for fallen officers lost.
Chatting with current and retired peace officers, it was easy to see the camaraderie and respect between everyone.
That’s not to say there wasn’t a fair amount of some clever “trash talking” between the squads.
After all, most of them faced off against each other, blasting away and trading leather during their amateur rumbles.
Speaking with Lopez, Relyea, Nagamine, Young, and also LASD’s Al Fraijo, Byron Woods and Isaac Gonzalez, the guys reminisced about their glory days from the 80s and 90s. This hearty bunch trained together and also fought in Police Olympics, tournaments and charity shows throughout the U.S. and beyond.
As I listened to the men’s stories of their times rushing from the gym to their shifts, they recounted some of their favorite memories. They stated dates, cities, names of opponents and decisions won or lost.
“How do you remember all the minute details from all these fights?” I asked the guys.
“You never forget,” Mike Young replied. “You remember every detail and every punch of what you went through together.”
After beating each other black and blue in the boxing ring, a bond is formed between the officers. While there were many grudge matches between the men, there was a lack of grudges held after the bell rang.
Some fought fierce battles against each other over 30 years ago. While the memories are fresh, time may have passed but the years hasn’t changed the strong fraternity of these fighting officers. The sheriffs all agreed that win or lose, their friendships do not waver after exchanging fire in the squared circle.
“You remain friends after your bouts?” I said.
“We ARE lifelong friends,” Mark Relyea, a recently retired lieutenant confirmed to me. “These are great guys; this is a good team. There’s a camaraderie that is built through boxing–and it lifts the morale of everyone too.”
Al Fraijo agreed with Relyea. “We’ve all known each other for a long time,” the amateur boxer and sergeant said. “Mark and I were in the Academy together! He was the smartest kid in class; we go way back.” They tell me funny stories about how they’d cover each other’s shifts or borrow each other’s boxing gear when they had bouts.
The team said that about 70% of the attendees at the bash had fought in “Fight for Life” shows or other tournaments before. While a few of them had the natural talent to reach a higher level in the sport, they chose law enforcement over a career in prizefighting.
But these dedicated sharpshooters never gave up their love for boxing.
George Lopez mentions that Byron Woods was a “cut above” and could’ve gone pro. Woods fought in the Olympic Trial Box-Offs and fought former pro and current trainer John Bray.
The sharpshooters are able to live out their dreams in the ring through the Police Olympics or charity fundraising shows.
“We’ve traveled all over the U.S. for shows,” Coach Hank Nagamine tells me. He’s spent almost 30 years training boxers. “The next Police Olympics will be June 24 in San Diego.”
The team showed me some old photos from past events and one in particular stood out.
It was a shot of the 1986 Boxing Team with then-Sheriff Sherman Block.
The guys had a good time laughing over their fashion and hairstyle choices back in the day. In this 8×10 were amateur sluggers Al Fraijo, Mike Young, Ray Walker and Mark Relyea. Since three out of the four were gathered around, I had this LASD trio “recreate” the photo with George Lopez standing in for Block and Walker.
After 26 years, the friends and co-workers haven’t really changed all that much.
And the one thing that also remains is their passion for boxing.
Congratulations to Team LASD and the 2012 awardees.
Photos by Michele Chong