Posted on Friday 16 November 2012 by Ulster Business
Dubbed the "sweet science of bruising" by legendary 19th century boxing writer Pierce Egan, the art of pugilism has captured the imagination of every masculine writer of note, from Ernest Hemmingway and Norman Mailer to Jack London and James Ellroy.
For the cinematic generation images of boxing are etched on our consciousness through the black and white grandeur of Raging Bull, the underdog triumphs of Rocky and Cinderella Man, or the heartbreak of Million Dollar Baby.
And as the London Olympics earlier this year proved, there is a rich boxing heritage in Ireland and Northern Ireland.
But in professional circles there is still a very real sense that boxing is frowned on, perhaps for its perceived brutality and the primal reactions it inspires in fight fans at ringside. We prefer our business people to be golfers, sailors and rugby players, or so the stereotype goes.
Former professional boxer Cathal O'Grady has made it his mission to correct that and open people's eyes to the benefits of boxing. He has been promoting White Collar Boxing charity fights for four years in Belfast and by the time this issue is published will have just held the "Heroes" fight night at the Europa Hotel.
White Collar Boxing originated in New York at the world famous Gleason's Gym, and was initially thought of as a pursuit for stressed out traders who needed to blow off steam and shake up their office bound lifestyles.
While there's an element of that in the programmes he runs in Belfast, Cathal believes people mainly take part for personal development and to raise money for charity.
"A lot of people have this fascination with boxing and why people get into the ring. In my view, there is no better mental or physical examination of a person and it can give you confidence in other areas of life," he says.
"In the States it was an escape from the trappings of a bureaucratic life and it is here too. But having their own individual charities reminds our fighters that it's not a big ego trip. They are on their own personal journey but it is not just about them."
Participants in WCB get eight weeks training with experienced coaches Paul Johnston and Stephen Ward at Monkstown Boxing Club before being pitted against an opponent in a three round contest on fight night.
"You get to train like a professional fighter and people really enjoy that. There's no motivation like the fear of getting into the ring to get you up at 7am to do the running," says Cathal.
"There is a huge amount of science in boxing," he adds. "Testosterone will get you so far but it is more important to work out your opponent and to learn the technique. They become a student of the game. They may only get off a few good jabs but that feels like a big success, rather than just going all out in bar-room style."
LEARNING THE ART
Although all the budding pugilists want to win what for most will be their only fight, learning the "art" of boxing is clearly a big attraction.
"I learned in the first week that this is a much more a skilful sport than I thought," says Gary Rocks, a solicitor at Mills Selig who is fighting to raise money for the Oscar Knox Appeal.
"It is not just boys going out there pummelling each other, it is a very strategic sport almost like a game of chess. The pawns are punches - you have to take a few to make a few."
Gary hadn't ever competed in a sport where you "get a smack in the nose" when you don't concentrate but believes that encountering the in-built fear of getting hit and hitting other people through sparring has boosted his confidence, as well as helping him get back in shape.
"If there was ever an advert for getting back into exercise this would be it," he says.
"The training has been fantastic, it has been a real kick start of activity for me. Paul Johnston and Steven Ward's coaching is top class and the craic is mighty."
Gary says he's had a great response to WCB and is not concerned if some of his peers take a dim view of his involvement in the sport.
"Maybe there is still a bit of a stigma or a taboo that boxing is not associated with lawyers and professional people. I got involved because I wouldn't be snobbish in any way and don't subscribe to that image. I always wanted to do it, so why not," he adds.
Estate agent John Minnis, who fought two years ago to raise money for cancer charities, says it is an experience he'd recommend to anyone.
"Actually in the ring, getting punched is not much fun, but the training programme and the journey you go on was a totally new experience for me," he says.
"I have played various sports to quite a high level but I've never experienced a sport with so much skill and that requires so much dedication. I was getting up before anyone else to go for a run, going to the gym at lunchtime. I totally got into it, the real Rocky experience," he laughs.
"I felt people should be made to do this – it is such a life experience. Some people have this impression of boxers as big dopey eejits, but that is not the case at all. I felt I had missed a trick not being involved in it earlier."
