Phil Vinter discovers a craze that is sweeping Birmingham's professional community. And it hurts.
A powerful, hard-hitting, revolution is taking place in Birmingham. Every weekday, as the clock strikes five, dozens of professional men and women are powering down their computers and swapping suits and briefcases for padded gloves and gum shields to spend an evening partaking in some of the most exhausting physical exercise there is – exchanging punches with fellow professionals.
Welcome to Birmingham’s answer to Fight Club. Welcome to the world of white-collar boxing.
In the past, boxing gyms have been seen as the domain of tough men, who carry out tough physical jobs – the blue-collar brawlers. But over the course of the last decade there has been a shift in attitudes among professionals in the city.
While the recession has bit in Birmingham harder than in almost any other UK city, in the Jewellery Quarter’s Fighting Fit boxing gym business is booming.
Since it opened just two years ago, the gym’s membership has swelled to more than 300. According to managing director Neil Perkins, almost all come from the corporate world.
“There has been a massive upsurge in membership in the last 12 months,” said Mr Perkins, a Midlands amateur boxing champion and heavyweight professional.
“I knew that a white collar gym would be popular I just had to get a city centre location that was close to businesses and to where a lot of professionals live.
“The gym industry is saturated with stereotypical corporate gyms with watered down set-ups – exercise machines and an easy opportunity to slack off. People are looking for something more. With us they get the real deal. Every one of our trainers is an ex or current boxer. There’s not one of them who hasn’t fought at professional or amateur level.”
Boxing is considered to be one of the most gruelling and physically-demanding sports there is, but the rush for the ring among the Birmingham elite does not come solely from a desire for a fresh fitness fix. Many are also attracted to the sport through its benefits not just for the body but also the mind.
Business development manager Ben Eason, who works for Wragge and Co solicitors, says that since taking up boxing last year he has seen a noticeable improvement in not only his energy levels but also his focus in the workplace.
“There is a lot more skill involved in the sport than I imagined and to train for a fight requires more dedication than anything I’ve ever done,” said Mr Eason. “I think taking up boxing has been massively helpful for me in the workplace.
"Things don’t get me as upset as they used to and I’m much more relaxed because I know that when I go to the gym I can really release any tension and frustration there. At work I get on with my job now whereas in the past I’d set unrealistic goals and over-analyse things.”
Broad Street manager Mike Olley, a fellow Fighting Fit gym member, who recently fought former West Midlands Police deputy chief constable Stuart Hyde in a charity bout, said the competitive, tough nature of a sport where there is no place to hide builds confidence which spills over to the workplace.
He said: “Boxing empowers you as a person, and not only gives you a physical advantage but also a psychological edge.
"You become a more confident person and can handle yourself better when dealing with people in work. It requires a lot of discipline and commitment and that also makes you more dynamic in your approach to every day life.”
While those who have made the decision to step into the ring have enjoyed knock on benefits at work, they admit they did harbour concerns over how colleagues would react to the news they had taken up boxing. Such fears were, it appears, ill-founded.
Mr Eason, aged 30, added: “I must admit I kept it quiet at first, but then I told a few people and I was genuinely surprised and overwhelmed by the amount of support I had from them. I remember going to an office party and lots of people came up to me to say how impressed they were by what I was doing and the amount of training I was putting in.
There was not one single comment saying ‘are you sure you should be doing that?’”
That sentiment is echoed by Adam Hopcroft, aged 25, a recruitment consultant for Michael Page Recruitment.
He added: “The qualities you are taught in boxing match closely with those required in recruitment consultancy. Both are very competitive environments. You need to be determined, driven and disciplined. My boss and everyone I work with have been nothing but positive about me and other colleagues getting involved in the sport.”
Although those taking part in white collar boxing believe it has made them more active and alert in the workplace, the stance of the British Medical Association (The BMA) has not budged in the last decade. The organisation continues to lobby for a complete ban on the sport in the UK. It claims the long-term risk of brain injury are just too great.
However, former Moseley Rugby Club player Mr Eason, says the benefits far outweigh the risks.
“The injuries I’ve sustained from rugby I could never sustain from boxing,” he said. “Boxing is you against one guy using only his two fists. In rugby you have impacts on every part of the body.”
Mr Hopcroft added: “Statistically you get far more injuries in other sports than you do in boxing. We take every precaution to make sure the sport is regulated properly and safety is our number one priority. We make sure we only match members up for a fight against people of a similar body weight and standard. If there is any doubt about health or ability I will not put them in the ring. It’s as simple as that.”
Fighting Fit gym has build a strong reputation and is used by both Kerrang! DJ Kate Lawler and celebrity chef Glynn Purnell.
Mr Purnell, who grew up in Chelmsley Wood, said he found the sport gave him added discipline in work and was never concerned that a broken nose or bruised cheekbone may affect his TV career.
“I am surrounded by food all day and training properly for fights has meant I’ve had to be very disciplined in the kitchen,” he said.
‘‘It’s my job to know about food, but I have also learned about diet and nutrition. As far as working on TV is concerned, I think if you do get bashed up a bit, you just look a bit more interesting. So I wasn’t worried about that. If I turned up on Saturday Kitchen with a black eye, it would just give us something to talk about!”
Despite the success of Fighting Fit, Mr Perkins says he is concerned that there is no formal regulatory body for white-collar boxing.
He said: “Someone with no boxing experience or someone who is just after a quick buck can open up a business, call it a white collar boxing gym and put people’s safety at risk.
“All you need is insurance, which again anyone can get. I do hope that the issue is addressed soon.”
But despite his concerns, Mr Perkins is hoping to open a second white-collar boxing gym in Solihull by the end of the year and there seems to be no stopping Birmingham’s ever-growing army of 5pm fighting fanatics.