Sport

Sick of a sedentary lifestyle, white-collar workers are taking a swing at sanctioned fighting, with gyms offering a moment in the ring for these otherwise placid desk jockeys. By Jenny Valentish.

Fight plan

Pretender to Contender boxing training at Team Ellis in Melbourne’s Keilor East.
Credit: Supplied

The man who walked into Team Ellis boxing gym, in Melbourne’s Keilor East, didn’t look like your usual pugilist. He’d spent his hermetically sealed working life in a laboratory, winding up with a midlife crisis shaped around wondering what challenges his body might have risen to. As he told trainer Tai Tuiniua, he’d never been in a scrap in his life, had never watched boxing on television. “He said, ‘I feel like my body’s fading away and I’ve never once used it,’ ” says Tuiniua.

It’s quite the bucket list item, getting into the ring in front of 1500 people, and that’s what Team Ellis’s Pretender to Contender course caters for. Increasingly, fight gyms are coming up with what are sometimes referred to as white-collar programs, with names such as Rookie to Legend, Wannabe a Fighter and Wimp to Warrior, covering boxing, kickboxing and MMA. What could test the mettle more than literally putting yourself in harm’s way in your underwear, gaffer-taped into your gloves?

“Hopping in the ring is one of the hardest things I think any human being can do,” agrees Tuiniua. “It’s a real test of their strength and their grit. In footy if you mess up, you’ve got other players looking after you. In boxing, you’re the only one who will suffer the consequences. Once you’re under those bright lights you find out who you really are. And you’ll have that confidence in yourself for the rest of your life.”

Offering a set schedule of anywhere between eight weeks to six months of training, these programs culminate in a showy fight in front of friends and family. You choose your walkout music; the crowd sportingly screams your name – that sort of thing. The Team Ellis program costs $750 for non-members, and for that they also hire out Melbourne Pavilion for fight night, complete with videographers and photographers. On April 24, they’re putting on Now or Never, with celebrities from reality TV shows on the main card and everyday program participants on the undercard. It’s the sixth time they’ve run a celebrity version, using it as a marketing draw. It taps into a recent trend for celebrity YouTubers taking on professional fighters.

Fighting facilitates all the things we’re not supposed to feel in everyday life: sanctioned competitiveness, sanctioned domination, sanctioned aggression. A taste of it is catnip for desk jockeys.

This kind of fast-tracked fight also avoids the paradox of the regular person in training who hasn’t paid for a tight deadline: the longer they put off a fight in their quest to be ready enough, the more they’ll persuade themselves they’re not quite ready.

That’s what happened to one Pretender to Contender participant who came through the Team Ellis doors as a 64-year-old. “He said, ‘Mate, I’ve been planning for an amateur since I was 14. I got scared right before that fight and wound up pulling out. It’s haunted me ever since.’ So he got in the ring, gave it a crack and he won,” says Tuiniua.

I can understand the appeal of pressure-testing, being a newly minted amateur kickboxer myself. I didn’t use a program like Pretender to Contender; instead I trained for two years the regular way, but my reason for aiming for a fight was much the same: If you can withstand this, you can withstand anything.

Actually, there’s a long tradition of journalists who have wondered whether they had it in them to swap spin for the ring. They follow George Plimpton, founder of The Paris Review, who faced off with the longest-reigning world light-heavyweight champion, Archie Moore, for his 1977 book Shadow Box.

In Tapped Out, Matthew Polly recalls idly pitching ideas to his editor for the next book: maybe something on mysticism, or the influence of Japanese manga on American comics, or MMA… “That’s it!” his editor interrupted, eyes gleaming. “You’re like all the guys who will buy this book. Out-of-shape ex-athletes who dream about competing again one last time.”

Josh Rosenblatt had long been a professional observer of the MMA octagon, before deciding to step inside. “I may finally find out who I am by simply walking into a cage,” he wrote in Why We Fight. “Am I a coward? A con man? A savage? A sadist? A technician? An artist? A brute? An intellectual? A sociopath? A humanitarian? The answer will be written all over me as soon as the bell rings.”

Closer to home, Saturday Paper contributor Alex McClintock, in his book On the Chin, noted of boxing: “For better and for worse, its extremes reveal what we’re capable of.”

Tuiniua says Pretender to Contender attracts office workers, yes, but also the gamut of people who want a fitness goal. “And a lot of people do it for confidence and self-esteem,” he says.

Team Ellis developed their program in 2017. They register the participants as amateur boxers, but as Tuiniua says, the fight night is not an official amateur event. “There’s a difference between being registered as an amateur boxer and actually competing at the amateurs where you’ve probably been training for a few years. I’m training them so I can match them and make sure no one gets hurt. We want them to have a professional experience without really feeling what it’s like to be a professional boxer. It’s not nice to be a professional boxer!”

Not long before the Team Ellis event, I fight on a conventional amateur card unrelated to their gym. I give it the hammer, the tongs and the kitchen sink, but lose to a formidable opponent, though I’m on such an almighty high afterwards you’d think I’d won. A good thing, too, as at my age I’m not sure I’ll do it twice.

At one point, in the third round, there’s a boisterous crowd response when I’m punched to the canvas. I imagine such joyous baying at someone’s misfortune would be discouraged at a white-collar event, but actually, it’s not as demoralising as it sounds. My sole focus is on getting up and making my opponent pay – and fast.

My wider experience of the night makes me consider the pros and cons of the two paths, though. White-collar programs have their critics (largely that they don’t require commitment to the craft and that they’re money-spinners for the gym), but in a way you’re more of a commodity in a regular amateur fight. Backstage at an amateur event, a fighter slumps bucktoothed and irrelevant in their mouthguard, as promoters, matchmakers and trainers gesticulate over them. It’s all “your boy”, “your girl”, like the fighter is a prize bull at best, a toddler at worst.

At my amateur, I’m given the wrong weight to cut to and then somehow get blamed for it; am not informed that the time of the event has dramatically changed; and have my fight changed from Muay Thai to kickboxing rules an hour before taking to the ring. It’s messing with my mojo.

“Don’t worry about it. You’re doing this for you,” my trainer reminds me with forced cheer, giving my shoulders an encouraging little shake and stretching his mouth into a jolly smile. He’s not happy either, but we’ve got away lightly. Someone else from my gym doesn’t find out until weigh-in, after he’s starved and dehydrated himself, that his opponent pulled out days earlier.

So you pay for the personalised touch with a program such as Pretender to Contender. You buy your unsullied moment in the sun. You are the subject, not the object. And if you know your trajectory will be short, this could be the shinier option.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 10, 2021 as "Fight plan".

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Jenny Valentish is the author of Everything Harder Than Everyone Else: Why Some of Us Push Our Bodies to Extremes, and Woman of Substances: A Journey Into Addiction and Treatment.