The challengers: women breaking through in the boxing industry

When Manya Klempner pitched her upscale, female-friendly boxing club business to investors, they were skeptical. They were not convinced that women wanted to “hit properly”.

These mostly male investors suggested the former banker and founder of The Boxing House club group test the concept with a pop-up venue. But from the start, “I knew I had to create proper clubs in central London, in accessible locations, with excellent facilities,” he says. His clubs were designed for people who were serious about their training and who weren’t served by what Klempner called “glove aerobics”—also known as boxercise—classes.

Klempner wanted to get back in shape after the baby was born and hired a personal trainer with a background in boxing. It turned out to be life changing.

After raising £2 million from friends and family, which was difficult at times, Klempner has since opened three sites – in Camden, Fitzrovia and Bermondsey. With 5,000 members in just three years, the clubs attract all levels of training, from beginners and newcomers who just want to keep fit to the pros, including former WBO super featherweight champion Mikaela Mayer – who recently lost her title. month.

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For Klempner, this concept worked. “There’s a woman who has her own boxing club in Hastings and still comes here to train, and another one who travels an hour and a half from Hertfordshire,” he says. “It shows that people travel for good boxing.” Such is the attraction that several of the club’s regulars have invested in the business, financing the expansion.

Boxing has long been a man’s world, but women’s boxing is expanding rapidly, offering commercial and career opportunities to build upon. With the recently launched women’s coach development program, England Boxing – the country’s boxing body – reported a 62 percent increase in female membership since 2017. Meanwhile, pro fights, such as lightweights Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano at Madison Square Garden, are becoming more and more of a main event these days.

Klempner, 47, who has held leading roles in the fixed-income trading divisions of some of the world’s biggest banks — JPMorgan, Merrill Lynch and Citigroup — is used to having to prove himself. Despite his reticence as an investor, his experience with sexism in his second career is actually rare. For the Moscow-born graduate of Columbia Business School, boxing was an equalizing antidote to trading, where the easy rapport between her male colleagues eluded her.

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“I would be doing international trade deals at three in the morning and I would be the first and last out of the office, but the younger guy who showed up late every day got along better with the boss than I did,” he recalls. “Among the men, camaraderie was great, whereas in boxing age, class and gender all remain on the threshold: everyone is equal on the gym floor; no politics.”

The deal is for busy professionals between the ages of 35 and 45, with “a bit of income,” who expect waterfall showers and organic toiletries to go with their punching bags. They pay a monthly membership fee of £350 or take £22 classes five times a week. Some of this money, along with additional sponsorship from paying members, allows amateur boxing clubs to access the facilities at a discounted rate.

Entrepreneur Susannah Schofield, the UK’s first female licensed boxing promoter, is a testament to the deep pockets of the sport’s recreational side that are yet to reach the “massively underfunded” competitive women’s sector, a disparity she hopes to redress.

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When an app created for soccer fans to share post-match analysis expanded into the world of boxing, it discovered a number of female fighters in need of promotion and better representation. Sensing an opportunity, Schofield launched Unified Promotions, a women’s-focused agency, in 2021 to provide fight and sponsorship opportunities primarily to elite amateurs, who often struggle to find the matches they need to turn professional even after Olympic success.

Nadia Brooks is trained by head coach Steve Broughton at Klempner's Bermondsey club.  The women-friendly club attracts all levels of interest, from beginners to pros

Nadia Brooks is trained by head coach Steve Broughton at Klempner’s Bermondsey club. The female-friendly club attracts people of all levels, from beginners to pros © Daniel Jones

“Lack of exposure” is his simple assessment of why he is and remains a rarity in the industry. “Women’s boxing is huge for fitness, but there’s still a lack of media promotion for women’s boxing and there’s a lot to do in terms of pay equity and more women’s fight cards on TV – so more people like me realize the potential.” he adds.

While Manya Klempner found running her gym less stressful than trading, Schofield admits the professional boxing industry is tough and “not for everyone.” She says she was welcomed and accepted, and her previous experience as commercial director of Royal Mail, which was also very masculine, helped her gain confidence in an environment where she was in the minority.

“There’s no reason why women can’t be successful promoters and break into the men’s side; you just have to focus on what you can offer.”

In Schofield’s case, it’s a mix of the commercial acumen he says has helped him deliver a new £290m a year increase in revenue at Royal Mail, and a willingness to buck the “pink and shrink” mindset. it simply gives women smaller gloves and ignores gender-specific protection and welfare issues important to female boxers. As the profile of women’s boxing grows, it’s an area where she sees more opportunities for women to get involved — for example, researching how the menstrual cycle can affect performance — as well as on the coaching side.

One of her coaches, Michelle Nelson, a former aeronautical engineer drawn to the sport’s mix of “skill, science, psychology and heart” and who trains amateur and professional boxers, says she feels “blessed” to work in an environment where her input is valued . However, she admits she feels pressured to do more than her male counterparts to gain respect and recognition in the role, whether through taking extra courses, volunteering or taking on other responsibilities in the gym.

She adds that mental toughness, resilience and a strong work ethic are key to success in an industry where, she says, “there are still people who don’t believe women belong, especially at the higher levels of the sport. Fortunately, it’s a small minority,” he says. “The general consensus is that things are improving and sport is definitely moving in the right direction in terms of gender equality.”

For Schofield, the biggest battle now is sponsorship from big brands, who she says often have positive rhetoric about women’s sports, but can lack funding. This is why Unified Promotions is still not getting a return on the “big chunk” he personally invested. But change is underway; last month the BBC unveiled its first professional women’s boxing event, Women of Steel, which takes place in Sheffield under the banner of Unified Promotions, featuring Schofield clients.

Speaking ahead of the event, Schofield said: “I hope it really shows what can be achieved if you persevere and push hard enough. I love what I do – to help a fighter get a sponsor and get into the gym and do what they love, there’s nothing more heartwarming than seeing that.”