Keith Newman explores the irony of a violent charity event for victims of violence.

More than a few eyebrows are raised over a black tie fundraiser for the Napier Women’s Refuge, where local businesses have paid up to $5,000 a table to watch their peers pummelling each other.

In between the cocktails, canapés and a three course meal, punters will see18 local businesspeople, including two women, pair off for nine boxing matches at Pettigrew Green Arena on January 28.

The corporate punch ups – three, two minute rounds each – will be mixed up with full-on bouts between top local, US and Thai martial artists as part of ‘Merciless’, billed as Hawke’s Bay’s first ever cage fight event.

Organiser Jerry Sargeant of Fierce Fitness, says the grand finale, an intensely contested New Zealand middleweight MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) championship fight, will see some serious “kicking, punching and breaking bones…”

Sargeant, who trained the corporate contenders, came up with the idea of cage fights in the MMA hexagon well before deciding on Napier Women’s Refuge as the charity.

His concern is not only for women at risk, but children who face “extreme violence and disappointing behaviour” at home. He’s convinced boxing and martial arts are a healthy means for kids to regain self control and respect “by channelling all their energy and aggression in a controlled environment”.

Perspective needed

When Napier Women’s Refuge manager Brenda Campbell was approached about the fundraiser, she first sought reassurance from the local Police family violence co-ordinator that it was appropriate.

While the hard out publicity posters raised concern, she wanted to keep things in context. “If people think boxing is violent then they need to take another look at what happens on the rugby field. Where do you draw the line?”

Jerry Sargeant (Photo courtesy of Tim Whittaker)

The Napier Refuge already encourages parents to involve kids who are being bullied or becoming bullies at school to engage in sport, including martial arts, as an outlet for anger and self-expression issues.

Another motivation for Jerry Sargeant in recruiting locals for the event was to challenge Hawke’s Bay businesspeople to have a healthier lifestyle.

Many of the corporate sparring partners had never been to a gym, but after rigorous training, healthy eating and nutrition they’re now “fitter, healthier and happier”, with some shedding up to 30kg in six weeks.

While they’ll only spend six minutes each in the ring, a gradual work up was required to prepare them for the event. “Boxing requires more mental and physical effort than any other sport; it’s demanding,” says Sargeant.

Squaring off in the cage will be a number of local personalities; a baker, printer, financier, mortgage broker, car dealers, a policewoman, a bar manager, supermarket manager and representatives from the real estate, transport, construction and steel industries.

Thousand times fitter

John Brady, sales manager at Mercedes Hawke’s Bay took up the challenge to celebrate the fact he’d turned 50 back in August. “I was in an inactive job and it seemed like an opportunity to have one final blow out.”

He was overweight and unfit. “After five months of serious training and dieting I’ve dropped 9kg and I’m a thousand times fitter,” says Brady.

“A lot of us had a chuckle when we learned it was full on fighting for a women’s refuge. In some ways it’s a contradiction in terms, but it’s also been a big talking point. Everyone in the business community knows about it,” he says.

It’s been life changing to even get to the ring. “We’re at the gym up to five times a week, and it looks like it’s going to become a Friday night fight club for the boys with a lot of others now keen to join us.”

Sargeant named the event ‘Merciless’ because that’s part of his philosophy at Fierce Fitness. “As a strength and conditioning coach, everything I do is merciless. If you want to be a mixed martial artist, a boxer or any kind of athlete you have to put everything into it. My motto in the gym is ‘sacrifice plus pain equals glory’.”

The sacrifice could be going to bed earlier, avoiding the pub and spending time away from family to face some serious pain in “brutal, merciless training sessions” pushing through physical and mental boundaries.

And the glory? Well, says Sargeant, if you’re a middle-aged grumpy businessman, working 18 hours a day and drinking a lot, it could be winning a world title, fitting into a new pair of jeans, bringing down your blood pressure or improving your relationship.

Macho man resurfaces

Brenda Campbell of Napier Women’s Refuge wouldn’t argue with that. The main trigger point that tips many over into family violence is a complex mix often fuelled by alcohol. “A lot of guys haven’t grown up in good homes, so it’s inter-generational violence.”

If someone’s not feeling good about themselves, can’t get a job or communicate that well, or their employer is in their ear all the time, they often take it out on the family when they get home.

Preparing for the fight at Fierce Fitness gym.

Underlying the problem she suggests, is often the weary old Kiwi macho stereotype of what it is to be a man, compounded by jealousies, drugs, gambling, anger and emotional issues.

Sometimes, she says, it’s the women who abuse their children. “When they’re being abused by a male partner and are in a state of helplessness, they often turn on their kids where they feel they still have some sense of control.”

The Napier Women’s Refuge has a four bedroom safe house, deals with an average of 80 women every month and runs a series of ‘kids programmes’ that are full each term.

The only official funding is from Children, Young Persons and their Families Service (CYPFS) contracts and Ministry of Justice protected persons orders. Mostly it relies on donations and fundraisers like the ‘Merciless’ event for operational expenses.

Beating the numbers

The official reported domestic violence numbers in Hawke’s Bay are sad – second in the country to Hamilton. However, Campbell says some perspective is needed. “Is that because the community here is more violent or because people are more willing to pick up the phone and ask for help?”

Napier Women’s Refuge representatives view Police reports daily and meet with CYPFS, the Police, intervention and education group Dove Hawke’s Bay and other agencies weekly.

“While our workload is increasing we’re not panicking. There’s been a huge drop in the number of serious offences; less than 50% of the women using our services have been assaulted,” says Campbell.

It could be argued that Hawke’s Bay is a healthier community because programmes being run by groups like Napier Women’s Refuge are making a difference.

“People are seeking help a lot earlier and deciding what kind of relationship they want to be in. They’re more likely to ring up when they’re arguing which results in Police attending more incidents.”

And she says there’s been an increase in self-referrals to men’s programmes as a direct result of the ‘It’s not OK’ and ‘It’s not OK in the Bay’ programmes.

Once the bills have been paid, including the cost of importing international fighters, the ‘Merciless’ event will be able to show some mercy by delivering a cheque that will make a difference in the lives of women at risk and children who’ve had a rough start in life.

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