First published in The Financial Times
At the Marriott Hotel on Grosvenor Square, in a suite on the first floor, a group of men get undressed. Among them are a trader, a broker, a lawyer, an ad exec, an economist, an analyst and a director of Morgan Stanley. Slipping into red shorts and white vests, they look nervous – but also excited.
Meanwhile, in a suite at the end of the corridor, a similar group changes into kit that is all black. Perhaps partly for that reason, the atmosphere in this second suite is funereal – but also because the crowd assembled downstairs, in the Marriott’s ballroom, is sure to be hostile when the men in black – Americans, from New York – step into the ring to fight British opponents in an exhibition of white-collar boxing.
It’s safer than pro boxing – safer, even, than amateur. Participants wear head-guards, groin protectors and gloves the size of party balloons. But the basics are scary: to get in the ring for three rounds with somebody determined to hit you.
In the ballroom, the atmosphere is getting a bit tasty. The doors opened at 7pm, for a champagne reception. Since then, even those ticket holders who are not gangsters have started to behave as if they are: chomping on cigars, brusquely demanding refills and leering at waitresses. They want to see some fighting: that’s why they spent as much as £2,950 on a ringside table.
To the fighters, emerging from the relative quiet of the upstairs suites, the noise of the crowd plainly comes as a shock. The two teams file in together, led by captains who carry national flags. When every fighter has climbed into the ring, they turn to stare in disbelief at the bloodthirsty audience.
There’s a speech. A man in a tux croons “The Star-Spangled Banner”. “God Save the Queen”, broadcast through loudspeakers, gets full-throated accompaniment from the crowd. There’s a minute of silence for the victims of September 11 – and soon after the cheering begins. It reaches a pinnacle in the first bout, when a British trader named Johnny Barr plants his glove in the face of Kenny Perrin, an American broker, causing blood to flood his upper lip.
I’ve never had much interest in boxing – never watched a whole fight on TV, let alone attended in person. Hoping to find out why anybody would submit to boxing’s severe rites with no hope of financial reward, I arrange to meet one of the British fighters. On the way to see him, two weeks before the fight, I expect Alex Mehta to be (a) somebody entering middle age and determined to prove his youth and fitness or (b) a wide boy. Over the following weeks I find several white-collar boxers who meet these preconceptions; but Mehta, a 31-year-old barrister, turns out to be modest and eloquent. We meet at the offices of Judicium, the online legal service where he’s a director. After briefly showing me round, he dutifully plugs the service Judicium provides to small businesses – basically, it’s a legal version of Bupa – and makes me write down the name of its website, www.businesslegalplan.co.uk.
Then he takes me outside to discuss boxing over coffee at Starbucks. He speaks so enthusiastically – combining technical precision with the noble ethos of the Round Table, or the Jedi – that I feel like getting up and sparring with him right there among the coffee tables.
Mehta grew up in Birmingham, the son of parents who were “not rich”. He decided to go into one of the professions. “Of them all, being a barrister seemed the least painful.” He took up boxing at Oxford and eventually became university captain. He’d previously played rugby, but disliked what went with it: the pack mentality, aggression towards strangers in bars. “You want the honest reason I did boxing? There was this guy in college, a little guy with sticking-out ears. I went to the gym with him. What I saw there scared the hell out of me. I had never seen guys move like that – the beautiful speed and rhythm and self-control.”
In fact, Mehta had seen those qualities before – as a child, doing ballet. “People used to say, ‘You can’t be a boxer, you’re too much of a poof…’ I’m like Billy Elliot in reverse,” he grins, adding that ballet taught him about balance and timing. “I’m supposed to be… I’m reputed to be a hard puncher,” says the International White Collar Boxing Association’s light-middleweight champion, with becoming modesty.
Over the years, he has notched up 31 knockouts, three national titles, and international honours at three weight divisions. He’s also broken his nose, various ribs and one front tooth. His left eyebrow is deeply scarred. Those injuries were mostly incurred in amateur fights – much rougher than white-collar, he insists. All the same: “One thing I like about boxing is that I come out of the ring and realise I’m not as special as I think. It’s humbling.”
As a student, he once boxed for England against Scotland in Glasgow. His opponent was the hardest puncher he had ever met. “He was completely fired up. He floored me three times in the first round. Not just knocked me down but demolished me. It took all my concentration to get up. The ref kept asking if I was OK.” But by the third round, his opponent was exhausted. “He was empty. And the first thing that happens is, he drops his hands. I hit him with a seven-punch combination and stood back to admire my handiwork. He just stood there, then flew back at me. I have so much respect for that guy. He showed more in those few seconds than most people do in their whole lives. I looked into his eyes – they say they’re the window to the soul, and I truly think I saw his soul at that moment. That was him at his most essential. It drives me nuts to hear people say it’s just two people punching the hell out of each other. You use everything you can to give the other guy trouble – pirouettes, weaves, turns. And you don’t have five hours to make a decision, you have split seconds. Afterwards, you’re like brothers. I’m in contact with nearly everyone I ever fought.”
