Boxing clever

Independent, Tuesday May 13, 2003

Its website promises that 'Selfridges is the ultimate 21st century shopping experience.' True or not, the flagship store on Oxford Street is a beacon for anyone in need of serious retail therapy, with its 'six fantastic floors' housing everything from fashion to furniture, art to sport. And for one day in May, Selfridges will also be the home of 'white collar' boxing.

On 14th May, the menswear department will take on a rather less sedate air as a boxing ring is set up amidst the suits, ties and smart-casual chinos and blazers. The Real Fight Club (TRFC), the organising body for white collar boxing in the UK, will stage a four bout show, to mark the end of Selfridges' 'Bodycraze' marketing campaign. The event is part of an evening jamboree after closing, run in conjunction with GQ Magazine, and goes under the name of the 'Total Body Evening.'

If it is anything like TRFC's show at the Mermaid Theatre on 20th March, there will be a few bruised bodies, not to mention egos, by the end. At the Mermaid, the likes of Sezer 'The Geezer' Yurtseven did battle against Michael 'Baby Faced Assassin' Doris before an audience of some 300 friends, business colleagues and the downright curious. Anyone who thought white collar boxing was soft would have changed their minds as they saw the second fight of the evening stopped with a KO, and the third halted when one fighter's nose became just a little too bloody.

Alan Lacey is the man who brought white collar boxing to the UK. This is boxing for city types, lawyers, bankers and brokers, people who might fancy themselves a bit but have never got round to trying their hands at the 'Sweet Science,' and as with so much of modern fitness-related phenomena, it hails from the US. It started a decade ago in New York, and the wealth brought by suit-wearing aficionados is credited with saving many of the city's old boxing gyms. Lacey, a former boxing manager, saw a gap in the market and set up The Real Fight Club some 18 months ago. Since then it has gone from strength to strength, and now has over 650 members.

The man on the receiving end of the knockout punch at The Mermaid was Paul 'Mad Manx' Beckett, a lawyer with Carters on the Isle of Man. Beckett is one of many lawyers who have elected to don a pair of gloves and relieve their executive stress through boxing. Alex Leitch, a partner with city firm SJ Berwin, is another, so too Jonathan Berger of Theodore Goddard, the firm recently in the headlines for acting for Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas against Hello! magazine. And the luminary of white collar boxing is 32-year-old Alex Mehta, a barrister and legal director with Judicium, a company that specialises in the prepackaging of legal services. Mehta boxed for many years on the UK amateur circuit, having earlier gained four Blues in boxing for Oxford University.

The form of pugilism practised by Mad Manx Beckett, Alex Mehta and others may be about to enliven an evening in Selfridges, but is it legal? The BBC recently abandoned its celebrity boxing series, following threats by the British Board of Boxing Control (BBBC) to revoke the licences of any its trainers or managers involved, amid claims that white collar boxing was illegal. In fact, though, the law tolerates boxing (including white collar boxing), precisely because society tolerates it, as Lord Mustill made clear in the notorious 'Spanner' case (R v Brown, 1996).

This case, arising from the rather terrifying activities of a group of S&M enthusiasts, made clear that consent was not a defence to criminal charges of assault. Nevertheless, boxing was exempt from the criminal law as "a special situation which... stands outside the law because society chooses to tolerate it." And so despite the BBBC's protestations in the wake of the celebrity boxing match last Christmas between Ricky Gervais and Grant Bovey, there is presently no legal restriction on TRFC's activities.

ITV have made a documentary about white collar boxing, provisionally scheduled for 28th May. Lacey says he is inundated with requests for interviews from the press. He is also run off his feet with plans to launch the brand as a national franchise. Converts talk with evangelical fervour about boxing: "there is nothing like it," "it's so intense" and "it keeps me alive" are typical eulogies.

Nevertheless, the BBBC - the governing body for professional boxing - will have no truck with it. "We take a very dim view of anyone connected to professional boxing being involved in white collar boxing," says Robert Smith, the BBBC's assistant general secretary. Smith's main concern is that boxing is a young man's sport, which puts extreme demands on the body: "All professional boxers have to have an annual medical before they can fight. They have to have an MRI and MRA brain scan, tests for Hepatitis B and HIV, a rigorous physical examination and an eye test. I don't know what the white collar boxers have to do but I'm fairly confident that our medicals are tougher than theirs."

Colin Brown, the company secretary of the Amateur Boxing Association (ABA) for England, agrees. "We have a strict cut off point of 35 for amateur boxers. My understanding is that a lot of white collar boxers are older than that. I just wonder if they know what they're getting into." Brown says that if medicals for amateur boxers are not quite so rigorous as for professionals (brain scans are not usually necessary), fighters still have to be in top physical condition before they can get in a ring. Doctors and paramedics are ringside at every fight.

Alan Lacey is adamant that white collar boxing is safe. "White collar boxing is primarily a health and fitness activity," he says. "Everyone is strictly assessed before they can train, let alone have a bout." Lacey says his trainers are closely monitored and come in three grades. A grade 1 trainer can only bring on a novice to throwing four or five punches, and will typically have a sports science or personal fitness training background. A grade 2 trainer will be able to work on pads with a fighter, and only a grade 3 trainer will be able to supervise and participate in sparring. A doctor, paramedics and an ambulance are present at every bout (in which the participants must wear head-guards), and all fighters must have a pre-fight medical. Lacey says he is looking into introducing an MRI scan as a pre-requisite for joining TRFC. "We are always taking advice from experts in the medical profession, and nothing is written in stone. There may well be different requirements in the future."

For now, TRFC is on a roll, with a new club opening in the heart of legal London, at Cannons Health Club in the city in mid-May. The chances are that Messrs Mehta, Leitch and Beckett are about to be joined by some more of their brethren.