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White-collar boxers 'are risking injury or death'

Monday 01 August 2005 00:00 BST

Members of London's professional classes competing in "white collar" boxing bouts are risking injury or death, boxing professionals have warned.

The sport - which enables bankers, brokers and barristers to live out their violent fight fantasies - is attracting growing participation from the City.

White collar boxing has been labelled "the new golf". But the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBoC), the regulatory body for professional boxing in the UK, has accused those behind the trend of neglecting crucial safety procedures.

The accusations focus on the refusal of The Real Fight Club, Britain's largest white collar boxing organisation, to insist on head scans for competitors. MRA (magnetic resonance angiogram) scans are mandatory in BBBoC-regulated boxing. The Real Fight Club also refuses, in the face of growing medical concerns, to place a suitable age restriction on competitors.

In this boxing revival, men in their forties and fifties - when the brain is at great risk of haemorrhage - are stepping into the ring.

Simon Block, the general secretary of the BBBoC, spoke out over what he described as the "grave dangers" of white collar boxing. He said: "We consider head scans crucial, as they highlight weaknesses in the blood vessels of the brain. We've ruled out seemingly super-healthy boxers for failing this scan, saving them from a potential aneurysm in the ring. That's the danger. A person can look like they're in great shape, but still be vulnerable to death from a single punch. The lack of insistence on scans is unwise.

"I'm fearful that white collar organisers may find themselves responsible for a tragedy," he said.

White collar boxing, born in the financial district of New York, has exploded in popularity over the past two years. The Real Fight Club boasts of more than 500 members training for combat across London. It takes its name from the super-violent Hollywood filmFight Club and now plans to move beyond London to stage bouts nationwide.

Alan Lacey, the club's founder, claims to be granting the sport a new social acceptability. "Look at where football was in the Seventies and Eighties," he said. "It was ruled by thugs - you'd never consider taking your family to a match. Now it's clean. We're doing the same with boxing. We're taking it up market."

Dr Chris Allen is a neurologist based at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge. "I've seen the brain of a boxer," he said. "It isn't a pretty sight. If these white-collar competitors could see the damage that they are potentially inflicting on themselves, they'd certainly think again."

Dr Allen, previously the clinical dean at Cambridge University, offered stark advice to those tempted into the ring. "If you're keen on your brain functioning when you're 55, don't box," he said. "The dangers increase for those in middle age. Reactions are slower, so more punches are taken, and the brain is more susceptible to damage and bruising." The brain also begins to "dry out" at the age of 30, making its impact with the skull more severe.

Adrian King, of The Real Fight Club, said: "We don't insist on head scans, but we're confident about our safety procedures."

Head scans are also not compulsory in UK amateur boxing - but retirement is enforced at 34. Amateur organisers say the high price of scans puts them beyond reach for working class competitors - an argument that does not apply to white collar boxers.

'I love the buzz that the sport gives me' Fabrizio Gelpi, 39, futures broker

Fabrizio Gelpi, 39, is one of London's new breed of posh pugilists. A futures broker with banking firm Bear Stearns, he speaks passionately about the psychological benefits of white-collar boxing - even if it means a black eye in the boardroom.

"I love the empowerment that boxing gives me," he said. "I like the buzz it gives, and the sense of focus that sets in when I fight."

Mr Gelpi, from Milan, entered his first bout last month at West Ham United's Upton Park. Starring as "Fabulous" Fabrizio Gelpi, he did three rounds with an ISS Mediclean executive fighting under the moniker "Psycho Steve".

"It's such a great night out," he said. "The Real Fight Club really look after you." He also points to the physical benefits of the sport. "I'm a month away from my 40th birthday, and with all the training I've been doing, I'm in the shape of my life."

Mr Gelpi thinks the popularity of the sport is down to a hunger for a fitness "edge".

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