White Collar Boxing at the York Hall
Last week, I took a ringside seat beneath the vast barrelled roof at the York Hall in Bethnal Green to attend a night of White Collar Boxing – the sport which gives City workers with no pugilistic experience the chance to slug it out in the ring and channel their excess pugnacity into three short volatile rounds, cheered on by an audience of their contemporaries. And Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Jeremy Freedman was there to capture the event, as this latest phenomenon took over the spiritual home of British boxing for a night.
My heart leapt at the first round as the two opponents set upon each other in their curious Mickey Mouse primary-coloured outfits of big gloves and baggy shorts, imparting a bizarre histrionic cartoon quality to the violence. It was apparent at once that this event which is in theory about power is actually about vulnerability. Without experience – or the peak of fitness, or practised technique – what is revealed is raw will and human spirit. And over a thousand passionate boxing fans, including a high contingent from the City, were there to savour the visceral appeal of this emotive contest.
Each boxer emerged from the dressing room to parade in ostentatious confidence through the crowd to a booming soundtrack that promised glory, cheered on by their co-workers and loved ones – having their laces checked, being fed liquid from a bottle, and cossetted like babies, with pats and strokes and cuddles of encouragement – as they approached the moment of exposure.
When the rounds are only two minutes there is little room for mistakes, yet mistakes abound, and in each case I found that what I – and the crowd – were searching for was the signal expression of dominant willpower which would decide the bout. Though even as winners became apparent, it was often those who held up in defeat that won the emotional victory, for the sake of their courage in exposing personal vulnerability. And many opponents embraced passionately at the end, drawn together by the strength of emotion they had shared, dripping with perspiration and drained of energy, yet exhilarated to have tasted an overpowering experience that they could not get at the office.
This is high theatre, enacted beneath a golden glow of light within the cathedral gloom of the great hall, marshaled by a compere in a dinner jacket, and with busty wenches, in high heels and hot pants, parading the ring carrying placards between rounds – as if to offer an equal counterpoint to the extreme notion of masculinity as pure violence enacted there.
These contenders are brokers and bankers, businessmen and women, who have a fighter inside and they want to let it out loose in the pursuit of primal gratification – you might say that White Collar Boxing is the overflowing of the fierce aggressive emotional life of the City made manifest in physical terms.
Broad St Boxing Club, where they train in their lunch breaks, is an old-school East End boxing club run by Johnny Gleed who has been coaching boys there for forty-three years since he gave up his own distinguished career that once saw him boxing here at the York Hall and at the Albert Hall. Johnny was enraptured to be back at the York Hall and enjoying the infectious enthusiasm of the night. “We run the gym to keep the kids off the streets,” he told me, “but an event like is a tremendous injection of energy for us.”
“I was a boxer who retired,” he explained, “and I went along to a show to help put the gloves on the boys and one asked if I could train him. Then you get into the habit and you don’t want to let the boys down. Everyone that helps out at the gym is an ex-boxer. We’ve won everything going.”
As the evening passed, the bouts intensified in pitch, the crowd had more beers, and a roar grew. A succession of young striplings and old bruisers took the ring, taunting, grappling and pummelling relentlessly, retreating to their corners to be re-hydrated and have their bloody noses wiped before seeking more pain. This was York Hall, the centre of the boxing world and the place was alive with collective hysteria.
Johnny Gleed, ex-boxer, and trainer at Broad St Boxing Club for forty-three years.
Chrissy Morton of Bad Boy Promotions, who staged the event to support Broad St Boxing Club.
Aaron O’Neill after his first fight, a draw. Aaron had just been training since a couple of months before Christmas. “I’m going to win aren’t I?” he told me earlier, “I’m doing it to get a buzz.”
Monica Harris, Keeley Lane and Kirsty Jones.
Louise Berridge & Annika Sintim, the only women contenders, before their first fight….
…and after, Louise won – yet still friends.
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman