It started with a question. Why do people want to hit other people? And even more interestingly – why do they want to get hit themselves?
I’d first become aware of the world of white collar fighting in 2017. It’s a world where nice guys with safe jobs in things like finance, pharmacy and teaching think they’ve also got the right instincts to get in the ring and fight, even though they’ve never boxed before.
So I dived in with the White Collar Fighters of Manchester, and spent two months following their every training session as well as seeing the ordinary lives from which they’d come.
White Collar Fighter: I didn’t want to be a fat, boring Dad
They sign up as a large group to be trained in the rudiments of ring boxing. Halfway through they’re split up, and they find out which of them will be fighting each other (which, believe me, is one intense night during this whole experience). On fight night they walk out in the midst of flames, music and lights and into a ring where they’ve got to prove themselves.
It isn’t just guys: plenty of girls do this too.
When I first walked in on night one... well, I’ll let one of the coaches, Steve Feeney, explain what it looks like:
“It’s a real alpha male territory," she says. "You walk in, you’ve got the cage, the ring, all the bags, all the lads training and that – it’s a real testosterone fuelled place. They walk in and it’s like… woooah… most of these [guys] have never been in a place like this.”
I pressed him on why anyone wants to do this.
“I consider myself to be a real peaceful gentle guy. And years ago, it was hard to get my head around – why is there a need to express myself in a violent manner when I’m not a violent person?”
“I’ve done a bit of reading on it. It sounds a bit corny but there is a warrior urge in people and there’s nowhere to express it these days, not safely. Doing something like this, is really higher level. You get to express that sort of hidden need.”
College teacher, Andrew Findlay (dressed in blue), climbs into the ring for the first time aged 35.
But it wasn’t just the actual boxing - the fighting - that I was interested in. I wanted to know what they were trying to replace in their daily lives to make them do something as intense and, frankly, heavy as this.
The answer I found wasn’t the one I was expecting. I met a teacher called Andrew. A genial chap, who wouldn’t say “Boo” to a ghost. His reasons for learning to fight, he said, were simple.
Andy working hard in his teaching job, and training hard for white collar fighting.
“I just got a new baby daughter, just bought a house and all that stuff – I’m 35 and you know when you think ‘I’ve put a bit of weight on’? I just thought this is me accepting my late 30s...”
“I’m a boring middle class male getting fatter, settling for boring trainers and fleeces and chinos and all the things that terrify me.”
As it turned out, that was only part of the story.
Joanne, Andy's partner, showing him what for.
As I followed Andy on his gruelling journey of learning to fight, I met his partner Joanne.
She told me Andy had recently lost his father to cancer – as had she. Andy was raising money for the Christie Hospital and Joanne thought Andy wanted to do something that would make his Dad proud. But it was about even more than that, said Joanne. It was about proving who he really was.
She was frightened for him. During his fight, there were moments where she wouldn’t look at the ring. And, indeed, Andy lost his bout. In the end Joanne said she was proud of his achievement, but was hopeful he wouldn’t want to do it again.
But it spoke to a truth I’d seen in the other would-be fighters I met.
They all had their reasons to be there. They just weren’t the ones they told you about.
Nonetheless, you could see it in their faces.
White Collar Fighting is a subculture that gives a very specific outlet to a very specific need.
The thumbs up from Andy after competing in his first fight.
With the popularity of Conor McGregor’s colourful – and some would say inspiring - entry into boxing, not to mention Rio Ferdinand’s announcement that he too is going to give it a go, I’d expect to see White Collar Fighting getting even bigger in the UK than it already is.
To me, it seemed to me a controlled way to vent the challenges of modern life – as well as personal demons – in a way that society still finds a little taboo.
And for that, it was a thrilling two months.