The following Saturday, I go to the Kronk gym in north London to watch the English fighters train. Mehta shows me some moves, including a sudden backwards motion he copied from Muhammad Ali. “You’re not meant to do that,” he splutters through his yellow gumshield. “It puts you off balance.”
Also present is Alan Lacey, founder of the Real Fight Club, which organises the white-collar events. Lacey, who once represented Gary Stretch, a British light-middleweight champion, says he took up training himself, aged 45, in an attempt to give up smoking – and ended up addicted to boxing instead. A Harley Street doctor told him to stop boxing after it damaged his sinuses. “But I can’t. It makes me feel like I’m 22 again. You should try it.”
Like all promoters, Lacey has grand plans. He believes that white-collar boxing could in time become “the new golf” and recently joined forces with Gleason’s, the gym that pioneered white-collar fights in New York, to open similar gyms in the UK. “I’ve done my homework,” Lacey asserts, suddenly turning to one side to jab at an invisible foe.
It’s an expensive business. “I’m flying in 20 people from New York and putting them up for a week.” Then there’s the cost of trainers, the venue and paramedics. Fortunately for him, white-collar boxers fight for no fee; some even generate decent ticket sales. Lee Victory, a 39-year-old bond trader from Cantor Fitzgerald, fought last year and sold 120 tickets to colleagues and friends. (“It was an ego boost,” Victory recalls.)
A day before the fight, I return to the Kronk for the weigh-in, where the British fighters meet the Americans. First on the scales are the heavyweights. As each man steps up, there’s polite applause. Mehta arrives late – as he often does – already pulling off his clothes as he rushes through the door.
Lacey, meanwhile, wanders around, cursing into his phone. One British fighter, a solicitor, has dropped out. So another, an adman called Oliver Edis, has been called in at short notice. Looking at various pairings, I’m bound to say that some of the fighters look ill-matched. But not Mehta. Among the New Yorkers, Lacey has spotted the shaven-headed accountant, Russell Jung, who is roughly Mehta’s size and shape. Lacey decides to put them together; so Mehta and Jung retire to a corner to outdo each other in gentlemanly protestations of uselessness.
Jung: “I hear you’re the man to fight.”
Mehta: “Not me.”
Jung (a karate specialist): “I only been boxing a year and a half. Usually use bare knuckles.”
Mehta: “Fuck me. I don’t want to fight any more.”
Jung: “You’re a good actor.”
On Wednesday night, walking with Mehta to the Marriott, I watch him become steadily more intense. He says he’s terrified: “Everybody thinks I’m a good fighter. This could be my biggest humiliation.” In the first-floor suite, he says hi to the other fighters then unzips his sports bag and starts to change. After stretching, he asks politely if I mind leaving him, then goes into a meditative routine that includes lying on the floor with a jumper on his head and disco-dancing maniacally in the corridor.
Looking round, I note the other fighters’ preparations. Johnny Barr spars noisily with a trainer, hissing with each punch. Edis, scheduled to fight last, checks his hair in a mirror. Others munch thoughtfully on sandwiches amid journalists, camera crews and visitors, including Chris Eubank.
After the alarming first visit to the ballroom, Mehta returns upstairs while Barr disposes of Perrin. (Strictly speaking, there are no winners and losers in white-collar boxing – it’s taking part that counts.) Only towards the end of the second fight does he head back down – passing on his way a returning American, puffing and sweating, who says proudly that the ref told him to go easy on his opponent.
And eventually, the barrister climbs into the ring to fight the accountant. “Laysanjennlemen…” says the MC. “Please welcome, in the blue cornah, Russell ‘Little Big Man’ Jung!” The American gets polite applause. Then the MC introduces “Dr Alex ‘Superstar Hero and Millionaire Playboy’ Mehta!” and Mehta raises his gloved hands to acknowledge the roaring crowd. There are chants, notably from the corner table, where Mehta’s sister sits among representatives of Judicium, which sponsored this bout. “Al-ex!” they shout. “Al-ex!”
In the first round, nearly a whole minute passes before either man lands a punch. The movement is amazing – in its way, far more impressive than the brutal flailing of previous bouts – but that’s not what the crowd wants. “Fackinnitim!” calls out one angry spectator. At the end of the round, as Mehta and Jung sit panting in the corners, there is a sound that has not, until now, been heard this evening: the unmistakable rumble of boos.
