The Rumble In The Concrete Jungle
A Black Tie Boxing Bloodbath
White Collar Boxing originated in the legendary, New York-based Gleason’s gym in 1988. It is a form of boxing where both men and women, in white collar professions, train to fight in special events, with most having no previous experience in boxing. But how did this American, corporate tradition wing its way over to China? Well, the answer to that question is, thanks to a fortuitous Englishman finding himself in Shanghai…
In 2008, Shane Benis was living in Shanghai and was asked by a Singaporean company to help them find coaches and boxers for a planned white collar charity boxing event in China. After running training events for a few months in Shanghai, the Singaporean company unceremoniously backed out three weeks before fight night, leaving the would-be boxers in the position of either chalking up the last few months of training as a waste of time, or going ahead with the event themselves.
After a crisis meeting at Di Shui Dong, the team was able to rustle up a range of sponsors through their collective professional connections, and White Collar Boxing China was formed. The first Brawl on the Bund was a black tie event, attended by 300 guests, featuring seven boxing bouts of regular people from across the city who had trained for three months to be amateur boxers. It raised RMB 60,000 for local charities, Half The Sky, which helps orphaned children in China, and XinXing, which aids Chinese children in crisis.
Thanks to that winning formula, Benis has gone on to become the Founder and CEO of China Sports Promotions, an events company dedicated to developing the sport of boxing in China, which has already raised over RMB 2.5 million in donations for charity organisations in China. The company behind the white collar boxing events now holds fight nights in Shanghai, Beijing, Taipei and Macao. Benis also has plans to expand his white collar boxing event format in Seoul and Saigon later this year. To date, China Sports Promotions have trained over 5,000 people in their training camps.
With sights set on all corners of the burgeoning boxing industry in China, Benis launched the Shanghaifamous Golden Gloves Gym in 2011, which now both amateur and professional boxers across the city call home. The gym also provides the backdrop for, and plays a vital role in, training all potential white collar boxing participants in the run up to the bouts. The gym prides itself on offering a welcoming, respectable space focusing on fitness and confidence for all, rather than a testosterone fuelled ring reinforcing the negative elements of boxing.
For the white collar boxing events outside Shanghai, Benis and the team partner with local gyms that uphold these principles, thus creating an atmosphere of trust between coach and boxer, as well as safety in the lead up to, and during, the fights. Only one gym per city is selected, and the coaches have no vested interest in who eventually gets selected for the fights, leaving the selection process fair and transparent throughout.
After training candidates intensively for three months, coaches pick participants based on who has progressed the most, their boxing ability and their weight, before pairing fighters off within a two-kilo weight tolerance of each other. Safety in the ring is paramount, which China Sports Promotions believe sets them apart from competitors that have popped up in Asia.
The popularity of boxing in China is a relatively new phenomenon, and professional boxing was banned in China until three years ago, with only amateur fights playing out in the ring. Amateur boxing had taken off a decade previously, when the country invited over Cuban and Russian coaches to train boxers in Chinese sports colleges, which is why we now see Chinese boxers infiltrating the Olympics and international meets.
A turning point for professional boxing in China was when Zhou Shiming, an extremely successful Chinese boxer, who most recently took home a gold medal at the 2012 Olympic Games, decided to turn into a professional boxer in 2013. As a result of his success and popularity, money was invested into supporting the sport and promoting fights. Since this legitimisation, the sport is now broadcast nationally and Xi Jinping is even known to be a fan.
Moving away from the professional sport, Benis believes that by focusing on developing a grass roots boxing following, the stage is now set for more Chinese amateur and professional boxers to come through the ranks. By creating a buzz for the sport through the numerous fight nights around the country and getting normal men and women training in boxing, understanding the beauty of the sport and its benefits, and spreading their love of the game amongst their social circles, Benis is hoping that more Chinese legends will take up the boxing mantle. “Once it happens, people will become more interested in boxing events. Therefore, the best way to promote boxing in China is by having key Chinese athletes representing China on a world stage”, he said.
As the popularity of boxing grows around the country, thanks in part to Benis’ personal passion project, he is once more staying ahead of the curve, and pioneering a new television concept. Last year, he launched a reality TV show called ‘White Collar Boxing’ on sohu.com. It followed six international and local, would-be white collar boxers on their journey to fighting at Brawl on the Bund. With just over 8 million views, it caught the attention of a large Chinese television company, and is set to launch season two in August, with the production tipped to have a celebrity cast members this year.
For Benis, he seems to measure his accomplishments and the success of China Sports Promotions in terms of his ability to contribute, support and champion his chosen charities. Although the white collar boxing events are run as a business, large auctions and raffles are put on at every event, in which 100 per cent of the revenue is donated to charity. Since 2010, the Shanghai event has supported Leo’s Foundation, a charity that pays for the cost of treating the premature babies of migrant workers with respiratory issues. When China Sports Promotions first became involved, the charity had helped to save the lives of eight children, now they have broken a hundred and gained valuable exposure. “It was super emotional a few years ago when I met a bunch of kids, along with their families, whose lives had been saved from the money that we donated to the charity. It was special”, said Benis, humbly.
Brawl on the Bund is back for another round this month, and this year it is taking guests to the rainforest. The Rumble In The Jungle fight night will rock Hyatt on the Bund on 3 June for a onetime only event that's the first of its kind in the world. More than 1,000 people will watch Shanghai's finest duke it out for victory. 'White Collar' boxers have been plucked from offices across the city and put in intensive training for three months, and will be ready to show off their newly mastered hooks, jabs and – importantly – ability to take a punch.