From Russia with Gloves

On a windy May evening, seven perfectly respectable, well-paid professionals —including two women—trudged up three flights of dusty concrete stairs in an abandoned Moscow factory and strapped on boxing gloves. For the next hour and 15 minutes they twisted and ducked, jabbed and cut, and sweated through their T-shirts as their hair turned to wet spaghetti. “I’ll quit drinking, I’ll quit smoking! I promise,” one moaned, slinking, paunch first, out of the room and past the boxing club’s owner, his wife.

“Get back in,” she snarled. “Stop whining.”

Her husband obliged, and Elena Molova went back to monitoring the class from the studio’s doorway. It was the second day of operations at her October Boxing Club, a high-end boxing studio located on a thin island in the middle of the Moscow River and named for the now defunct, Soviet-era Red October Chocolate Factory next door. Tan, thin, and leathery—with a bob of peroxide blonde hair and vertiginous platform shoes—Molova is around 50 years old and has no prior boxing experience. (Her previous career? “Let’s just say…construction,” she demurred.)

About a year ago, in the throes of a financial meltdown that hit Russia especially hard—and hit its construction industry even harder—Molova sensed a trend wafting from the West. It started about a decade ago when Gleason’s, the hallowed Brooklyn training ground for boxers, started admitting the occasional neophyte. The trend moved across the East River to Wall Street, where overpaid and overfed bankers, traders, and analysts began gathering in places such as the financial district’s Trinity Boxing Club to release their competitiveness and, in some cases, vanquish their inner nerd. These soft-pawed bankers trained and competed in charity smackdowns that, during the good times, brought in as much as $100,000 a night. The trend quickly leapfrogged the Atlantic. From London, a city crawling with Russian expatriates, the hop to Moscow—where the sport remains popular from its 1930s proletarian heyday—was inevitable.

In a strange riposte to boxing’s hardscrabble roots here, four gentrified clubs have opened in Moscow in the last eight months. All claim they are open to everyone, but they’re actually targeting one particular demographic: men under 50 from the higher rungs of corporate management. “Our clients have achieved a certain stature in life—they know what they want,” says Evgeny Tresko, a former boxer and the owner and manager of the Put’ Boksera (Way of the Boxer) Club. “These are not people with too much time on their hands who just want a dumb fight. Of course, a couple of those types have shown up here. But they were intimidated by the prices and left.”

As aspiring oligarchs seek out ways of differentiating themselves from other bourgeoise strivers, belonging to an exclusive club where only the wealthy can afford to pummel each other makes sense. “This is the most expensive equipment that exists in 2010,” boasts one thirtysomething fighter at October, invoking the standard Russian metric for quality. The club is stocked with Johnson weights and Title gloves and punching bags. Says the fighter: “It’s what Mike Tyson uses.”

When it comes to price, this is not your mother’s Russia—and that’s the point. Way of the Boxer’s one-on-one sessions can top $100 per class. And with membership at $2,000 per year, October’s denizens are not your average street brawlers, either. Tatyana Arno, a TV personality, is a regular; so is Andrey Boltenko, the artistic director of Channel One, the main state-owned TV network. Filipp Yalovega, a Moscow hedge fund tycoon, usually rolls up on his Augusta motorcycle.

October is a favorite of Deutsche Bank (DB) employees as well as their counterparts at Merrill Lynch (MER) who work across the water. “The English and American guys just spar politely and break it up,” says Eugenia Kuyda, Molova’s daughter and a fighter herself. “The Russians—once you get gloves on them, you can’t tear them apart. They are vicious.”

That may be good news. Moscow’s boxing club owners will tell you that the point of boxing is unprecedented fitness, but the real inspiration is reviving a masculine ideal that some feel is lacking in modern, corporate Russia. The empowerment of these wimpy, corporate technocrats is a challenge, and boxing appears to be a distinctly Russian solution. “It gives a man what he needs to be a man: to stand up for himself,” says Tresko, hitting a common refrain. Behind the spread collars, lavish lunches, and hired women—so the theory goes—are fragile eggheads who studied hard, played chess, and paid for it in schoolyard gut punches. “What happens when a boy is attacked?” asks Kabi Korreia, a trainer at October club and a native of Guinea-Bissau who grew up in Russia. “He needs to fight back. It’s wired into his nature.”

In its first month in business, October Boxing Club has garnered about 50 regular clients. Molova is looking to eventually quadruple the number, launch a second gym, and, with the help of Moscow’s government, open a children’s boxing clinic in the fall.

“What’s most important about boxing is it allows a man to not feel like a girl in a step aerobics class,” Molova says amid the din of Russian gangster rap. “Boxing allows them to engage their masculine emotions. It’s a way to prove himself, and it’s nice to see men being men.”

To that end, once they enter the gym, the nouveau riche suits are reduced to average citizens. “These are slightly spoiled people,” Korreia says. “But here, when you walk in with your white collar, your status means nothing.” This is not the first place Korreia has worked with doughy elites. Once, he personally trained a banker pushing 50. In two months, the client dropped 26 pounds and quit smoking. “I trained him like an animal,” he says proudly.

As if on cue, three men walked in, one fat, one in a trench coat, one nondescript, all of them slightly menacing looking. They glanced around and watched the sparring a bit. Molova marched over to Yuri Koptsev, a bistro owner and former boxer who helps run the gym. “Who are these men?” she demanded. “Are they yours?” They were. Mr. Trench Coat, it turned out, was the deputy media director in the office of the all-powerful Moscow mayor. He was interested in taking classes.

With the more democratic fitness chains in Moscow offering more affordable boxing sessions, office drones all over the city just might start following the suits into the ring. By that point, though, the elites will have moved on to something different and more expensive. In modern, white-collar Russia, catharsis is important, but status is everything.

From Russia with Gloves [BBW]

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