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Hong Kong’s real-life fight club

Hong Kong’s real-life fight club

White-collar boxing has given bankers and brokers a new way to de-stress, lose weight and win

White-collar boxing has given bankers and brokers a new way to de-stress, lose weight and win

Samanth Subramanian | November 24th 2016

The day before Ed “The Law” Peel went three punishing rounds against Nicky “Knuckles” Demarinis, he went in to work at 5:45am with Japanese equities on his mind. The Nikkei had fallen four straight days; the yen was soaring. In his office – Bank of America Merrill Lynch, 2 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong – Peel combed through overnight market activity, sat in on a conference call, and then phoned his clients before trading began in Tokyo. It was a Friday in March, a busy day for buying and selling. Later that afternoon, having sneaked a session at the gym, he double-checked his orders, making sure they’d been booked correctly. Dinner at the Cricket Club, and then home to bed, where he fretted until 2am, his mind going a million miles an hour, thinking and strategising about the fight ahead. 

Did he have an edge over Nicky “Knuckles”? He was taller, certainly, and a boxer can find useful shelter behind the reach of his long arms. He was also 46, almost a decade and a half older than his opponent. His reflexes were slower, his eye less keen, his muscles not as tight. But Peel had trained hard for this. Although he was active in Hong Kong’s circuit of trail runs and half-marathons, on some race days – on his birthday, for instance – he would permit himself to skip out. With this White Collar Boxing tourney, it was different. He had committed to fight, and he knew that if he didn’t practice, he would hurt. But also, quite simply, he wanted to win, so he trained five diligent evenings a week. Midway through his preparation, when his brother fell extremely ill, Peel flew home to London and spent a series of nerve-racking days in the hospital. Immediately after he returned, he was back at the gym, whaling away at the punching bags. 

In the ring, erected in the centre of a vast ballroom in the InterContinental Hotel, Peel began slowly. At a table behind Peel’s corner sat his wife, flinching with every punch he took. Their four children were at home. His sister and her husband had flown to Hong Kong just to watch the fight. They were surrounded by Peel’s friends and colleagues, roaring every time he landed a blow. “THE LAAAAAAAW!” they shouted, rising from their tables crowded with floral centrepieces and wine bottles, their black ties askew or the straps on their gowns slipping, their noses russet from two hours of drink. Through these thickets of bodies, waiters insinuated their arms, refilling glasses, clearing dishes, or serving the next course of dinner.

Of the 16 fighters – mostly bankers and corporate executives, but also a nurse and a priest – competing in this White Collar Boxing event, Peel had sold the most tickets, each priced at between HK$2,500 ($320) and HK$3,200 a pop. His contingent, all wearing fake Bobby helmets above their evening wear, formed a sixth or a seventh of the 500 people in the audience. At the commencement of his bout, when their boy swaggered down the boxers’ ramp to the ring, the Clash’s “I Fought the Law” thundering over the sound system, the Peelsters set up a din that rattled every champagne flute in the room. 

In between the fights, there were the charity auctions. After the two opening matches of the night, an auctioneer, who resembled a deflated Ryan Gosling, took the ring and announced the first item up for auction: a Mars Bar from Elvis Presley’s estate. No one was sure if it came with a certificate of authenticity, but the bidding began, in any case, at HK$500 and ended at HK$8,000. The man who’d bought it, seated at a table next to the ring, raised his hands in mock triumph. Then, when he was ceremonially handed his acquisition, he unwrapped the Mars Bar and consumed it in four tidy bites.

On paper, the surprising beneficiaries of this baroque enterprise were Cambodian children. The money that the Vanda Group, the promoters of White Collar Boxing, raised from the tickets and the auctions went to the Children’s Surgical Centre in Phnom Penh. But really, the evening revolved around the marriage of a pastime to its perfect participants: bankers and analysts with aggression to spare, Western expatriates who are lonely, transient, giddy with money, or avid for novelty. Their A-type temperaments – which feast on risk and forever seek an edge over competitors – also drive them through severe training regimens and then into the ring. In offering no place to hide, in announcing clear winners and losers in zero-sum contests, in being clinical and frightening, the ring reminds them of the banks, hedge funds and brokerage firms where they live their days.

Although his father had been a broker, Peel drifted sideways into the industry. When he left Eton, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, and he can’t precisely remember why he chose to study political science at Boston University. “I did like economics. It was more interesting in England then, when you had a right-wing party and a left-wing party, rather than the right-centrist and left-centrist parties today.” After graduating six months ahead of schedule, he took an abbreviated gap year, wandering through America, and then on to Australia and New Zealand. When he returned to London, he found a position as an assistant on the Japan desk at Robert Fleming, one of the City’s leading merchant banks. Three years later, in 1996, he was moved to the office in Japan. “Purely by chance, because I’d ended up on that desk in London. If you’d asked me to name ten countries I’d end up in, Japan would not have been on that list.” 

