Boxing, the noble art, the sweet science. Where blood, sweat and bone-crunching pain are merely part of its fundamentally levelling rite. Step between the ropes and your wealth, status and worth are of little importance. For here, without labels and branded status behind which to hide, all that you have is the power, the fragility and the elemental honesty of your own flesh.
It’s a balmy, late summer Monday morning in London, not the kind which is pregnant with violence. I’ve walked from a friend’s flat on the South Bank to the home of The Real Fight Club on Curtain Road, near Liverpool Street Station. There was a time when I was heavily involved in the subterranean world of white collar boxing – pioneered under the auspices of The Real Fight Club nearly a decade ago – but my last fight, at York Hall in Bethnal Green, was in 2005. Since then life has changed. I’ve moved with my family to Cornwall, and usually surfing gets the nod over sparring. Besides, even here in London and away from the sea, it’s such a nice morning – who would want to dive into a gym and start hitting a heavy bag, still less another person?
For like professional and amateur boxing, hitting people is what white collar boxing is all about. The offshoot of traditional pugilism hails originally from the United States, where its spiritual home is Gleason’s Gym, New York – the oldest boxing gym in America. Since 1937, Gleason’s has been graced by the likes of Jake La Motta, Roberto Duran, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali – luminaries of the noble art – and is now owned by fifty-something former Sears Roebuck executive Bruce Silverglade.
In the mid-1990s, Silverglade decided to open the gym’s doors to allow all-comers the chance to box. Word spread, and soon enough he was running ‘White Collar Fight Nights’ on a regular basis. Here, The Real Fight Club – which I joined a few years ago – offers the UK equivalent: you can join, train and soon enough find yourself doing combat against an opponent of your level, with bouts staged in accordance with standard amateur boxing rules.
But it’s been a while. I still train in a boxing gym in Cornwall, but I haven’t climbed through the ropes in London for a couple of years. I tell myself that boxing served me well but that I’ve moved on; that its rigour isn’t so crucial in my life anymore. But this is a lie. I’m being self-delusional. I’ve felt the absence of boxing. Damn it, I’ve missed it. And there have been cracks in my newfound, apparently well-adjusted existence. I’ve felt an ever more insistent need to revisit the London scene that I left behind, so here I am, about to enter The Real Fight Club’s glitzy new gym smack in the centre of the City. But why?
For the 45 minutes that it’s taken me to walk to the gym, I’ve had ample time to recall the various negative things I’ve heard about pugilism over the years. The landlord of my old boozer put it thus: “Boxing is stupid, full stop. And it’s even more stupid for someone supposedly intelligent like you.” The British Medical Association perennially calls for boxing to be banned, as has consistently beenThe Guardian’s position, while the Times’ chief sports writer, Simon Barnes, has written that boxing is “unacceptable”. As he put it, with no little disdain: “The aim of any boxing match is to cause more permanent brain damage in your opponent than you yourself sustain.”
I mull over Barnes’ words, and remember the number of times I’ve questioned my own involvement in boxing. When you can’t speak clearly because you’re ever so slightly punch drunk, it’s impossible not to wonder whether boxing really is a force for good. When you’re in casualty with a broken rib, when you’re having your broken nose straightened after a fight, when you’re astonished afresh by the bloodstains on the floor of the gym where you train, or when you’ve hit someone so hard and so accurately that you can almost see their nervous system convulse – these occasions give you pause for thought. They might even make you agree with Barnes and conclude that boxing is “not appropriate as a form of public entertainment in the 21st century”.
“I feel a sense of release, something which says that no matter how many mistakes are you’ve made, there’s a place where you can go to put things right.”
But something always brings me back to boxing. The abolitionists will despair, but /boxing makes sense/. And as I arrive at Curtain Road and see The Real Fight Club gym, a surge of adrenaline courses through my mind and body. It’s like returning to your favourite football ground after a year abroad, or paddling out, for the first time in ages, at the surf break you surfed as a child. You feel as if you’re home. I can’t wait to get changed, to tie my hand wraps and start work. I want to answer Virgil’s imprecation, that which hangs on a wall at Gleason’s: “Now whoever has the courage, and a strong and collected spirit in his breast, let him come forth, lace up his gloves, and put up his hands.”
