Behind the Scenes as New York’s Cops and Firefighters Square Off in the ‘Battle of the Badges’

The FDNY wanted a win. Fireman Todd Velten wanted bragging rights.

Todd Velten has tunnel vision when he’s fighting. He doesn’t hear the music playing, the crowd hollering, or – if it’s going well – the bell that starts the bout. Fiercely competitive, he’s cultivated this focus, but, as he strolled toward the ring at the center of Madison Square Garden’s WaMu Theater for the final boxing match of his career, Velten let the noise in.

“I want to pay attention, to hear the crowd and hear the yells,” he said as he prepared to fight. “And when the cops boo.”

For the last 32 years, New York City’s police and fire departments have squared off in the annual “Battle of the Badges,” a boxing showcase that showcases more than just fighting technique. Sentiments otherwise left to the squad car or the firehouse are suddenly out in the open.

“The best part about the job,” said Mike Reno of Engine Company 33, head trainer for the FDNY squad, “You can legally punch a cop in the face.” 

“I don’t like firemen,” said Brooklyn North Task Force Officer Joel Allen. “They’re chest beaters.” 

For Velten, a 37-year-old native of Queens, fighting and serving run in the family. His father was a firefighter in the South Bronx for 20 years. His brother, a former Marine, is in the NYPD. A few years after he entered the FDNY, Velten began boxing for the department because he was attracted to “that alpha-male type of thing.” His pending retirement – like many New York decision – has as much to do with a commute as anything else. The FDNY’s training gym in Flatbush is less than convenient. Being a fireman isn’t particularly convenient. Velten had a 24–hour shift at Lad. Co. 7 on East 29th Street two days before his fight. During his Thursday-Friday tour, Velten went out on 19 “runs,” releasing people from stuck elevators, fixing gas and water leaks, clearing car accidents from driving lanes and investigating smoke that turned out to be steam – “Nothing exciting,” as he puts it.

It did not bother Velten that he only slept for two hours during his shift. The bout would be three two-minute rounds. A sinewy 152-pounds at 5-foot-11, with thin hair, deep-set eyes and that wiry voice, Velten is the sort of guy that is perpetually ready to go. “Todd carries himself like he does in the ring,” fellow Lad. Co. 7 firefighter Pete Utshig explained. “Real quiet but gets the job done.” Toughness is, in short, not an issue. Over the course of his twentysomething-fight career, Velten’s only weakness has been winning over officials.

The guys who talk the most about the officials are the boxing clubs’ head coaches, Dave Siev and Bobby McGuire, who agree on precisely one thing: They hate each other. They bicker every year about the bout matchups, accusing each other of chicanery.

“Dave thinks he’s Lord and Master of who fights,” McGuire said, his speech slurred from his 52 career fights. “Dave can kiss my ass.”

Siev kept his criticism of McGuire simple: “Fuck Bobby. He’s a crybaby.”

With the all-time series knotted at 15-15-1, tensions between Bobby and Dave and FD and PD were especially high. The chance for Velten to retire having helped the FDNY retake the lead gave him extra motivation. He was slated against the Officer Nelson Cordero, who, at 5’7’’, had only one fight on the books. Still, just before Velten left the locker room to warm up for his fight, McGuire felt the need to give one last piece of advice: “Don’t leave it up to the judges.” Cordero outhit Velten in Round 1, at one point knocking Velten into the ropes onto his knees. Velten complained to the referee that Cordero pushed him as his sister Marcy, wrung her hands nervously in the stands. After the bell rang, she turned away from the fight and cringed.

Velten fought better in Round 2 and seemed to even the bout.

“Punch, punch, punch!” Reno yelled a few inches from Velten’s face before the final crucial round began. “I don’t give a fuck what punch.”

Velten came out to start Round 3. With a minute thirty left, he turned Cordero with a right-handed cross and earned a standing eight-count to recapture the momentum. Over the next minute, FDNY fans gradually came to their feet and cheered louder. With 25 seconds left, Velten earned another eight-count, igniting a massive roar from the crowd. FDNY supporters chanted, “Todd! Todd! Todd!” over the sound of the final bell.

Velten considered raising his arms and thought better of it, confident as he was that he’d come from behind.

Then the ruling was announced: a unanimous decision in favor of Cordero. Loud boos, some of which seemed to come from the NYPD section, rained down. “I don’t know why you can’t get a fucking decision,” McGuire, furious, shouted as a crestfallen Velten exited the ring.

Velten, looking disgusted, made his way back to the FDNY locker room and removed his gear. Normally even-keeled, he unleashed a tantrum. Searching for scissors to cut off the tape around his hands, he angrily tossed clothes, gym bags and gauze wrappers to the floor. Then he shattered a light bulb and ripped a fixture off the wall. Still scissorless, he stormed out to continue his search, leaving behind shards of glass littered about the floor.

Velten returned a few minutes later calmer and more contemplative. He attempted to distract himself with his phone by looking at “hot women on Instagram.” It was no use. Sulking in a chair, he griped that although he’d had a winning career he had lost every one of his five fights against policemen – and that he hadn’t been called to many dangerous fires.

“What is it: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride?” he said. “I’m assuming there’s a guy version of that saying.” 

By the end of the night the FDNY would edge out the NYPD, winning five of the eight matchups. Velten said that made him feel a bit better, but he was still inconsolable. As he sulked in a folding chair, Dave Leonard of Lad. Co. 8 arrived in the locker room wearing a replica championship belt he’d just received for winning his bout. He took it off carefully – “I promised my kids this belt” – and began removing his gear. Still smiling and still unaware of how hard Velten had taken his loss, Leonard turned to his fellow fighter. “Got any scissors?”

Photos by Pattee Mak