UNITED STATES AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. - Bathed in the spotlight, Air Force senior Sean Chieves walked out of the Clune Arena tunnel for the final boxing match of his career. The national championship belt raised above his head. Kayne West's Ultralight Beam blasting as he entered.
Sean Chieves, a champion boxer and Air Force Academy cadet battling cancer. Photo by KKTV.
"This is a God dream. This is a God dream. This is everything."
For Chieves, it was everything. Saturday at the Academy's Wing Open Boxing Championships was the end of the road for the reigning national champion at 132 pounds. After preparing all year to defend his title, a cancer diagnosis blindsided Sean just weeks before the postseason.
"I was at practice one day [in mid-January], running on the stairs, and I slipped," Chieves said. "I was in a tremendous amount of pain, one that I'm not used to, to the point where it hurt to run and walk on it. I thought nothing of it... but the pain just subsisted."
Chieves bounced between doctors before getting a referral to the University of Colorado's Anschutz medical campus. They tested for everything: a legion, maybe a tumor. Cancer was the worst-case scenario. On February 18th, heading back to Colorado Springs from the Academy's traditional 100s night, Chieves got the news.
He had sarcoma, a cancerous tumor in the tissue of his leg. In an instant, Sean was thrust into a new fight.
"I definitely got frustrated. There were times I was asking why, why. It was my mom that had me realize...God has a different path for you. Don't ask why...ask him to open your eyes."
The news hit Sean hard, as well as his boxing teammates. Many didn't know how to respond.
"It's shocking," Air Force Boxing head coach Blake Baldi said. "You don't know what to say, you don't know how to feel. But I think you react how they react. And Sean is all about strength and embracing this like a fight. So when he comes in and says 'I'm ready for the fight, I'm going to win this one too.' That kinda sets the tone for everybody else."
For years, Sean set the tone for the rest of the Falcons lineup. He started boxing his freshman year at Air Force. The sport piqued his interest after taking it as part of the Academy's mandatory curriculum. He also remembers how intensely he disliked losing.
"I was asked to come to intramurals at the time," Sean remarked about his freshman year. "I got beat up by one of the guys that was on the team right now. I remember telling one of my coaches, 'I don't want that to ever happen again... what do I have to do?' From then on it just stayed with me to keep fighting."
His breakout season was his junior year. Boxing at 132 pounds, Chieves completed a sweep of the accolades. In 2019, he emerged victorious in his weight class at the National Collegiate Boxing Association Western Regionals in Los Angeles. Two weeks later, he claimed his first NCBA national championship in Reno, Nevada. Chieves defeated Navy's Tanner Strawbridge by unanimous decision. Years of dedication finally earned Sean the belt.
"It was amazing. To have all your energies and all your effort finally pay off and get what you wanted in the end. It felt nice," Chieves said.
Perhaps a nail-biting finish for Chieves. But in his teammates' minds, there was no doubt.
"He's a champion. On every single level," fellow Air Force boxing senior Devon Smith said. "Personal level, boxing level obviously, he's a leader. That guy is an essence of a champion, emotionally and physically."
His final fight ended with a victory at the 2020 Wing Open, defeating Noah Lleva at 132 pounds. Chieves ends his Air Force boxing career with two things he didn't have before: his undisputed title belt, and the steadfast support of his teammates as he begins his next fight.
"We said to him... 'just let us know when chemo starts.' Whenever he's sitting down in that chair, or going through any type of treatment, I know everyone in that gym will want to be there for him. And we will be. We're his support system," Smith said.
Chieves had successful surgery Thursday to remove the tumor, and will undergo chemotherapy over the next two months. While Sean could eventually continue boxing following his treatment and recovery, he's decided to step aside. His future is busy. Graduation in May, future deployment, and his wedding in October.
"High School sweetheart," Chieves said. She's studying in Wisconsin to become a pharmacist.
Eventually, though, Sean might return ringside.
"I'd like to help the youth that want to fight," Chieves said."Just help them get the techniques right. Always giving back is a great way for me to stay in shape."
"...I'll be back," Sean added, smiling.
It wouldn't be wise to disagree with the champion.