Punch And Jury

Is white collar boxing the new golf? Alex Wade finds that swapping the boardroom for the boxing ring is proving a big hit with lawyers

White collar boxing began in the US a decade ago. Its spiritual home is Gleason's Gym, New York, where professional boxers have been training since 1937. A sign hangs on one of the walls at Gleason's, on which the following lines from Virgil appear: “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.” If it was not for the many lawyers who have answered Virgil's appeal, Gleason's might well have gone out of business.

In the 1970s there were at least 150 boxing gyms in New York; estimates now put that figure nearer 10. Gleason's has seen the likes of Jake La Motta, Roberto Duran and Muhammad Ali come through its doors, but today the majority of its members are businessmen. Once a month, the gym plays host to white collar fights, in which lawyers, investment bankers and brokers fight for three rounds. White collar boxing has been so successful at Gleason's that New York now has a number of other gyms offering City professionals the same opportunity to get in shape and, if they wish, to take part in a fight.

Alan Lacey, a former boxing promoter and events organiser, is the man who brought white collar boxing to the UK. Lacey set up The Real Fight Club (TRFC), which administers London's white collar fights from an office a stone's throw from the space-age Herbert Smith building. Under the auspices of TRFC, black-tie events are held throughout the year, in which matchmaking is crucial: boxers are put together by Lacey on the basis of experience, age, weight, fitness and attitude. All fights are attended by a certified doctor, paramedics and an ambulance team, and Lacey insists that white collar boxing is safe. “The overriding principle is that nobody gets hurt or humiliated,” he says. “We all need to go to the office the next day.”

So far as Lacey is concerned, “boxing is the new golf”. Certainly, TRFC's membership list grows by the day. Lacey says there are now more than 650 members, achieved after only 18 months of the club's existence. Although the bulk of its members are bankers and brokers, the trim, dapper Lacey reckons that TRFC has a lot to offer lawyers. “Boxing is made for warriors,” he says, “and isn't that what lawyers are?”

This, of course, is debatable. While there may be litigators who still think that alternative dispute resolution means sending the boys round, there are just as many lawyers whose combative urges have long since disappeared.

Curiously, though, reputedly the best pound-for-pound white collar fighter in London is Alex Mehta – a lawyer. Mehta obtained a doctorate in law from Oxford University and went on to qualify as a barrister. He was called in 1998 while at 4 Breams Buildings, and is now the legal director for Judicium, a company formed in March 2000 specialising in 'legal plans', the prepackaging and prebudgeting of legal services. “We create prepaid tiers of cover for businesses and consumers,” explains Mehta. “My role is primarily a business one – I negotiate the service-level agreements and fees with the law firms to whom we subcontract this work.”

If all that smacks of legalese, try Mehta on boxing. He speaks with a passion that is not always present in courtroom advocacy. “The emotion I felt for my first fight was so raw and intense I could taste it,” he recalls. “There's nothing like boxing. It provides an essential balance to my life.”

Mehta should know – he has been boxing for virtually all of his adult life. He captained Oxford University's amateur boxing club and gained four Blues in boxing. After Oxford he boxed on the UK amateur circuit, and was even asked to turn professional. He felt that was a step too far and now “stays grounded” by boxing in the white collar world. Even at 32, tying wraps, donning gloves and risking actual bodily harm has lost none of its thrill. “Boxing counters what can sometimes be the arrogance of life in the City,” he says. “It's a great leveller, and very humbling.”

Lacey has a lot of time for Mehta. “He's good,” he says. “So good that it's difficult finding someone to give him a decent fight.”

One man who might be the answer is 35-year-old Alex Leitch of SJ Berwin. Leitch is a partner in the firm's commercial litigation department and has been boxing for the last five years. He regrets that while economic conditions have created more work for commercial litigators, this is at the personal cost to his boxing training.

Leitch is a super-heavyweight and, rumour has it, trained with Nigel Benn. Even Prince Naseem Hamed would stop short of saying he could realistically trade punches with Lennox Lewis, and so perhaps Mehta might find it tough going if he were in the same ring as Leitch. This, though, is unlikely to happen given Lacey's rigorous guidelines on matchmaking.

'Boxercise', the blend of aerobics and boxing moves, led to Leitch taking up boxing. He had decided to get in shape and enjoyed boxercise, but it gave him a taste for the real thing. He joined the Northolt Amateur Boxing Club and devoted himself to learning how to box, but had to put everything on hold when he became a partner. But around the time Lacey set up TRFC, Leitch was back in training at the Kronk gym in Camden.