Peel stayed in Japan for 16 years, meeting his future wife in Tokyo, weathering the 2008 recession there, feeling the industry shift around him. “In a way, the logistics of the job were harder in the 1990s. You had to write tickets. You had to stamp them. You had to call down to the exchange to get your bids and offers.” At the same time, the markets became more diverse. People traded from home. “It used to be a people business, which was fun. But machines are such a big part of it now. The mechanics have changed.” 

The 13-hour workdays, the perpetual negotiation of risk, the compulsion to outperform – these always remained a part of the job. “I’m competitive, but I’ve always been that way, in the sense that I’m competitive with myself,” Peel said. “If I want to do anything, I want to do it right. If I studied for an exam, or if I went for a run, I was always testing myself.” He’d seen his father in this industry, so he knew what it was like, how relentless it could be. 

The concept of white-collar boxing – of a stressful, competitive hobby for people who already had stressful, competitive jobs – didn’t surprise Peel. He understood why bankers did it. After a decade, all the pressures of the career – acute though they were – began to acquire a varnish of sameness, just as the moneyed, expat lifestyle followed a uniform rhythm. The days became predictable. 

“Maybe it’s something like a midlife crisis,” Peel said. He insisted he was jesting, but it was true that the boxing introduced an unfamiliar excitement into his routine. Halfway through his training, he admitted: “My anxiety levels are very high. I’m constantly finding flaws and trying to fix them.” He had, at least, learned to keep his hands up, but he was still overreaching, still unoriginal in attack. He was often exhausted. His back hurt. Still, Peel was raring to see it through. This was a new way to test himself. “You have different challenges at work, and obviously now I’m able to deal with them,” he said. “This was a way to take myself out of that zone of comfort, to give me a nudge. It was to remind myself that I’m alive. And that certainly happens when you get punched in the face.”

On the knuckle Anton Van Camp prepares to train ahead of the competition at Hong Kong’s InterContinental Hotel 

Not long after James “Bonecrusher” Smith became the first heavyweight champion with a degree in business administration, in the late 1980s, Gleason’s Gym, in New York, arranged the first white-collar boxing matches. (In the inaugural fixture, pleasingly, a PhD in English literature thumped an attorney.) For years, in New York and then in London, boxers did battle in white-collar fundraisers, and late in 2004, Ian Mullane thought he would try a fight. 

At the time, Mullane – the founder of the Vanda Group – was 34, living in Singapore and working for Sungard, a financial software firm. He also weighed 119kg, and was a drinker and smoker in the worst shape of his life. Miserable about letting himself go, Mullane wrote to a London boxing promoter, asking to sign up. “I thought they’d say: ‘Right, okay, we need to know this, that, the other.’ They didn’t. It was just: ‘Yep, fine. November 3rd. See you then.’” After scouring Singapore in vain for a boxing gym, Mullane emailed the coach of the national team, who agreed to see him. “I turned up at a concrete compound with a shed and a few leather bags thrown over metal poles. That was Singapore’s boxing scene.” 

Mullane sparred there for nine months and lost 20kg. After that first fight in London, in November 2005, there were more. He found himself mildly addicted. At the same time, as he progressed to being the COO of his group, his appetite for his job thinned. “In 2007, we had been through an aggressive year. We’d acquired multiple companies, our staff had grown tenfold. But I sat in a boardroom in New York, and I had no enthusiasm for the following year.” He also couldn’t forget how, when he narrated his training and his fights to his friends, their eyes glinted with excitement and envy. 

Business plans have been hatched from less. Near Singapore’s financial district, Mullane found 14,000 square feet of space and signed a three-year lease. Most of it he turned into a giant indoor playground for children, but a tenth of the area became the Vanda Boxing Club, which opened in December 2007. The next year, months before the financial world began to melt down, Vanda organised its first tournament in Hong Kong.

Every edition of White Collar Boxing has donated its earnings – minus expenses – to charity. In Hong Kong, the expenses are considerable: three months of training, three times a week, for the fighters who signed up; the InterContinental; the sound-and-light equipment; the boxing ring and the gigantic video screen; the four-course dinner, with its choice of slow-roasted beef sirloin with truffle mashed potato or seared fillet of barramundi in a herb-lemon crust; the parade of bottles of Vino Maipo reds and whites. Still, by staging these fights four times a year – twice each in Hong Kong and Singapore – Vanda raises roughly $500,000 annually. Since 2007, Mullane said, it has given more than $2m to the Children’s Surgical Centre. “What’s in it for me is – in Singapore, the reason I’ve got a boxing club of over a thousand members is because I have all these people attending each of my events. It’s incredibly strong marketing for me.”

