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My 68 seconds as a white-collar boxer

My 68 seconds as a white-collar boxer

18 June 2022

9:00 AM

18 June 2022

9:00 AM

  Dubai

 

There was still a minute to go in round one when my opponent Rudy started hugging me. ‘Are you OK? Are you OK? I’m so, so sorry,’ he said, looking distraught. Then the doctor appeared, shoved an oxygen tank over my face and ordered me to lie flat on the canvas.

That was the moment when I realised that my plan to go from 56-year-old fitness nobody to superstar boxer in just three months hadn’t quite worked out. Yes, I had made it into the ring, in front of a raucous 700-strong crowd at the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai. But could I make it out?

I made the decision to subject myself to this torture after two of my young children had moved back to live with me in Dubai, while the third child and my wife stayed on in South America to finish building our house there. I was surrounded by chaos, cupcakes and cappuccinos. Friends were already asking if I’d started planning for my 60th birthday, but all I could think about was my path towards diabetes, obesity and obscurity. I needed to do something drastic.


Boxing? Really? Over the course of my career in journalism I had met Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, George Foreman and Amir Khan. The intensity, the discipline, the brutality, the sacrifices – imagine living their lives for 12 weeks. At my age. It was a ridiculous, outrageous idea. Which is why I was so attracted to it.

White-collar boxing, which started in the 1990s with Wall Street bankers taking on each other in New York gyms, has become a phenomenon around the world’s financial centres, particularly London, Hong Kong and Singapore. You wear headguards, the rounds are shorter than in pro boxing, the gloves are 16oz (more padded), and as part of the course you need to watch Brad Pitt’s 1999 movie classic Fight Club. OK, so I wasn’t going to fight Tyson – but I was still going to get into combat with a total stranger.

In February I signed up for the Spartans Boxing Club’s annual mega white-collar boxing event on 4 June, along with 72 others. Only 22 would make the final cut. And so it began. The first warm-up session was a jog around the local streets, lasting about 12 minutes. I almost collapsed in a heap. As the days and weeks went by, the training schedule would only intensify. By the final weeks, I was training twice a day and running 10k in between. It was brutal. I hired a private coach for extra lessons. ‘Your problem is you are scared. I can see fear in your eyes. So I am going to keep punching you every day until you are not scared,’ he told me. He kept his word.

Early last month, the club’s boss and promoter called everyone in the camp for a team meeting, to announce the fight line-up. I joked to someone that I could beat anyone from the club except a guy called Rudy Bier. Then I heard the dreaded words: ‘Anil vs Rudy.’ Rudy had just run a marathon in the Sahara while carrying a tent on his back. According to his LinkedIn profile, he was ‘a keen sportsman, triathlete with several Ironman finishes, runner, tennis player and avid scuba diver’. Oh God.

But the match was on, and I became a man possessed. I shed eight kilograms in eight weeks. When I wasn’t boxing, it was all I thought about and talked about. The media hype was underway, friends were flying in from abroad for the big fight, and Spartans White Collar 2 was the talk of the town. I started to feel like a rock star. Strangers were asking me for selfies.

There was just one slight problem: I still had to step into the ring. Word from Rudy’s training camp was that he was going to come steaming at me from the first bell: ‘His strategy is to beat the crap out of you.’ I was in too deep. Forty-eight hours before the fight, I asked two of my closest friends, Tabitha and Robyn, to come to my office. ‘You know there is a danger I could get killed, don’t you?’

On the day of the fight, I rocked up to the venue in the late afternoon. The security guard asked me what my guest table number was. ‘I’m one of the fighters,’ I said. He roared with laughter.

My fight wasn’t called till 10.18 p.m., by which time most of the crowd had been schmoozing and boozing for four hours. As I walked down the runway to the ring, through the light show and fog of liquid CO2, I noticed some of my friends cheering. But Rudy’s crowd was bigger and more brash. Some gave me the finger.

I was in the Russian roulette scene from The Deer Hunter, facing a baying mob who had paid good money to see me get battered. I didn’t disappoint them. Nine seconds after the bell, I felt a thundering shot on my left jaw and went crashing down. After a mandatory count of ten, I was back on my feet. This time I lasted 16 more seconds, before another barrage of blows sent me crashing down again. I got up again. Twenty-one seconds later, and a final flurry of blows. Uppercuts, jabs, crosses, body shots – Rudy delivered the lot. I went down again, but still got up. When you are in so much pain, I discovered, you don’t actually feel any pain. Dazed and confused, I had no idea the fight had even been stopped.

Exactly 168 hours of training, for 68 seconds of mayhem. As I walked back to the dressing room, blood was still pouring from my cut lip, and my right cheek started to swell. An hour later, as I packed my bags and headed to the taxi rank, a stranger came up to me. ‘You’re a legend. You nearly got killed in there, but it was worth it.’

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