Perched behind the reception desk of Bermondsey Boxing Club, clad in a yellow hoodie with the thwacking sound of sparring behind her, Manya Klempner couldn't be further away from the top rungs of the big corporate banks on her CV.
But it's a place where she feels right at home, having developed a passion for boxing in 2013 after enlisting a personal trainer with a background in the sport to help her get fit after the birth of her son. That passion soon turned her corporate career on its head, as she quit her job to start The Boxing House, opening her first boxing gym just before the pandemic with two more to follow within four years – building a loyal and growing membership of more than 6,500 despite skeptical investors.
While there are some tailwinds at her back, including an increased interest in the sport and a return to in-person gyms, there's something else bolstering the success of Manya's gyms: 40% of her members are women, a huge portion compared with the rest of the boxing market (around 10% of England Boxing members, a governing body for amateur boxing clubs, are women). While Manya didn't set out to attract a female clientele, her success is built on a premium offering that didn't pander to women – indicating a shift in the sport and fitness worlds to treating women as equal competitors, rather than stuck in second place.
The road to the ring
When Manya was ready to move on from sparring with her trainer in the park, she felt there wasn't a clear next step. She moved beyond a standard gym's boxercise classes but found amateur boxing club venues and locations lacking.
‘These clubs were originally set up to keep boys and men off the street,’ Manya says. ‘They now take girls and women but, by virtue of how they were set up, they tend to not be in amazing locations and to not have great facilities.’
‘They're doing a fantastic job for social impact and developing great boxers. But I wanted to be able to use my credit card and take a shower in a nice bathroom.’
Manya decided to build it herself. She was convinced there'd be other corporate women – and professionals as a whole – who would love boxing, if it could be repackaged. So confident was Manya in the concept that she leapfrogged traditional market research, relying instead on her experience in the corporate world, as well as the mindsets and personas of the professionals within it.
Despite her conviction, it took Manya four years to go from idea and inspiration to reality. Along the way, property deals fell through and investors turned the other way, skeptical of the potential for innovation in a centuries-old sport with deeply seeded working-class origins. Eventually, she found a group of angel investors who believed in her vision.
A premium product
Manya honed in on locations that would capture corporate commuters and created a minimal look to set the brand apart from sweaty old-school gyms. The Bermondsey gym, for example, has polished wooden floors, its boxing ring positioned under a line of spotlights and inspiring slogans discreetly painted on ceiling beams. The sauna and bathrooms wouldn't look out of place in a spa, complete with fluffy towels, luxury cosmetics and hair dryers. The timetables feature mixed group classes, personal training, sparring, kids classes and even a training camp and tournament aimed specifically at professionals.
Manya is clear that she isn't a fan of women-only spaces which, in her view, can feel patronizing. She competed with and alongside the men in her corporate banking career, so she's applied that philosophy to The Boxing House clubs. Women are matched with men in sparring sessions, for example, as long as they're in the same weight category. Meanwhile, the all-women's classes, which the clubs once ran regularly, are down to just once a week due to lack of attendance, highlighting how the women who come to Manya's clubs don't want to be hidden away.
In addition, she's hired women in highly visible positions. Mid-interview, from her perch behind the reception desk, Manya waved over Jay Jay, a casual boxer for more than 20 years, who became a regular at one of the locations before Manya convinced her to leave her hospitality job to manage the club.
Jay Jay, who still trains daily, took to the position with pride: ‘Women see me training and they say they want to be like me, so I say: “Come! Get in and do it!”’
‘It has to develop naturally, through leading by example,’ Manya says. ‘It's less about pushing “women, women, women”, and more about making women feel comfortable.’
The bigger boxing picture
Manya has also touched on a bigger trend, as the world of boxing – and women's sports – is changing rapidly. For example, England Boxing's female membership numbers have risen by 80% since 2016, while the number of women regularly involved in the sport, including boxing-related fitness classes, rose 18% between 2015 and 2019, up to 420,400.
While still a small ring compared to other fitness offerings, it's notable growth for a sport that excluded women until 1996, with female competition being featured at the Olympics only from 2012. Just this year, several high-profile fights have put women's boxing firmly in the sports spotlight.
Boxing, Manya believes, will be the next ‘lifestyle sport’, similar to how golf and tennis are built around club culture. ‘We have members [who] have become fast friends [who] met at one of our clubs, [who'd] have never crossed paths in their usual lives. That's testament to the friendly, welcoming environment that we've created,’ she says.
‘Being part of something else, and not just doing exercise for the sake of it, is inspiring.’