Again, in round two, both fighters display an impressive ability to bob and weave. At one point, Mehta ducks so low, you’d think he was trying to kiss Jung on the knee. Then Jung lands some punches, which gets big cheers. The man standing beside me, Steve Holdsworth, busily recording the event on video, mutters that Mehta is mucking about.
In the third round, each man hits the other, but when the fight ends, neither holds up his hands in triumph. There are cheers, but also boos. Holdsworth, still grumbling, considers Jung the winner. He says dismissively: “Mehta didn’t land a punch in the first two rounds.” Later, he sends me a copy of the video. Watching it carefully, I decide he may be right. All the same, there’s something magnetising about the tape of Mehta vs Jung, during which, by accident, Holdsworth loses the sound. The sudden silence, reminiscent of the fight scenes in Raging Bull, inadvertently highlights the peculiar quality of this bout: it’s not as violent as the others, but considerably more artful.
A week later, I e-mail Mehta to find out how he is. He tells me he hooked up with Jung and his wife before they flew home. “Russell is such a dude. It’s so good to chill out and unwind with someone with whom you’ve been in mortal combat. Hard to explain, really, but basically you feel completely at ease with the guy.”
It’s great that he has made friends with Jung, and obvious that the sport keeps him fit, but for Mehta, boxing does more than that. It validates everyday life – including work. In meetings, for instance, he often reaches for the Jedi ethos: “I don’t need to intimidate, frighten or bluff anyone to make my way in the world.
I know that no matter how much the other fatso is yelling and screaming – if he’s that insecure in a boardroom, no way would he have the balls to be a real man and actually bang with me… If I’m babbling, my apologies – I still haven’t come down from last week.”
But at other times, his existential take is bleaker. I know he’s proud of the legal service he co-founded, so it comes as a shock when he says: “We live such sanitised lives: faceless jobs, sitting behind fluorescent screens, answering to a worthless (and often spineless) boss in a thankless job. And I’m not talking about factory work but jobs in the City.” Most of his friends, he says, work for leading City institutions. “We all went to university together, kept our noses clean and passed all our exams and did everything good and proper asked of us, and now most of them hate their existences – what a con! And you know what, I can name a dozen who have been made redundant this year already – so much for being a valued member of the team… ”
His lesson? “You shouldn’t rely on your job or your peers, career or income to define your self-worth or your happiness.” Only in the ring, says Mehta, does he feel truly free. “And in a constrained and compartmentalised society, how much is that worth?”
A BIG NOSE IS EASY TO HIT
To demonstrate the delights of white-collar boxing, Mehta offers to spar with me. “I’d love to move around with you in the ring soon – as long as you don’t smack me too much! How about next Tuesday evening at the Kronk?”
Waiting for him to arrive at the gym, I chat to his trainer. Spencer Fearon, a pro middleweight who refereed at the Marriott, suggests I sign up to fight at the next event myself. I’ll have no problem, he says; they can fix me up to fight some mug. I’m worried about getting my nose broken. “Yeah, you got a big nose. Easy to hit.”
Eventually Mehta arrives. He pulls out huge gloves and a pair of straps, stiff with ancient sweat, to wrap my hands. Then he leads me to the mirror for shadow boxing. We rock backwards and forwards and shuffle round while jabbing. He builds a routine for me: I jab at his gloves, then throw a right, then bob and weave as Mehta swings an arm over my head, first one way, then the next.
Out of the blue, Fearon calls me to the ring. First, he teaches me to stand properly: sideways on, so my opponent has less chance of hitting me in the stomach, and with my right hand clamped to my jaw to push away shots to the chin or ear. He raises a pair of pads and tells me to start punching. I do it all wrong, obviously, pulling and wiping instead of jabbing. To show me what I should do, Fearon turns towards me – and knocks me on the jaw. It’s not a hard punch, by his standards, but a mighty shock. “You all right?” he asks.
The session continues with several rounds on the bags. At first, I’m left on my own to do this; then I’m interrupted by a stocky trainer with wavy white hair. “Relax more,” he says, making deep impressions in the bag. “Hit me,” he says – and as I wave towards him with tired arms, he paffs my gloves aside and plants a fist in my stomach.
Finally, I climb back into the ring with Mehta. For the third time tonight, I’m invited to hit somebody. Again, it proves surprisingly difficult. I never really imagined it was possible to avoid a punch in such a confined space, but now I know it is. By the time the bell rings, I’m shattered.
In the second round, we revert to our practised routine; and in the third I improvise, finally getting the confidence to hit Mehta in the head. He tucks it down, gloves clamped to either cheek, and lets me fire away. Then, just as I’m starting to enjoy it, he stands up and bops me on the nose.