Hedge-Fund Boxers Take Black Eye in Hong Kong Contest

Date: Tuesday, October 27, 2009
Author: Bob Chen, Bloomberg.com

Benoit “La Tornade” Descourtieux, the second-oldest contender in Hong Kong’s third annual Hedge Fund Fight Night for charity, finds it easy to draw a link between managing money and martial arts.

“As long as we do well most of the time, or even if we don’t do well but survive, we’ll be OK,” said the 46-year-old, Michael Douglas-lookalike in an interview at his 27th-floor office with a view of workers unloading cargo ships at Victoria Harbour. Descourtieux manages the Calypso Asia Fund, which bets on rising and falling stock prices and their derivatives.

His fund’s performance reflects his words. The portfolio he manages fell just 5.8 percent last year, data on his company Web site shows, when the global credit crisis triggered a 43 percent drop in the benchmark MSCI Asia-Pacific Index. For the first eight months of the year, his fund was in step with the index’s 26.6 percent rise, said Descourtieux.

“We have no certainty of not being hit, but we know techniques and train until it’s instinctive,” said the 5-foot-6 Descourtieux, who plans to make up for his waning athleticism with sharper mental focus and strategy that come with age.

Since June, Descourtieux has been spending several hours a week amid columns of punching bags at Jab Mixed Martial Arts Studio, honing punches, footwork, and dodges with dozens of other hopefuls before the Oct. 29 showdown at the Happy Valley Racecourse. Descourtieux registered 65 kilograms at last week’s weigh-in, 1 kilogram heavier than before.

Two-Minute Rounds

As the 12 finalists slug it out for three, 2-minute rounds in the ring, about 800 of their black-tied industry peers will sip wine, eat dinner and bid on holiday packages to raise funds for Operation Smile and Operation Breakthrough. The most-coveted lot of the evening might be a five-course lunch for 12 prepared by Relish Kitchen in the Dragon Garden historical site where Roger Moore shot a scene from the 1974 James Bond movie, “Man With The Golden Gun,” said organizer IronMonger Events Ltd.

The fight night aims to raise HK$1 million ($129,000) to repair children’s facial deformities and combat crime and juvenile delinquency in low-income and immigrant communities, said IronMonger. Tables for 12 cost between HK$18,000 and HK$50,000, and pay for training the fighters and hosting the event, said Robert Derry, IronMonger’s managing director, in an interview. A medical team will be on standby during the bouts.

Aside from Descourtieux, Bruce “Almighty” French of UBS AG, Steve “Dynamite” Davidson from JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Jesse “Happy Feet” Kavanagh of Nomura Holdings Inc. will also fight in the finals. John “Headcount Reduction” Crane of 3A Asia Ltd., a fund of funds, is the oldest fighter at 49.

Brutal Blows

Boxing and other martial arts are gaining popularity among Hong Kong’s professionals, especially in industries such as trading which thrive on risk, reward endurance and punish mistakes with brutal blows, according to Andrew Wong Kee, managing director at Jab. Wong Kee says the number of Jab’s students have risen 20 percent since September 2008 as more professionals signed up to beat stress.

About a fifth of Asia’s $126 billion in hedge-fund assets was managed in Hong Kong as of December, more than other cities in the region, figures from Alternative Investment Management Association, or AIMA, and Eurekahedge Pte. show. Hong Kong had 245 hedge-fund managers by the end of last year, against rival Singapore’s 150, and was the only major hedge-fund center with a net increase in startups in 2008, AIMA said, quoting AsiaHedge.

Hedge funds suffered their worst year on record in 2008 and had their best nine-month performance in a decade this year through September, according to Eurekahedge. The firm forecasts industry assets will exceed $1.5 trillion by year-end.

Enrollment for this year’s Hedge Fund Fight Night increased to 44 from 36 in 2008, according to Laura Derry of IronMonger Events. Those who prequalified based on fitness level underwent five months of training at Jab Studio.

No Prior Experience

The contenders had no prior competitive boxing experience, said Matthew Corbett, a Jab trainer. The 24-year-old, four-time Australian national champion and 2007 Commonwealth Games boxing gold medalist said most people can’t become good fighters because they lack the required discipline.

“Some people freak out when they get hit, or don’t know what to do when they get hit,” Corbett said. “We take bankers who are raw and teach them how to box, gradually increasing the contact amount week by week so it doesn’t get too easy.”

South African Jacques “Sugarbok” Scherman counts a few street fights as his only previous fighting experience. The 6- foot-1, 34-year-old trust-and-tax lawyer at Sovereign Group swore off socializing and alcohol the past few months to train for the event, dropping 7 kg to 86 kg. Scherman said his confidence is rising, even though his mother noted he still didn’t have a six-pack abdomen.

Black Eye

“I reckon I can look after myself,” said the former model as he pressed an icepack to a swollen black eye. Scherman’s shiner appeared after he endured torrential jabs from Sebastien “Superfrog” Alfonsi, a 26-year-old equity derivatives trader at French investment bank Natixis SA, during the boxers’ first training night of full-contact sparring.

“Most of these guys are in the shape of their lives,” said Scherman. Alfonsi, a rugby player for 20 years and described by trainer Corbett as having “the most potential” and being “naturally heavy-handed,” was cut from Hedge Fund Fight Night -- for being too good.

“Needless to say, I’m quite sad as I’ve trained hard,” Alfonsi said. “I’ll be there to support the boys.”

Descourtieux is more experienced in fighting than most other contenders. He holds a third-degree black belt in Shorinjiryu Kenkokan karate and entered as a tribute to his late mentor and celebrity bodyguard Pierre Ingrassia, who founded Hong Kong martial-arts gym Fightin’ Fit and died last year at 45.

“It was a huge shock, because everyone saw him as invincible,” said Descourtieux. “It’s a reminder that everyone is vulnerable.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Bob Chen in Hong Kong at bchen45@bloomberg.net