When Manya Klempner pitched her upmarket, female-friendly boxing club business to investors they were sceptical. They were not convinced that women wanted to “properly punch”.
These mostly male investors suggested to the former banker and founder of The Boxing House group of clubs that she should test the concept with a pop-up venue. But from the start, “I knew I had to have proper clubs in accessible central London locations with top facilities,” she says. Her clubs were conceived for people taking their training seriously, who were not being served by classes Klempner describes as “aerobics with gloves on” — also known as boxercise.
Wanting to get back into shape after having a baby, Klempner was introduced to the sport after hiring a personal trainer who had a boxing coach background. It turned out to be life changing.
Having raised £2mn from friends and family, which she admits at times was difficult, Klempner has since opened three venues — in Camden, Fitzrovia and Bermondsey. Growing to 5,000 members in just three years, the clubs attract people training at all levels, from beginners and novices who just want to keep fit through to professionals, including Mikaela Mayer, a former WBO super-featherweight world champion — she lost the title last month.
For Klempner the concept is proven. “There’s one woman who owns her own boxing club in Hastings and still comes here to train, and another making the hour and a half journey from Hertfordshire,” she says. “It shows people will travel for good boxing.” Such is the appeal that a number of the club’s regulars have also invested in the business, funding its expansion.
Boxing has long been a man’s world but women’s boxing is rapidly expanding, providing commercial and career opportunities to build on. With a recently launched female coach development programme, England Boxing — the country’s boxing governing body — reported a 62 per cent rise in female members since 2017. Meanwhile, professional fights, such as that between lightweights Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano at Madison Square Garden, are now becoming headline events.
Having held senior roles in the male-dominated fixed-income trading divisions at some of the world’s largest banks — JPMorgan, Merrill Lynch and Citigroup — Klempner, 47, is used to having to prove herself. Despite investor reticence, her experience of sexism in her second career has in fact been rare. For the Moscow-born Columbia Business School graduate, boxing has been a levelling antidote to the trading floor, where the easy rapport between her male colleagues had eluded her.
“I’d be doing international trade deals at three in the morning and be first in and last out the office, but the junior guy that turned up late everyday would just get on better with the boss than me,” she recalls. “There was a lot of cronyism among the men, whereas with boxing, age, class and gender are all left at the door: everyone is equal on the gym floor; there’s no politics.”
Busy professionals aged about 35 to 45 with “a bit of disposable income”, who expect waterfall showers and organic toiletries alongside the punchbags, are the mainstay of the operation. They pay a £350 monthly membership fee or take £22 classes up to five times a week. Some of this money, along with additional sponsorship from paying members allows amateur boxing clubs access to the facilities at a subsidised rate.
For entrepreneur Susannah Schofield, the UK’s first female licensed boxing promoter, this is evidence of the deep pockets of the recreational side of the sport that is yet to reach the “massively underfunded” competitive women’s sector, a disparity she is hoping to remedy.
When an app she created for football fans to share post-match analysis expanded into the world of boxing, she discovered a number of female fighters in need of promotion and better representation. Sensing an opportunity, in 2021 Schofield launched Unified Promotions, a female-focused agency, to help land fight and sponsorship opportunities primarily for elite amateurs who often, even after Olympic success, still struggle to find the bouts needed to turn professional.
“Lack of exposure” is her simple assessment of why she is and remains a rarity in the industry. “Female boxing for fitness is huge but there’s still a lack of media promotion of female boxing bouts and a lot to do in terms of pay parity and getting more female fight cards on TV — so more people like me become aware of the opportunities,” she adds.
While Manya Klempner has found running her boxing gym less oppressive than working on a trading floor, Schofield concedes that the professional boxing industry is tough and “not for everyone”. She says she has been welcomed and accepted, and that her previous experience as commercial director at Royal Mail, which was also very male heavy, helped instil confidence in an environment where she was in a minority.
“There’s absolutely no reason why women can’t be successful promoters and break into the male side as well; you just need to be very focused about what you can offer.”
In Schofield’s case this is a mix of the commercial acumen that she says helped her drive a £290mn-a-year increase in new revenue at Royal Mail, plus a willingness to tackle the “pink it and shrink it” school of thought — which simply gives women smaller gloves to wear and neglects gender-specific safeguarding and wellbeing issues relevant to female boxers. As the profile of female boxing rises, this is the area where she sees more opportunity for women to get involved — researching how menstruation cycles can affect performance, for example — as well as on the coaching side.
One of her coaches, Michelle Nelson — a former aviation engineer drawn to the sport’s mix of “skill, science, psychology and heart” who trains amateur and professional boxers — says she feels “blessed” to be working in an environment where her contribution is valued. However, she admits to feeling pressure to do more than her male counterparts to gain respect and be acknowledged in the role, whether through completing additional courses, volunteering, or taking on other responsibilities in the boxing gym.
She adds that mental toughness, resilience and a strong work ethic are critical for success in the industry, where, she says “there are still those who do not believe that women belong, especially at higher levels of the sport. Fortunately, this is a small minority,” she says. “The general consensus is that things are improving, and the sport is definitely moving in the right direction with regards to gender equity.”
For Schofield, her greatest battle now is securing sponsorship from the big brands, who she says often engage in positive rhetoric around the female sport but can fall short with the funding. It is why Unified Promotions is yet to show a return on the “large chunk” she has personally invested. But change is under way; last month, the BBC showed its first-ever professional women’s boxing — Women of Steel — taking place in Sheffield under the banner of Unified Promotions, featuring Schofield’s clients.
Speaking before the event, Schofield says: “I am hoping this will really start to show what can be achieved if you are dogged and push hard enough. I love what I do — helping a fighter get a sponsor and into the gym doing what they love, there is nothing more heart-warming than seeing that.”