The gym is a huge, light-filled space in the City whose old brick walls echo to the sound of leather gloves smacking leather bags, of skipping ropes whirring through the air, of punches thrown and landed. It’s a relatively new home for The Real Fight Club, itself set up in 2000 by Alan Lacey, a streetwise sort who’s been involved in boxing, in one way or another, for most of his life. Lacey once had World Boxing Association middleweight title contender turned actor Gary Stretch on his books, but it wasn’t until he was 44 – and smoking 30 cigarettes a day – that he discovered the benefits of boxing in an up close and personal sense. Lacey’s nicotine vice was “getting worse and worse,” he recalls: “I kept looking for ways to stop but nothing worked. Until I decided to walk into a boxing gym, a crazy idea but it worked. The day I started boxing was the day I stopped smoking. I stopped one drug and replaced it with another.”
For many people, boxing acts as a corrective. Boxers talk about discipline, and no wonder. Boxing is hard, it takes commitment, and you’d be suicidal to engage in it if you’re not prepared to get in shape – and /stay/ in shape. Smoking isn’t part of the programme but if boxing helped Lacey kick the habit, what on earth inspired him to start a business predicated on ushering City types through the ropes and into the ring? It turns out that a visit to New York was instrumental.
“I’d heard about white collar events being held in New York at Gleason’s Gym, so once I’d got myself fit – and I mean 10-round fit – I got in touch,” says Lacey, now in his mid-fifties but still lean and in shape. He flew over and fought a Manhattan dentist by the name of Jack ‘Knockout Doc’ Gruberm. “It was fantastic, fuckin’ fantastic,” he recalls, adding for good measure: “It was like being reborn.”
Meanwhile, if there was a tangible white collar boxing scene in New York, there was also a nascent one in the UK. Lacey speaks of a perhaps mythical individual who trained at the famous Thomas à Beckett gym in south London, having first parked his Ferrari outside. As Lacey has it, “it was a kind of weird, underground scene. I kept hearing of this bloke with his Ferrari, who was supposed to be a hairdresser. People said he’d turn up at hardcore boxing gyms and do eight rounds with pros. I never met him, and whether he exists or not, I don’t know. Maybe he’s the Tyler Durden of white collar boxing. But there were, for every boxing gym that I knew, two or three blokes who’d rock up in their Porsches or Mercedes and train hard with the pros and amateurs.”
It was a few like-minded individuals from this world of “closet boxing”, as Lacey calls it, that he took to New York for a rematch with the Knockout Doc. It was then that the penny dropped: “After the rematch with the Doc I thought, you know what, there’s something here that I can develop.” As he flew back from the States, Lacey, who had worked in sports event hospitality for most of his life, was already plotting the first British white collar fight. This turned out to be ‘Capital Punishment’, a London v. New York event held at the Broadgate Arena on 13th July 2000. It was a remarkable success with Lacey matching British white collar boxers to fight Wall Street’s finest. “We got some amazing press coverage,” says Lacey. “We even made The Times’ leader column. I knew I was onto something but the question was, how to develop it as a business?”
Fast forward eight years, and Lacey has answered his question. The Real Fight Club has hosted over 81 events in locations across London, ranging from 5-star hotels and theatres to York Hall in Bethnal Green, a gloriously weathered place regarded by the cognoscenti as the spiritual home of British boxing. Money has been raised for charities agreed between the club and participating boxers, there have been international events and one all-female bout. White collar boxing has been the subject of an ITV documentary and has garnered oodles of press coverage. The phenomenon has spawned imitators and competitors, but none can legitimately claim Lacey’s status as UK white collar boxing’s pioneer. With its new gym just off Bishopsgate, the club is busier than ever. “I need a holiday,” says Lacey, adding that yes, The Real Fight Club’s name is a nod to the Chuck Palahniuk novelFight Club, later made into an eponymous hit film. “Only we do it for real,” says Lacey.
