It beats the hell out of a day job

The Sunday Times, September 17, 2006

The first rule of fight club is you don’t talk about fight club. But I’m going to talk about it because it is turning mainstream. All across the country people like me, a solicitor by training, are discovering that a sport that had its roots in street fighting between youngsters from the wrong side of the tracks is a useful outlet for the frustrations of white-collar life.

Last week, after a hard day’s work, I got in my car and drove the 20 miles to the Walcot amateur boxing club in Swindon. I put on a singlet and shorts, hand wraps, 10oz bag mitts and spent a hour thumping a heavy bag. As I did so I worked off the anger pent up after a 50-hour week — most of it in front of a computer screen.

There is a price to be paid, of course. In four years of boxing I have sustained black eyes, cuts to my face and lips, rope burns, bruises and a broken nose, even the odd spot of concussion. I have been knocked to the canvas twice, broken a knuckle and cracked a rib, and there are times, especially now that I am 40, when boxing seems to take too great a toll.

But something always pulls me back. After fighting I feel not only destressed but also elated. And I have made friendships in boxing infinitely more appealing than those when I worked full time as a solicitor. So let me tell you how all this started.

My specialist field was media law — libel, to be precise. It was challenging and well paid but in my early thirties I began to suspect there must be an alternative to the relentless obligation to hit targets — to get new clients in, to match a certain number of “billable hours” per month, to play the politics of the law office.

I began to notice bouts of rage. Rage at drivers who were ignorant and discourteous, rage at supervisors, photocopy machines that wouldn’t work, stupid television presenters. Just about anything could provoke a rant.

As my anger grew, so my relationship with those around me suffered. My drinking increased, and the booze started getting me into trouble. In 1999 I entered a hellish couple of years, in the middle of which I was sacked for gross misconduct, having smashed up part of a swish restaurant at a work function.

For the year leading up to this night of madness I had been living on and off with another woman, an affair I had confessed to my wife. She had thrown me out. The day that led to my dismissal I’d had an argument with both my wife and the other woman, and the pressure cooker inside me exploded again. My behaviour was hardly, as the firm then employing me correctly said, “the kind of conduct befitting a solicitor”.

After I was sacked came more drinking and despair. Strangely, just at the point when I thought that I had wrecked everything, I managed to get back on an even keel. I was determined to prove to my wife, children and friends that I wasn’t a write-off. I stopped drowning my sorrows and rebuilt my legal career. My wife and I managed to retrieve our marriage. But I was back in mainstream law and loathing the straitjacket of its endless protocol, rules and regulations, so I quit to try to do what I had always felt passionate about — writing for a living.

Early in my new career, aged 35, I happened to read (for research I was doing) an article about the Real Fight Club, run from an office in Shoreditch High Street, east London. It was set up by Alan Lacey, a UK boxing promoter who was inspired by Gleason’s Gym in New York, where regular “white-collar fight nights” are held.

Lacey had fought in one, against Jack “Knockout Doc” Gruber, a Manhattan dentist. He loved every minute of it, and thought he could successfully transplant the idea across the Atlantic.

The Real Fight Club’s name is a half-ironic allusion to the film Fight Club, in which a desk-bound, emasculated Edward Norton abandons conventional office life in favour of beating the hell out of other men, most notably Brad Pitt. It struck chords everywhere with men who felt their physicality had been annulled by the monotony of modern city life.

White-collar boxing takes the Fight Club schtick a step further. Lacey’s club organises bouts of three two-minute rounds at venues such as Kensington town hall, the Mermaid theatre and York Hall in east London, the spiritual home of British boxing. The bouts are fought according to Amateur Boxing Association rules.

Many of the contestants are City types, but the club provides an outlet for anyone who wants to box, white-collar or otherwise. A number of participants have amateur boxing experience but have passed the age of 34, the ABA’s cut-off point. Others hail from Oxford and Cambridge, universities with a strong boxing tradition. Still others are novices, including women, who want to know what it feels like to climb through the ropes and have a fight.

As Lacey puts it: “Fight Club is a fantasy, but what we’re doing is that fantasy made real. It’s not as if anyone here is a world champion, but the gloves are on and real blows are exchanged.” Lacey’s pugilists are coached by former pro and amateur boxers, and train for at least two months before being considered for a bout.

That the Real Fight Club attracts a motley crew is undeniable, but the rigour and discipline required to box at this level are, for them, just as tangible as in the higher divisions.

Rigour and discipline were exactly what I needed when my career and private life were on the ropes. Hearing about the Real Fight Club was a turning point, as was meeting, again during research, Umar Taiit, a boxing trainer. Umar had used boxing to conquer his demons — in his case crack cocaine. “You’re precisely the sort of person who could benefit from boxing,” Umar told me.

In my first sessions I learnt how to jab and move, throw hooks and uppercuts, how to slip and block. I learnt how to take punishment from opponents and how to get back up when I was too tired and bruised to stand. It was a very different life to that of my middle-class world.

My first proper fight was at York Hall in front of 1,000 people. My opponent was Vince “Dynamite” Dickson, a former amateur who works in IT. Needless to say I didn’t fare well. It was terrifying, particularly when I was nearly knocked out in the second round. But the second fight was an energising experience. I managed a draw against “the Amazing” Alan Fitzgerald, an accountant.

Boxing helped get rid of a lot of anger that had built up over the years, mainly with myself for having got everything so badly wrong. And I’m a lot better at avoiding provocation than in the bad old days when I was so frustrated with life that I’d react to just about anything.

I now train regularly at Walcot, my local amateur club. It is a tough place, whose chief coach is Harry Scott, a Jamaican émigré, and whose star boxer is Jamie Cox, this year’s Commonwealth gold winner at light-welterweight. I am not sure what they made of me when I first turned up. I’m from a different background to many of the club’s boxers, but Walcot is founded on discipline and respect: if you are disciplined and respect the coaches and other boxers, you in turn will be respected.

Boxing is the greatest leveller of all, and it replaces with a new vitality every ounce of pretence and corporate arrogance that it strips away.

Wrecking Machine: A Tale of Real Fights and White Collars by Alex Wade is published by Pocket Books, 7.99