The Kronk is London's centre for white collar boxing. It achieved national fame as the gym where Ricky Gervais and Grant Bovey trained for their much-vaunted celebrity fight last Christmas. By day, super-fit professionals and amateurs spar in one of the two rings, but in the evenings the white collar crowd arrive to learn from the likes of Piero Severini, a tough Italian-American who boxed as a professional welterweight in the US for 10 years. As with Gleason's in New York, one intriguing aspect to the white collar phenomenon is how it breaks down barriers such as class and race. At the Kronk, it does not matter who you are – you are there simply to box. And à la New York, the Kronk is far from the only place where City types can learn to box – witness The Third Space in the heart of the West End, a state-of-the-art fitness centre which runs a number of boxing programmes with professional boxers on its books.

Leitch fought his debut match at the Royal National Hotel in Russell Square. Around 100 staff from SJ Berwin were there. “It was an outstanding experience,” says Leitch. “There was tremendous admiration in the crowd for the people who had the courage to step into the ring.”

Once Leitch gets talking, he is as much the enthusiast as Mehta. “Very few things can compare with boxing,” he says. “Being in the dressing room, hearing the crowd cheering the other fighters on the card ahead of you, knowing that your fight is imminent – it's the best and the worst feeling in the world. And then going out there and putting your courage on the line in front of 500 people is tough.”

Detractors would say that white collar boxing is so far from the real thing that courage has little to do with it. To this, Alex Mehta has a simple response: “I don't care what people say, a punch in the face is a punch in the face.”

Mehta has a point. The men in TRFC who take part in its monthly fights have trained hard and got themselves in the best condition that their hectic business and personal lives will allow. There are serious punches thrown, deft moves and feints and, once the hype has died down, the same camaraderie as in professional fighting. White collar boxers may not emerge with broken noses and jaws, but then again, do they need to?

Jonathan Berger, a partner in Theodore Goddard's audio-visual group, is another convert to boxing, but is not as yet on TRFC's books. A long-time boxing fan – which he describes as “a brutal sport, but amazing to watch” – 42-year-old Berger took it up in June 2002 as part of a “crise de la quatriême”. His lapse into French gives one pause to wonder whether the crisis is over, but then again Berger acts for household names in the film industry – for example the makers of Trainspotting – and his work often takes him to places such as Monaco. Indeed, his training routine had been interrupted for January owing to an overseas trip.

Berger's legal life is a far cry from where he boxes in West London. He trains at a gym run by Clay O'Shea, an ex-professional middleweight from the UK circuit, where the emphasis is on hard work rather than glamour. Since he took up the sport, Berger has never felt better. “The pounds have been dropping off, but the training isn't just about expending energy,” he says. “It's about technique and learning how to punch properly.” Berger's training has so far been on pads and bags, and as with Mehta and Leitch, he is convinced of the benefits. He is not sure about having a white collar fight, but concedes that anything is possible. “I don't know where my boxing is going to go,” he says. “I couldn't rule out joining The Real Fight Club.”

One man about to sign up is Marc Watson, the former head of legal affairs for Richard Desmond's Northern & Shell, and who now works in sports rights. Watson has trained for the past 16 months with Umar Taitt, a 35-year-old former UK heavyweight fighter who works as a personal boxing trainer. Taitt has set up a company that brings boxing to clients' homes – literally. He arrives at a client's house complete with pads, gloves, timers and bags, and spends the next hour or so teaching the tricks of a trade that he has practised for 24 years.

Watson is unequivocal in describing training with Taitt as “the hardest thing” he has ever done. So why though subject oneself to something so demanding? “I've always loved boxing but the catalyst was two attempted car-jackings. Since getting into boxing I've got fit and found it very cathartic. And the physicality contrasts nicely with a desk job.” He adds that he is looking forward to joining TRFC and stepping up to a white collar fight.

There is a caveat. Watson confesses to nerves, and says that he has no intention of “doing a Mickey”. Mickey Rourke, the US actor, famously turned professional about 20 years too late and, as Taitt puts it, “got his head kicked in”. As Watson says: “If I break my nose, that'll be it.”

Whatever happens, the experience will be one to remember. Taitt is confident that Watson will do well, and Leitch allays any concerns about safety. “The fights are extremely well refereed,” he says, confirming Lacey's insistence that white collar boxing is about participation, pride and achievement rather than hurting people.

The last word goes to Leitch: “There's a great sense of achievement after a fight – win or lose. And you meet a lot of great people in boxing – well-mannered, respectful, polite.”

Well-mannered, respectful, polite. Are these the terms that describe the average lawyer? Time to get those gloves on.