Back in the late 90s and early 00s, at the same time that Lacey was blazing the Real Fight Club trail, my life was falling apart. Ostensibly, I had it all: a beautiful wife, two young sons, a nice house and a good job. I was a media lawyer, a smart young thing with prospects, if only I could avoid my demons. This proved not to be possible. Truth is that they’d kicked around all my life and that it was a miracle I lasted as long as I did in law. Eventually, an affair spiralled out of control; I drank too much, too often; I smashed up part of a restaurant, and the law firm then employing me had no option but to terminate my services. That’s lawyer-speak for saying that I was sacked for gross misconduct.
Lawyers whose fate this is aren’t readily employable elsewhere. I floundered around, seemingly having lost my marriage, children and profession. Somehow, though, boxing found me. A chance encounter with an ex-con who’d cleaned his own life up through boxing was a major factor in retrieving first my marriage, then my legal career, and then giving me the confidence to jack it all in to try my hand at writing. That man was Umar Taitt, and I met him while researching an article on white collar boxing.
Umar was a personal boxing trainer, and one of his clients was a barrister who wanted to learn how to box. The reversal of roles – ex-con dispensing wisdom to lawyer – struck me as curious, and The Times agreed. They commissioned a piece on the duo and their planned foray into Lacey’s embryonic white collar boxing scene. But within minutes of meeting Umar, the pair of us had struck a chord. I’d heard of his life as an ex-con, crack addict, hustler, strong-arm merchant and who knows what else, but for all the reformed (or is it subdued?) menace there is compassion in Umar, too. I told him my own story and then heard Umar utter words which would change my life:
“You should give boxing a go. You’re exactly the sort of person who would benefit from it.”
Three months later, we’d established a training regime. I was drinking less, losing weight and feeling better about myself. I joined a local amateur boxing club and trained there, too. I got hurt and I learnt that however hard you are, there’s always someone harder. I discovered my flaws but realised that heart goes a long way. I witnessed the balletic beauty of boxing and, every now and then, inhabited that same space, the arena captured brilliantly in Tim Winton’s Breath, a novel about surfing but whose key line applies as much to boxing: “How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.” Often, there was less by way of beauty and more in terms of pain, but for all the discomfort other things were happening, too: I was back with my wife. I was earning money again. I’d recovered my self-respect. And I was doing what I’d always wanted to do for a living: being a writer, rather than feeling imprisoned by my lawyer’s garb.
I went on to have two fights through The Real Fight Club. In the first, against Vince ‘Dynamite’ Dickson, I was nearly KO’d at the beginning of the second round. Dickson, a beefy ex-amateur boxer of 13 stone plus who worked in IT, caught me flush with a solid straight right. My legs went and I wobbled around the ring as if drunk. By the end of the referee’s standing count, I’d come to fear that if I didn’t hit Dickson back, I’d be stretchered out of the ring. Somehow, I rallied. The elation afterwards was awesome.
This fight was at York Hall in front of around 1,000 people. The Real Fight Club’s events are packed, and the atmosphere is as charged as at a pro or amateur fight. So it was, too, for my second fight, against ‘The Amazing’ Alan Fitzgerald, a 52-year-old accountant. If Fitzgerald’s age sounds comforting, it wasn’t. He was a strong, exceptionally fit man who knew what he was doing. We had a tremendous scrap, one which Lacey afterwards described as “having an elemental honesty to it that’s missing from real life”. He was right, and this is another of boxing’s core truths: it’s honest. You can’t hide in the ring. Your real self is there for all to see.
“It’s honest. You can’t hide in the ring. Your real self is there for all to see.”
Inside The Real Fight Club’s gym, I recognise familiar faces. There’s Spencer Fearon, an ex-pro who has been helping Lacey run the club for a few years now. There’s Andy Wallace, likewise a highly regarded former amateur and ex-pro who’s been with the club almost since the beginning. There are City workers whose names I don’t know but who I seem to recognise. What, though, is their motivation for being here?
For Dave Peters, a 44-year-old money broker with Tullett Prebon, it’s a case of “unfinished business”. He doesn’t elaborate more than saying that he boxed as an amateur between 11 and 17. For Andy Gregory, 30, he simply wanted to “get fit again. I did a lot of running and weights but boxing brings everything together.” The IT analyst has two black eyes from sparring a few days earlier, but disavows the idea that boxing might be a channel for aggression: “No, it’s not that for me. I’ve always been a relaxed person.”
