City Sluggers

Float like a plc, sting like a stockbroker. Matthew Barbour goes ringside for a spot of white-collar boxing
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The Independent Online

Boxing might not be the new golf just yet, but it's getting there. A substantial minority of City slickers are stepping between the ropes to get a piece of the action in one of the growing number of back-to-basics boxing gyms, where there are few niceties and the only kit you need is a mouthguard.

Although "white-collar boxing" has existed in the US for well over a decade, in the UK the notion of bond brokers or management consultants going straight from the office to the ringside is relatively new. Last summer the first transatlantic clash was staged in London's Broadgate Circle, matching lawyers, bankers and traders from London's Square Mile against their counterparts from New York's Wall Street, all of them determined to prove that it isn't just in the corporate world that they can be top dog.

The clash of egos turned out to be a roaring success, and with several more charity events in the pipeline, the clamour for a real after-work challenge not involving a running machine seems to be gaining ground. Like Sherman McCoy in Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities, these men want to prove they are Masters of the Universe in more ways than one.

Alan Lacey, president of the Inter-national White Collar Boxing Association and founder of The Real Fight Club in London, estimates that by Christmas the number of members of the IWCBA will have grown from the current 350 to approaching a thousand. "The whole thing is snowballing beyond belief," Lacey says. "And what's even more interesting is the popularity the events have with audiences. The atmosphere the fights generate is unbelievable."

The IWCBA are to stage a string of fight nights comprising six exhibition bouts and one UK title fight, each of three two-minute rounds, the main event of each evening being "world title" fights between British and American contenders. The fighters stand to gain little except pride and few bruises; all money raised will be donated to charity, namely the Richard House Trust, London's first children's hospice, and following the recent events in New York, families of the victims of the World Trade Centre terrorist attacks. Ringside tickets for the next event, a gala-reception-and-dinner fight evening at the Hilton on Park Lane, scheduled for 29 November, will cost around £100. "We've got eight more nights lined up, we're rolling out the concept to the Far East, Monaco and Frankfurt, and we've even got a Gladiators-style TV production in the pipeline," Lacey says.

However, despite its increasingly mainstream branding, the spit-and-sawdust appeal is far from lost. Mark Burford, a former Commonwealth Games coach and light-middleweight amateur, has just transferred his White Collar Boxing gym to larger premises in Southwark, just south of the City. Situated in a deserted road flickering between dark and sodium yellow, flanked by a string of lock-ups and with graffiti lining the walls, it is hard to believe this is where executives earning six-figure salaries would choose to spend their evenings.

Stepping through a doorway, you are immediately confronted with a room full of blokes, skipping, punching bags, strapping their hands, all dripping with sweat. The nearest two stop, turn towards you, and ask in unnervingly plummy voices if you need any help.

"The range of people that come is huge, from entrepreneurs to former army guys to a cobbler," Burford says. "You strip away the fame and money of the boxing you see on television, and you're left with an amazingly rewarding sport that requires so much, but gives back even more. In a world where so much money is spent marketing the leisure industry, this takes a step back, towards personal attention and a real feeling of a club where everybody works together to achieve their goals."

Hadyn, a European Equity Sales banker with Merrill Lynch, has been training with Burford twice a week for four years. "I was going to a regular gym before, but found the whole thing rather uninspiring. So I came here, and I've never looked back. To come to a gym as grotty as this and pay the money you do, there's got to be something to it."

Hadyn definitely doesn't look like your typical boxer – with a distinctly refined Home Counties accent, a flop of black hair and a pair of wire-frame spectacles (also worn during training), he is the first to admit that the notion of being punched unconscious is not his idea of fun. "The training is so rewarding for me, the personal attention, the focus it gives me," he says. "I don't spar [competitively fight an opponent in the ring], but I get everything the others do from the training." Sparring is a regular event at the gym, though two or three two-minute rounds are ample for most.

"There's no other sport where if you stop training, you get beaten up, which creates a certain incentive," Burford says, laughing. "But we don't throw head punches here because these guys don't want to be wearing a black eye or broken nose at their multi-million pound meeting the next morning. That's not to say there aren't a few injuries, though." These are mostly limited to the odd broken rib or finger, although Burford acknowledges there have been a couple of broken arms in his time.

"Everyone here knows what they're doing when they train as hard as we do, strap up their hands, put on gloves and step in a ring. We used to get people to sign waiver forms before they started, but it seemed ridiculous that anyone would come to a boxing gym and get upset at being hurt."

The only acceptance criterion is an hour-long screening procedure comprising a 10-minute cardiovascular step test, an upper-body press-up test, followed by an abdominal sit-up test – none too demanding, but telling enough.

"We don't want to catch anyone out, and we don't expect anyone to be super-fit, we just want them to be capable of the training and to make sure it's right for them," says Burford. Applicants then have their blood pressure tested, fill in a medical checklist to see what medication they are on or what injuries they have sustained, and, finally, are given their first proper session, involving punchbags, skipping, shadow boxing, weights and the full range of cardiovascular exercises.

Miles, a thirtysomething investment director for management consultants Bain and Co and a former Marine, says the training is not to be sniffed at. "I've collapsed twice, and I know I'm not alone. The training is very, very tough, but you only ever go as far as you want. In this atmosphere, where everyone knows and encourages you to achieve so much, it's the best possible release."

And it's not all men trying to prove themselves. "We're getting more and more women coming in here," Burford says. "It's not about sex or age or size, it's about personal achievement. Everyone is watched individually and helped to work to their own goals."

Anne Pariso, a film producer from Hackney who trains at the Kronk Boxing Gym in Camden, north London, says: "Even if I'm up against a bloke I wouldn't be too worried. My attitude is, if a bloke can do it, why can't I?"

Ages typically range from mid-twenties to early forties, though one 64-year-old is still going strong. For those taking up boxing relatively late (amateur boxers have to be 35 or under), this is the perfect entry point. "Gyms like these used to be a magnet for kids with nothing better to do, but that whole image of only working-class guys punching their way out of poverty is rubbish," Burford says. "It's not about class, or sex, it's about attitude."

The International White Collar Boxing Association (020 7377 0776, e-mail info@realfightclub.co.uk) is the sport's governing body, dedicated to ensuring the safety of the boxers.

The Real Fight Club promote IWCBA events. The next is scheduled for 29 November at the Royal National Hotel, London WC1. For tickets, call 020 7377 0776; prices start at £75. Further fight nights are scheduled throughout the winter at venues which include Marbella and Glasgow in February; in March, a group of boxers from the US come to London for an international contest.

White Collar Boxing Gym, London SE1, 020 7928 9093. Kronk Boxing Gym, London N1, 020 7424 0141.

Drink at least three litres of water a day: this will keep your energy levels up and replenish the huge volume of fluid you will lose during training.

Practise interval sprint training: boxing will place huge demands on your heart in short, sudden bursts, so work on your recovery times as much as endurance.

Wear your bruises like medals – they're a sign of your commitment.

Give yourself a boxing name, such as 'Matt the Cat' or 'The Gangster'; the more clichéd, the better. This will help remove formality and make you part of the gym.

Practise resistance training – contrary to popular belief, it is an invaluable way to build up key boxing muscles.

Feign a cockney accent. People will see through you, and they will respect you more if you are honest.

Worry about being out of shape: as long as you are medically sound, the training should get you into shape.

Give up; once you have been a few times you will be addicted, so don't think the first training session is how it will continue – it gets easier.

Be pressured into sparring – you can benefit from the training and the social aspect of the gym without being hit or hitting anyone else.

Start a proper training programme without a screening. Few people realise the intensity of the regime.

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