The Marriott Grosvenor Square ballroom was packed and ready for a fight on Nov. 10. An audience of well-heeled, dapper captains of the London hedge-fund scene was on hand to watch eight boxing matches, and they weren't disappointed with the sweat and blood. In the main event, a crafty, lanky veteran, John E. Oden -- the "Pecos Kid" -- with legendary trainer Emanuel Steward in his corner, faced a younger opponent, Gray Smith. Steward noticed that Smith, an aggressive puncher, overswung with his right, and told Oden to counter. Oden landed a couple of well-placed rights to the face that knocked Smith to the apron both times.
But Oden, who'll only admit to being "on the dark side of 50," isn't quitting his day job. Despite his boxing prowess, in real life he's a principal in money management sales at Bernstein Investment Research & Management in New York. And his foe, Smith, is 38 and a partner at London law firm Maples & Calder. Recalling the sport's aristocratic traditions -- boxing's rules were laid down by British gentry -- Oden and Smith are but two of a booming number of professional men and women practicing the sweet science.
The ranks of white-collar pugs have swelled so much that at the storied Gleason's Gym -- a decidedly blue-collar boxing redoubt in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- they now account for 65% of the membership. That's up from just 10% in the early 1990s. And in London, the Real Fight Club has signed up more than 2,600 City professionals at local gyms in the past four years. At the Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood, 70% of the members are white-collar boxers. "They pay the rent," says Freddie Roach, who runs the club.
In fact, without the influx of hobbyists, many of the old-style boxing gyms would be down for the count. As fans and local bouts have dwindled and boxing has become a tougher way to make a buck, gym memberships have declined as well, so folks such as Oden and Smith are filling the gap. "White-collar boxers have been the salvation of Gleason's Gym," says owner Bruce Silverglade.
STICK AND MOVE
Gold traders and derivatives whizzes take up the sport for varied reasons, but for most the draw lies in the unparalleled physical conditioning routine. Many of Silverglade's clients were referred to Gleason's from health clubs such as Bally's after they began a boxing-inspired cardio workout. The difference: At a boxing gym, a real trainer will not only whip you into shape but show you how to stick and move like a pro.
Boxing gyms generally charge a monthly membership fee that ranges from $40 to $70, depending on the city and the size of the gym. That gets you in the door and gives you access to weights, punching bags, rings, and other training equipment. But the real deal begins with a personal trainer. Most gyms have trainers on staff, some of whom work with world-class fighters. They take on new charges for $25 an hour and up. Steward, who has trained 31 champions including Lennox Lewis and Oscar de la Hoya and runs Kronk Gym in Detroit, doesn't mind working with amateurs like Oden: "The difference between them and the Lewises and the de la Hoyas is they just love the boxing -- it's not because of the money."
White-collar fighters even get the chance to ply their new trade in the ring. Many gyms offer monthly fight nights where similarly skilled novices can spar in a setting not unlike a licensed amateur bout. In London, the fights are often tied in with black-tie charity events, as was the case with Oden's contest, which was a benefit for Operation Smile, a group that repairs childhood facial deformities. There are no winners -- it would be bad for business to score the bouts, says Silverglade.
Training for a fight is a grueling task. To prepare for his London bout, Oden for two months woke every other day at 5 a.m. for a 31/2-mile run. Then, after work, he would head to the New York Athletic Club to lift weights and spar, getting ring time as often as three nights a week as the fight drew near. On Saturday mornings he would get in more sparring practice with his friend, retired heavyweight title contender Gerry Cooney. All the while, he abstained from alcohol.
But novices may need up to a full year of out-of-the-ring training before lacing up the gloves to spar. It can be an unsettling experience. Jason Northrup, a 34-year-old programmer on the trading floor at Nomura Securities International (NMR ) Inc. in New York, wasn't sure how to behave his first time in the ring. "Should I hit him?" he recalls thinking. And Oden, who has competed in more than 20 bouts in the 13 years he has been boxing, admits it's a disconcerting sight to first see another man charging at you with the goal of punching you square in the nose. "It was frightening," he says. "We had to stop because I couldn't get my breath." It took another month before he got back in the ring.
"MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE"
Of course, white-collar boxers have to get used the ineluctable fact that even the best fighters take their share of punches. The boxing gloves soften the blow somewhat, and headgear prevents cuts to the face. But punches still hurt. However, Silverglade says that since 1990, when white-collar boxing started at Gleason's, he hasn't had a serious injury save a couple of broken noses. And at all white-collar bouts, referees are instructed to step in quicker than usual to prevent a superior puncher from getting in too many good licks. "I've gotten hurt worse playing soccer," says Bob Marsiglia, a vice-president at Smith Barney (C ) in Red Bank, N.J., who took up boxing at a local gym several years ago at age 43.
Given the locker-room, alpha-male atmosphere of the trading floor, it's no surprise that finance-industry types are drawn to boxing. "Most of these hedge-fund guys think they're masters of the universe," says John W. Allen, chairman and chief executive of New York-based Greater China Corp., who attended Oden vs. Smith in London. That's not to mention the cachet that boxing gives you at work and with clients.
Still, such a visceral undertaking -- often at a relatively late stage in life -- seems to make the white-collar boxer more contemplative, rather than boorish. "It's getting back to your basic instincts as a human being," says Marsiglia. "It's an opportunity to really explore the other side of yourself."
Middle-aged males aren't the only ones climbing into the ring. Women make up a sizable slice of the new fight crowd. Northrup started boxing with his wife, Angela. ("She wins," he says.) Even senior citizens box. Take Raymond J. Rice, who at 78 is training for a bout at Gleason's in January. Rice showed talent for boxing as a 17-year-old in the Navy in World War II. But he laid off the sport for 50 years, only picking it up as part of a cancer rehab program. "I think I'm going to end it this year," says Rice, who heads an architectural engineering company in Manhasset, N.Y. "Certainly before I'm 80."
Whether drawn to boxing by machismo, a fitness jones, or simple competitive drive, white-collar boxers may help the sport survive. Steward, who has a Kronk Gym outpost in Belfast, Northern Ireland, is considering opening a branch in Los Angeles, since interest is so high, and Oden has helped set up a boxing academy at Intermediate School 174 in the Bronx. "People don't realize what a great form of exercise it is," he enthuses. On that card, at least, it sure outpoints golf.
By Brian Hindo in Brooklyn, N.Y., with Laura Cohn in London