Other boxers arrive, and soon one of the club’s squad sessions is underway. There are two women among the men, both exhibiting good technique under the tutelage of Mickey Cunningham, yet another ex-pro retained by Lacey. Cunningham is all exuberance and enthusiasm as he starts to train a husband and wife who turn up, Dave White and Julie White. Julie took to boxing to get fit, and says that at the beginning she had “no intention whatsoever of getting in the ring”. But soon enough, Cunningham had convinced her to hone her skills through sparring, and she hasn’t looked back since. “I don’t think I’ll have a bout, but I love coming here,” she says simply. Meanwhile, White says he will climb through the ropes for a public bout – as soon as a recently acquired broken rib is better.
As I talk to the boxers and hit the heavy bags I notice a ‘wall of fame’ at the far end of the gym. It’s adorned with the signatures of famous boxers, the likes of World Cruiserweight Champion David Haye, British Bantamweight Champion Ian ‘Dappa’ Nappa, former British and European Super-middleweight Champion and MBE James Cook and Rob McCracken, another former British and Commonwealth Champion. As I peer at McCracken’s signature it dawns upon me that I’ve seen someone who looks a lot like him only a few minutes ago. Sure enough, I turn round, and it’s the man himself, taking young pro welterweight John O’Donnell through a pad work session.
“I’m here most days of the week,” confirms McCracken, now retired from professional fighting. He started working with Lacey just over a year ago and trains professional boxers such as Shepherd’s Bush-based O’Donnell, Matthew Thirlwall from Bermondsey and British super-middleweight champion Karl ‘The Cobra’ Froch, all of whom can be seen mixing alongside the white collar crew. “We get all sorts here,” says McCracken, “not just City types. The pros are happy to train here and having them here gives something extra to the gym. It shows how far white collar boxing has come. It’s come of age.”
McCracken is right. Having the likes of O’Donnell in close proximity is inspirational. Before long I’ve lost myself in the sweat and physicality of boxing, and, as ever, I feel a sense of release, something which says that no matter how many mistakes you’ve made, there’s a place where you can go to put things right, to restore your self-worth and purge yourself of whatever demons might lurk within.Boxing makes sense, I’m thinking, as my fist slams into the bag for the umpteenth time, because it creates possibility. And as if to prove the point, at that moment a large, heavily built man with two gold teeth slaps me on the back. It’s Umar, a man whose life on the wrong side of the tracks was redeemed by boxing.
“How’s it going?” he says, all smiles, his gold teeth embossed with diamonds. We swap anecdotes as we work the bags and Umar, a Sunni Muslim, tells me he has a book coming out with co-author Wasim Ilyas. It’s calledThe Zam Zam Diet: A Muslim Diet Book. “There isn’t a book aimed at Muslims about dieting,” says Umar, “but it’s an important issue given the fasting required by our religion.”
As I’m getting changed to walk back to the South Bank, another boxer arrives. I recognise him and realise that it’s Oscar Angus, an ex-pro from Jamaica who fought the likes of Kirkland Laing and Alan Minter. We nod acknowledgements and say ‘alright’. Then I walk down the steps to Curtain Road, and I know more than ever that the abolitionists are wrong. Boxing instils discipline, it provides dignity, and it engenders respect. It can’t be done without courage, which is why it’s known as much as the noble art as the sweet science. I walk through the City mindful of the legendary exhortation of ‘Gentleman’ Jim Corbett:
Fight one more round, when your arms are so tired that you can hardly lift your hands to come on guard, fight one more round, when your nose is bleeding and your eyes are black and you are so tired that you wish your opponent would crack you one on the jaw and put you to sleep, fight one more round – remembering that the man who always fights one more round is never whipped.
Text: Alex Wade
Photography: David Short
Alex Wade is the author of /Wrecking Machine: A Tale of Real Fights and White Collars/ (Simon & Schuster), £7.99
Personal Trainer · S&C Coach · Official Trainer to Sky1 Obese A Year to Save My Life & SkyLiving FAT: The Fight of My Life
I'm a father and a husband, and my girls are my inspiration to be better, do better & continually help others achieve better of themselves.