The first rule of White Collar Boxing is: You probably went to Penn.
London, 2004. A crowd of 600 surrounds the ring for the black-tie fundraiser, an upscale Stag at Sharkey's, where John Oden, principal at money management firm AllianceBernstein, sits in his corner sizing up his opponent, a whippersnapper 20 years his younger. He's bigger and stronger than Oden, though, plus he's a managing partner at a major law firm. It's Banker versus Lawyer, Risk versus Risk Averse, a tale as timeless as David versus Goliath. The bell rings. The fighters dance toward each other, bobbing and rope-a-doping. The audience jeers.
It's Hedge Fund Fight Night. Let's get reeeaaady to rrrumble!
Oden fights for White Collar Boxing (WCB), a sport that until last week had been banned in New York for years. WCB is a league somewhere below professional and amateur boxing, a subset of fighting where M&A execs can duke it out with consultants, a pissing contest for Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley employees who are brimming with testosterone but tired of measuring each other's bonuses—tired of the classic one-upmanship that characterizes financiers dropping G's on models and bottles. It's Fight Club meets Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. It's Rocky V meets Boiler Room. It's Murray Hill meets ... Murray Hill. Bouts last three rounds and are non-decision. According to Oden, who sparred with Hilary Swank for Million Dollar Baby and is the author of One Man's Journey from the Office to the Ring, knock-outs are not uncommon. And he's not just talking about the blondes with Eastern European accents in the front row.
Years back, unfortunately, these white collar professionals ran the league like their financial markets: with little oversight. "WCB was banned because no one would take responsibility to regulate it," Oden explains. "Professional boxing is regulated by the state, amateur boxing by USA Boxing, and neither one of those had room to regulate the cagey animal that is WCB."
Now, with so much anger boiling up over unemployment, the recession, AIG, Fannie & Freddie, WCB's reinstatement this September may offer the perfect opportunity for Main Street to get back at Wall Street. Sick of your Fidelity advisor spoiling your 401(k) while he tans at posh company junkets? Tired of shelling out oppressive taxes as you hear rumors of million-dollar bonuses? Your solution is WCB, where you can legally beat the snot out of hedge fund mangers, guilt free.
Or, you know, it's a legitimate sport for white collar professionals looking to relieve some stress.
"Corporate and Wall Street positions have a lot of frustration. This is a good way to take out frustration," says Oden. "There's an added element: the fear factor. That dimension that you might get hurt if you take shortcuts. The same thing carries over in business. I use fear as a motivator in business. I don't want to embarrass myself in board meetings. I want to make sure I'm prepared for the tough questions. The same principles apply."
As for Hedge Fund Fight Night, Oden says he didn't back down, even when facing a younger and more agile managing partner.
"When I go into the ring, I take control," he explains. "I hit this guy twice really hard, backed him up, sobered him up. He didn't touch me for the rest of the fight."
This was a time before bail-outs.