DOING THE BUSINESS
Tracy Gilpin, who owns consultancy People Fusion, helped with the recruitment of this year's crop of fighters. She has previously fought on behalf of Barnardo's and is a strong believer in the value of the programme for personal, business and psychological development.
"It challenges you in a unique way because you are in there on your own. By the end of it I felt like a new person – it reminded me who I was and what I was capable of," she says.
"One thing I learned was that boxing is not about fighting, it is way too disciplined for that. But you get a huge amount of respect from people for having done it."
From a business point of view Tracy says White Collar Boxing is also great for networking and gaining positive exposure for your business.
"People do lots of things for charity, they run or do bungee jumps and that's great. But stepping into the boxing ring is probably the most challenging thing you will ever do. There's nothing between you and a broken nose," she says.
"Especially at the minute, when morale is low and business owners are probably struggling to get their staff motivated, it is about stepping out of your comfort zone, getting out of your rut by pushing your boundaries to grow as a person," she adds.
"If you push your own boundaries and realise you're capable of things you never thought of, it translates across to your business. It did for me. Win or lose you've done something for yourself that you'll never forget."
Jamie Foulkes, a director in Santander's corporate banking team in Belfast, is, like the others, primarily involved to raise money for charity.
But as a "blow in" from England five years ago, he's also hopeful it will help raise his profile in the business community and improve his network of contacts.
"If you think about the business networking things you get invited to it is either the rugby or horse racing. This is a certainly a good night out and I know my colleagues who are coming to watch are definitely excited about it and being very positive about it. Probably 80% want to see me get punched in the face," he jokes.
He too sees only positives from being involved, pointing out that there are plenty of bankers and solicitors who show up to work on a Monday wearing the cuts and bruises earned in other sports.
"I seem to be prone to taking a knock and getting black eyes playing rugby anyway, but I don't think people would worry about little marks here and there. You can tell that a person has got them doing sport of some kind, so boxing isn't any different," says Jamie.
"I've never understood why boxing would be looked down on. It takes a huge amount of discipline and commitment. It is not so much about the fighting for me. I'm certainly not motivated to go and hit someone and I'd be surprised if anyone there was."
A MAN'S WORLD
The writer and boxing fan Joyce Carol Oates once wrote that "boxing is for men, and is about men, and is men. A celebration of the lost religion of masculinity".
For many years that might have been true, but with the introduction of women's boxing into the Olympics and new heroes such as Katie Taylor and Nicola Adams celebrated over the summer, it seems that's no longer the case.
Shauna Toman, an accounts manager at Derry Refrigerated Transport who's fighting for PIPS, says that as a keen sportswoman she never gave a second thought to it being "just for men".
"That wouldn't have crossed my mind. I was a bit nervous about being hit at the start, so were a lot of people. Most of us had never been near a boxing club before. So I had some second thoughts, but the team running it are very supportive. And it's a good bunch of people who are all in the same boat," she says.
"It was all about work life balance for me. You can forget that you need something outside of work. I had to give up football a few years ago and needed a way back into sport. You can sit behind a desk for so long that you can get into a rut and I think (boxing) is a stress relief," she adds.
"It is nice meeting new people too. On a personal level I have more energy and I'm feeling better already."
Tracy Gilpin agrees that WCB is very inclusive of anyone "up for a challenge".
"For some of the girls coming through it has developed their self-confidence a lot. You see them coming out of themselves and realising 'I can do this'. They probably have further to travel in terms of moving to the point of hitting someone in the face. They maybe start off a bit more timid initially. But that changes through the training," she adds.
Shauna Toman certainly sounds like she's ready for her 10 minutes in the limelight.
"I will want to steal the show and do something exciting," she says. "I'll be the one wanting to go for a knock down!"
If John Minnis is to be believed there is "no bigger buzz" than actually taking part in a boxing match in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
"Boxing training is repetitive – sit-ups, hitting a bag, running. It is pretty painful and all you want to do is spar. But on the night it's a different story. You're thinking, my God, here we go," he says.
"In the ring you are the focus of attention and there's no place to hide. But it's brilliant. I couldn't not recommend it.”