June 2015

The Nation Reviewed

In the black corner

By Alex McClintock
In the black corner
The Corporate Fighter course gets white-collar workers in the boxing ring

An old-timer could be forgiven for not recognising the Corporate Fitness Centre in Sydney’s Surry Hills as a boxing gym. It’s too clean, for one thing, and too well lit.

But the heavy bags are there, a dozen in a neat row, along with a small ring at the back of the room.

Twenty or so men and a handful of women are doing footwork drills in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror. Some wear professional-looking compression garments and boxing boots; none has the grace of a prize-fighter, nor the flattened nose and scarred eyebrows of a real pug.

The coach is familiar, though. Bald, with a layer of white stubble on his chin, Johnny Lewis shuffles around the gym calling out combinations, which are duly executed by his pupils.

The 71-year-old trained Jeff Fenech, Kostya Tszyu and Jeff Harding to world championships. A world champion doesn’t walk through your door every day, though, and, even when he does, manoeuvring him to the top is a risky and demanding business. So Lewis now teaches lawyers and accountants the basics of the sweet science four evenings a week.

“This came at a good time when I was contemplating one way or another to continue or not to continue in boxing,” says Lewis, hardly opening his mouth to speak, a gold chain poking out from under his T-shirt.

“At the moment I’m having a lot of fun and it’s a lot less stressful.”

It’s not all fun and games for the students, who are preparing for real fights. They’ve signed up for the gym’s “Corporate Fighter” program and paid $400 upfront for three months of training with Lewis and his world-title-winning pupil turned co-trainer Gairy St Clair.

At the end of the training period, each student will fight one of their gym colleagues at a gala fight night – provided they each sell 20 tickets at $250 a pop, with some of the money going to charity.

In the gym’s tiny change room, Carlos, a 27-year-old wine salesman, is wearing a singlet with “Cool Story Bro” written across the chest in the Toy Story typeface. Solidly built and gregarious, he seems an unlikely fighter.

“I have my days,” he declares. “Some days I come in and I feel like I’m Mike Tyson – I’m just ready to kill someone. Other days I hop in there and hope I don’t get hit. At first I was all over the place, but the more you do it the more you can get in that zone.”

Like most of the Corporate Fighter crowd, Carlos has lost a lot of weight in the lead up to his fight; he’s also quit drinking and smoking. Still, you can get fit doing touch footy or triathlons: why get hit in the face?

“I wanted to know what I’m made of. I wanted to test myself and know my limits,” explains Carlos.

In an essay about Mike Tyson, Joyce Carol Oates wrote that “boxing celebrates the individual male in his maleness, not merely in his skills as an athlete”.

What athlete, Oates asked, wouldn’t rather be the heavyweight champion of the world? The same seems true of wine salesmen and bankers.

The corporate fighters get to be the champ – or at least a contender – for a night. Though the bouts take place under amateur rules – three rounds, with headgear and large gloves – the organisers make sure participants get the full Las Vegas experience: Sydney’s Hilton ballroom is filled with friends and relatives in black tie and gowns; ring card girls climb through the ropes between rounds; and there are spotlights, interviews and replays on two enormous screens.

The fighters even get to select their own walk-out music, a privilege not normally extended to amateur fighters.

All in all, the set-up is better than anything most Australian professional boxers will ever experience as they ply their trade on the RSL circuit.

On the night of the fight, Carlos has weighed in at 90 kilograms and is listed in the glossy program as “The Matador”. He’ll face Tom, “The Silver Striker”, an executive at a large accounting firm, in the seventh bout of the evening.

Carlos is hesitant about watching the earlier fights, in case they make him too anxious. An engineer punches the contact lens right out of a nurse’s eye and into the crowd; a heavyweight banker outlasts a business consultant. Carlos stays for as long as he can bear, then goes backstage to warm up. Tom is shadow-boxing down the other end of the room. Eventually their call comes.

As Carlos steps through the ropes into the black corner, his friends and family are crowding the ring and cheering merrily. Security guards urge them to return to their seats.

Both men stand in the centre of the ring for the ritual of the referee’s instructions: “I want a good, clean fight. Obey my commands, protect yourself at all times and come out punching at the bell.”

They touch gloves and Carlos heads back to his corner. “Keep your hands up,” says Lewis, by way of instructions. The bell goes.

Tom lands the first punch, a jab. He’s taller, with a bigger reach, and he keeps beating Carlos to the punch.

“Move up on him and throw punches,” says Lewis between rounds. Carlos still can’t find his range in the second. When one of Tom’s jabs snaps his head back towards the ceiling, he shakes his head as if he should have known better.

“With all the lights and everything, I felt like I only woke up halfway through round two,” he tells me later. “I feel like I could have gone ten more rounds.”

Carlos finally connects with a series of combinations in the final minute of the final round. It’s not enough, though, and when the judges’ decision is announced it goes to Tom. The two men embrace. “You did good,” says Lewis.

While the ring announcer interviews Tom, Carlos trudges back to the dressing room.

“You’re still my hero,” shouts a woman in the crowd.

Alex McClintock

Alex McClintock is a Sydney-based freelance writer and a contributor to VICE and the Guardian.

@axmcc

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