Mullane has a ringmaster’s sense of the particular appeal of his troupe. Hardly anyone, he figured, would pay to watch a boxer who’d once won an Oxford Blue and who still rowed competitively on weekends. “But if I walk into the office tomorrow and say, ‘Guys, I know I’m overweight and was smoking yesterday, but I’m going to be fighting in three months’, every single person will want to see that,” Mullane said. “The point is to take participants who are improbable and put them through the impossible. The whole romance of white-collar boxing is the improbable people.”

Bobbing and weaving Two fighters exchange blows while their guests enjoy dinner around the ring

Antony “Van” Chiu, “The Atomic Bull”, was an improbable person and he knew it. He is 38 years old, round-faced, not tall and not slim; he was in the kind of physical shape in which the first month of his training felt just like going to hell. He works at a major international bank, trading in Asian equity markets – a job that is not dissimilar to what he did in London and before that in Paris, where he grew up. “London is a more cultural city. There’s more to do outside of the office. You can go to museums, things like that,” he said. “In Hong Kong, you have less of that. You come here, and you don’t know anyone, and you don’t know what to do, so you set out to have a good time.” 

Chiu's parents moved from Hong Kong to Paris before he was born, and his speech still holds the distinct residue of a French accent. He is a genial, effervescent man – not easy to picture in the ring, as a perpetrator of physical violence. When he was 18, and very taken with the movies of Jean-Claude van Damme and Jet Li, he enrolled in a Thai-kickboxing gym. “It was basic training, really cheap,” he said. “They taught you some technique. It wasn't like they were preparing you to fight big matches or to be a champion or anything.”

In London, he found fewer opportunities to practise his kickboxing. His job, in any case, was far more draining than it was in Paris, and when he moved to Hong Kong, in 2011, his days grew still more full. In the offices of the financial sector, everything was always white-hot competitive – the work, of course, but even casual poker sessions, or contests to eat a slice of bread as fast as possible without a drink of water, or bets on when the next goal would be scored in a football game. “I think Asia just breeds that competitive mentality,” he said. “The way people invest here – sometimes it reminds you of a casino.”

But Chiu revelled in it. “The job I’m doing today fits my personality. You know what people with an Asian background are like. So even in school, I was very competitive. It's a challenge, right? You win sometimes, and you lose sometimes, but you like the competition. You don’t like easy things. You like to win. You want to win.” 

When he arrived in Hong Kong, Chiu discovered right away that the city intended for him to both work and play out of his skin. He would rise at 4am to scan the news and then go in to his office, where he would stay till 6pm. “You have annual targets, but really, every day you’re looking at your numbers. There’s a lot of stress.” As a newcomer, Chiu knew no one in the city. But he had to build his reputation, so he’d call his clients in the evening: “Let’s go drink.” At least once a week, they’d go the whole night, skipping from bar to bar in Wan Chai or Lan Kwai Fong, going home only to stand groggily under a shower before returning right to their desks. Chiu was single at the time, so he went out seven nights out of seven, and he slept through all his weekends. He gained 10kg. It was, he realised even then, hard core, and a lonely life. Only after he got married did he find a reason to head straight home from work.

When he heard about white-collar boxing in Hong Kong, he was intrigued. “In certain places, boxing is still for bad boys, for thugs. If I was doing this in Paris or Germany, people would ask, ‘Why’re you doing this?’ Here, bankers are doing it. Maybe they want to feel strong, energetic or confident. Maybe that’s the image they want to project.” Like Mullane, Chiu registered to fight because he wanted the exercise. “If you lose, it’s not the end of the world,” he said. Then he grinned. “But you’re doing it for the victory.”

Three evenings a week, Chiu and his fellow fighters – two of them women, the rest men – convened at Impakt, a gym located in the heart of the business district, on the second floor of an office building. This was where Vanda paid for its conscripts to train. But these were men and women who were also used to winning, or used at least to obsessing over winning, so many of them also took private lessons on the side. A single session, Chiu said, could cost up to HK$600. It bought you an hour in the ring with a trainer who called out moves – “Jab! Upper cut! Jab cross! Jab jab! Upper cut!” – and pointed out your mistakes and gently knocked you around, like a brusque security officer patting you down at an airport.

The group sessions began with jumping jacks and other calisthenics, a spot of shadow boxing, and turns at the punching bags lined up by the windows. Then the boxers split into pairs for sessions of sparring. The faint tang of old sweat spiced the air. A trainer prowled the periphery of the floor, scattering advice, rotating boxers in and out of bouts, or ordering them to drop to the pink-and-blue floor mats for sets of push-ups. “Don’t lose your temper,” he warned often, for these were amateurs, prone to lose their heads when enflamed in combat. “Control yourself.”  

Chiu was an energetic fighter. He bobbed about like a buoy beset by rough waves, always searching for an opening. When he found one, he sometimes failed to make use of it, content to throw a single punch where he might have thrown three. He rarely drove his opponent backwards, and he tired quickly. But his aim was excellent, and he punched with grim intent. He had dropped from 85kg to 78 since the start of training, and he felt like a quicker man.

