You never forget your first time. Mine was in Cape Town in July 2010 at the Armoury, a retro-hip boxing club in the gentrified part of Woodstock, which shares a space with the Michael Stevenson gallery, some design businesses and an Italian bistro.
The Armoury is a genuine, if fairly upmarket club, as opposed to a gym where you can do some “boxercise”. It is one of South Africa’s homes of white-collar boxing. As the name implies, white-collar boxing is essentially for ordinary folk who may have neither the time nor the inclination to pursue the sport in its two main recognised guises: amateur boxing, which requires participation in grading tournaments, and the professional ranks, in which training regimes are demanding but fights thin on the ground. It is a way, enthusiasts will tell you, of making boxing part of the normal sporting landscape in the way that men of a certain age will always say: “Well, my dad used to box.”
In the white-collar ring, fighters box for three rounds of two minutes each. They wear headgear and heavier, more padded gloves for safety. The tournaments, often with many hundreds in attendance, have mushroomed all over the country with men – and women – ready to rumble.
So what underlies the clearly growing need for people in the street to get themselves into shape to go toe to toe?
I started boxing training as a change of scene from my usual football training, but the competitor in me could not resist the lure of training for a contest instead of just, well, training. So I signed on for the first white-collar bout I was told about at the Armoury.
I thought it would be fairly easy to step into because I was already pretty fit. How wrong I was. The training regime is brutal, even for the standard white-collar format of three two-minute rounds. Apart from the physical demands, the skills and techniques you have to master to get into the ring and look as though you even vaguely know what you are doing are surprisingly intense and complex.
My first trainer was Malawian professional Isaac Chilemba, a young and promising light-heavyweight currently ranked in the top 10 by the World Boxing Council.
Soon I was learning the tricks of the trade and before long I was ready for some serious fight-preparation sparring.
Here is the rub: it is all very well dealing out the hurt with your new punching skills. But you really find out stuff about yourself when you are the one getting hit.
A big part of boxing is controlling aggression rather than being aggressive because, if you lose it when you get hit, you are liable to get hit again. And again. I knew that, even though this was white-collar, ordinary-guy boxing, my opponent wanted to hit me as much as I wanted to hit him.
The owner of the Armoury, Steve Burke, a former British Army paratrooper and ex-manager of the British Army boxing team, is a management consultant in Cape Town. His Friday night white-collar fight tournaments, which have been running since he opened the club in 2010, have become semi-legendary.
He is well placed to give insight into the phenomenon. “White-collar boxing helps to stimulate interest in the sport among a broader range of people. I am happy with where it is positioned. Dumb it down and you get ‘boxercise’; make it more competitive and you’ve got amateur or professional boxing.
“White-collar boxing has its own niche as a recreational sport that is accessible to ordinary men and women of all ages who don’t want to go toe-to-toe with the next South African champion, but do seek extraordinary physical conditioning, progressive learning and the amazing natural high and sense of accomplishment that comes from stepping into the ring.”
Stephen Castle, a former professional heavyweight who now trains fighters at Top Box, his own gym in Johannesburg, agrees. He runs his own regular and well-attended white-collar fight nights at Tanz Café in Fourways.
“Boxing has lost a lot of ground to other fighting sports – mixed martial arts specifically,” Castle said. “In South Africa boxing has been tarnished with bad administration and sponsorship has disappeared. White-collar boxing makes boxing accessible to the general public. With white-collar boxing, we have a vehicle to show people boxing at a social level and not just as [a sport] available to an elite group of athletes.”
And sociable it is. Both Castle’s and Burke’s events draw hundreds of fans and feature raucous after-parties. Their character, however, is as different as the cities they take place in. The Armoury’s events are hip, gentlemanly affairs, attended by a high proportion of media types in skinny jeans and alternative tattoos. The Jozi white-collar scene is much more aligned to the popular amateur mixed-martial arts circuit, often with fighters doing both, and it tends to be a bit more blue collar. Nonetheless, there is money in it for those doing it right. A recent entrepreneurial spin-off circuit on the far East Rand and in Mpumalanga reportedly resulted in one self-proclaimed white-collar promoter lining his pockets while claiming to be a licensing authority for the sport, even though white-collar boxing is not regulated or run under an official governing body such as the much-maligned Boxing South Africa.
Devon Currer is a boxing aficionado and the master of ceremonies for many boxing and mixed-martial arts tournaments in the Western Cape. He is also the founder of South Africa Boxing Buzz, a hugely popular discussion forum on Facebook where amateurs, current and former professional boxers and trainers chew the fat about their sport in often heated exchanges.
With regard to the regulation issue, he said: “Regulation of the sport is a tough question. Although I feel that it should be regulated, I also feel that regulation should be handled by the club putting on the show. At the end of the day, it is still boxing. People can hurt each other.
“White-collar boxing only needs a clear definition in terms of the “safety first” aspect. Any further regulation than that will become a governing body, which in boxing normally ends up becoming a money-making racket with little or no care for the sport.”
Back in the ring, the training came to fruition in my first white-collar bout. I fought against Justino Ferreira, about whom I knew nothing except that he weighed 10kg more than me. Over a beer after the fight, I found him to be an affable bloke, an entrepreneur by day, and that he too was a fight-night virgin. I was to learn that post-fight camaraderie with your opponent – win or lose – is a notable feature of white-collar boxing. Despite all my training (I was in the best shape of my life), the thing that stuck with me was how quickly the adrenalin flooding your body could exhaust you. Coming out to the ring and making my way through the crowd with my trainer added to the hype. It is what gets the white-collar boxer his or her own little piece of that square-ring magic. It is not until you land – and take – that first blow in earnest that you know what you are really in for.
By the second round I was breathing through my arse. But I had managed to deck my opponent in the first round with a right cross and it felt great. In the second round he got some of his own back with a couple of big swinging hooks. In the final round I decked him again. No winners are declared in white-collar bouts unless there is a knockout. It is a gentleman boxer’s ethos, but we both knew I had won the fight. And in most fights both guys do know who has won. On that first night my bout also won fight of the night, the only official accolade given.
Nine fights down the line, the adrenalin does not mess with my body quite so much and I am picking my shots a bit better. My opponents have got better too and both Castle and Burke have witnessed competitors in their tournaments becoming graded amateur fighters with a few good professional prospects to boot.
My time in the ring will end soon enough. It is a young man’s game and, at 48, my last few opponents have been close to half my age. But white-collar boxing has given me membership of a great club of camaraderie and fighting spirit, just right for a rough-and-ready place like South Africa. It is no wonder it is taking off.