White-collar boxing in Dubai

Take 18 amateur boxers, give them eight weeks of training, then throw them in the ring at White Collar Fight Night

Geoff Upham
Geoff Upham
Lisa Hancox
Lisa Hancox
Russ Saunders
Russ Saunders
Bernie Bray
Bernie Bray

The phenomenon of white-collar boxing began in New York a few decades ago, when frustrated finance execs got it all off their chests by beating each other up in the boxing ring. The event is now in its fifth year in Dubai, and has attained something of a cult following – contestants must not have any competitive boxing experience, and they only have eight weeks to learn the ropes. Training is intense, taking place on alternate days with two sessions a day: boxers can sometimes be in the gym for five hours a day, on top of the regular nine-to-five office grind.

All the hard work culminates in Fight Night this week, where they get to mimic boxing’s superstars by walking into the ring flanked by pretty girls while strutting to their favourite song. Being a spectator is expensive (a standard table for 12 costs Dhs10,000), but the organisers assure us that the black-tie dinner is the corporate event of the year, and all the cash goes to a good cause.

During a white-collar match (which consists of three two-minute rounds), gloves are softer than those used in a pro fight and headgear is compulsory. To ensure the sport is as safe as possible, all fights are overseen by a professional referee, and the competitors’ eight-week training regime is conducted by Dubai boxing royalty, the Taumafai family. It’s all a far cry from the ramshackle underground fist fights of Fight Club.

If you’re not a boxing fan, this night’s probably not for you. But if you love a good bout, get down to the Habtoor Grand and cheer these people on. They certainly deserve it.

The contenders

Geoff Upham
age: 47
Director of a pharmaceutical company
Time in Dubai: five years

My ring name is ‘The Daddy’, for two reasons: I’m a dad to two daughters, and I’m the oldest member of the team so they all call me Dad. In fact, I’m old enough to be virtually all of the team’s dad. The training is intense. We train on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, with morning sessions at 5.30am, which means getting up at 4.30am. We then go to work and come back in the evening to do the 6.30pm-8pm session, but some of us carry on until 9.30pm at night.

I’ve lost about 5kg in five weeks. I’m down to 91kg – it’s probably the fittest I’ve felt in 20 years. I’m not nervous about fight night. I’m looking forward to it – I have a game plan for the night. There are going to be butterflies, of course, but that’s natural. I’ve had a black eye, a couple of bust noses and I’m carrying bruised ribs at the moment. Being a bit older, I usually take a little longer to recover.

Lisa Hancox
age: 31
Swimming instructor
Time in Dubai: four years

My ring name is ‘The Terrier’ because I was talking to a friend of mine and I said, ‘What am I doing?!’ and she said, ‘You’ll be fine, you’re a terrier anyway.’ Everything I do is flat out and once I get into something, that’s it. I’ve never sweated so much or drunk so much water. Training is basically sit-ups, ab crunches, star jumps, burpees, push-ups and jogging, followed by bag work, pad work and sparring. I’ve put on a couple of kilos, but my inches have stayed down so the extra weight must be muscle. I’m also eating more because I’m training more.

I told my mum about it and she was like, ‘Lisa! You’ll get brain damage!’ Some people understand the sport and are okay with it, but people who don’t understand often have issues with it. I mean you’ve got the headgear, and it’s totally controlled. I backed out at one point because of a lack of understanding – I was two weeks late coming into training. But on the night there’ll be adrenaline kicking in.

Russ Saunders
age: 29
Facilities manager
Time in Dubai: 18 months

My ring name is ‘The Blade’. It’s what people back home call me – I don’t really know why. I think it must have something to do with being called Russ, you know, ‘rusty’, ‘rusty blade’. I foolishly agreed to do this while out with my mates from work. The commitment is harder than I expected – especially the early mornings and double sessions – but I knew what I was getting myself into.

I’m eating more and still losing weight, all because of the amount of calories we’re torching. I’m eating little and often and trying to get a good amount of sleep. I bruise like a peach. I’ve had two black eyes and my nose has been bleeding pretty much once a week, yesterday included – in fact, there’s probably some still on the floor. The night could go either way. If nerves get the better of people, they won’t do themselves justice. This could happen to any of us. But on the other hand we realise what we’re doing. This is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, and this might make us step it up.

Bernie Bray
age: 21
Personal trainer
Time in Dubai: one year

My ring name is ‘TNT Red Alert’. TNT doesn’t stand for explosion, but it’s my granddad’s initials – we’re very similar, and I think he would have been crazy enough to do this. The ‘red alert’ part is for my team. My friend took part last year and I was like, ‘I want to do that!’, even though it’s such a solo sport and I’ve always been into team sports. I think I might take it up properly afterwards.

This is the most difficult training I’ve ever done, and I love it. Being a fitness freak I love being pushed to different standards, but it’s tough getting up at stupid o’clock in the morning. My body has changed. I’m getting ripple in my abs! I play rugby and I like getting tackled because it spurs me on, but I’d say boxing is more difficult. It can get fairly sluggish on the rugby field, but when we spar here in the ring it can get a bit crazy.

I don’t bruise easily. It has a downside, though – I got smashed right in the face recently by a professional boxer and all I had to show for it was the faintest little bruise, even though it really hurt. The nerves have gone away. I’m eager to get in the ring because everyone on my team is looking tip-top, so the blue team had better watch out!

Fight night!

White Collar Fight Night is on March 5 at the Habtoor Grand in Dubai Marina. The action kicks off at 6.30pm; table prices start at Dhs10,000. Call Transguard on 04 703 0500 or go to www.whitecollarfightnight.com
to see if you can bag yourself a ringside spot.

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