The training wasn't easy, and Chiu fretted at the thought of fighting in front of his clients and his colleagues, and of losing in front of them. But like Peel, he said he wanted a new challenge. “At some stage of your life, you want to show people that you have other skills, that you can do different things. You want to show that you can do something that not everybody might want to, or dare to, do.”

Pulling no punches For Antony Chiu, boxing was an outlet for his natural competitiveness

The day of the tournament was steaming and clammy, the way Hong Kong often is, as if the sea had begun to evaporate in a hurry. At the InterContinental, the guests came up a red carpet into a small lobby, posed for vanity photographs, and then orbited the bar. Around the perimeter, Vanda had displayed memorabilia that would be auctioned off between bouts: a Fender guitar signed by David Bowie; an autographed All Blacks jersey; a boxing glove crowded with the signatures of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton. Some of the fighters came out to meet their friends and looked longingly at the bar; they were subsisting on Subway sandwiches, cookies and bananas backstage. 

The audience entered into the spirit of things from the start, gasping when someone was pounded, chanting names, beseeching one boxer to put the other down. Somebody had smuggled in an air horn and blew it insistently; once it confused the fighters, who returned to their corners, thinking that it signalled the end of the round. The pugilism itself was apt to fray into hot-headed brawling. At times, the event felt like an elevated version of an old-fashioned schoolyard scrap. It provided the same alternation between sick horror and visceral thrill, the same blind urge to take sides. 

In his very first round, Peel broke his hand. Swamped by adrenaline, though, he really felt the pain only after the fight ended, and it wasn't until a couple of days later that he realised that he'd snapped some bones. It was the worst injury anyone had ever suffered during a white-collar boxing event, and it crippled Peel even if he didn't know it at the time. He began to let his guard down too often – a habit he thought he’d rectified in training – and Nicky “Knuckles” took these opportunities, undeterred even when he met a fist en route. Peel’s punching grew weaker and wilder. The canvas became speckled with drips of sweat. Peel’s face, reddening when hit and encased in a blue helmet, turned two-tone. As the final round waned, he came under one last, sustained onslaught, his tall frame crumpling, as if he was already resigned to his defeat. 

Later, Peel found that he didn't remember the course of the fight too well. He recalled getting hit, and he knew he had left too much daylight between his hands and his face. “More than the loss, I keep thinking of all the mistakes I made,” he said. “A lot of the things that I trained for, I didn't take them from the gym to the ring.” He didn't think that he'd wasted his time, not by a long shot. “But at the same time, I didn't go in there thinking, ‘I don't mind if I lose.’ You've got to go into every fight wanting to win.”

The decibels mounted through the night. During one bout, a conference of bankers clustered around a corner of the ring and hollered encouragement to their colleague. “Kill him, Anton!” When Chiu fought his way to a loss, one drunken table yelled, by way of advice and in repeated unison, “Upper cut! Upper cut!” Chiu blamed only himself for the result. Making the grave error of thinking too much, he concentrated on being elusive, and he fell into a clinch whenever battle was joined. Initially, his opponent appeared not to know what to make of a boxer who wished to hug instead of box, but Chiu's defences were gradually breached. He should have been himself, he thought in the following days. He should have been more aggressive. “When I was boxing, I didn't feel like it was me boxing. That was the problem.”

A curious mix of emotions played over the faces of Chiu and the other vanquished boxers at the end of their fights. Beneath the distress of pain and loss, there shone a dazed awakening. This was competition they were unused to, their beloved drug in a potent new form, and it exhilarated them. If anything, the hard reality of glove upon flesh felt more satisfying than the abstractions of virtual markets and invisible money. But perhaps the boxing itself was, in a sense, immaterial. This could have been an ultra-marathon, or ice-climbing, or a cliff-diving challenge or polo – any activity that offered the heat of a contest, and that reminded these people of the nature of their personalities. Even in defeat, they rediscovered who they were, and they liked what they saw. 

Steadily, the auctioneer lost the attention of his audience. No one listened to his patter, although when it was time to bid, the money gushed forth: HK$40,000 for Bowie’s guitar, HK$70,000 for a sketch by Nelson Mandela, “I tell you,” the auctioneer moaned below the din, “we have a wild crowd this evening.” 

When the last match began, half an hour or so before midnight, even the fighting was beginning to go somewhat unnoticed. The ballroom filled with the nocturnal cries of networking bankers. Bottles were emptied of their dregs of wine. Bets were settled, plans formulated for after-parties. When the referee lifted the hand of the final winner, he received a short fusillade of applause. Then the bankers, lawyers, traders and analysts collected their coats and their spouses, left the InterContinental and poured out into the vaporous Hong Kong night. 

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