San Francisco's South of Market and Mission neighborhoods are best known this decade for their densities of start-ups. But this little gym called Michael the Boxer is a blast from the past. Its owner, Michael Onello, has been boxing since he was 14, when a judge sentenced him to two years of probation--accompanied by mandatory after-school activities--for stealing a car. "This was around the time Rocky came out, and that was a big inspiration," he says. "Since then, there's never been a period of time I haven't been boxing."
It's a humble-enough establishment, barely big enough to hold its boxing ring (its bathroom is in a hallway shared by the Mexican restaurant around the corner), but Michael the Boxer gym has become a de facto one-room after-hours schoolhouse for a few dozen tech workers, engineers, and start-up founders to step away from their screens and learn to throw a punch. And how to get hit in the face.
By matter of proximity, new students for Onello were plenty of employees of Google, Oracle, eBay, and many smaller tech companies. But not every student sticks around more than one grueling lesson. "I do think the entrepreneurs are more likely to stick with it, because they usually are lone wolves." Here, Mitch Zuklie, the chairman of global law firm Orrick, trains.
As Onello tells it, a certain type of person seems to be drawn to boxing. "The guy who takes the risk but also wants the reward. These are guys who want to be top dog, and a lot of them are."
While Onello has no trouble relating to his clients, sometimes when they talk about Silicon Valley, he admits he tunes out. "That tech world is almost like a foreign language, like they're speaking Chinese," he says. "I started playing with a computer at age 35. They probably did at 5."
"I had done some marshal arts as a kid, but I felt this kind of urge to experience actually being in a fight. I want to experience all the things it means to be human. It's just primal," says Lukas Biewald (facing the camera here), the founder of San Francisco crowdsourcing start-up Crowdflower. "I think founders of companies in general really value new experiences, and really thrive in competition."
Onello, who's a tough-talking Italian from New Jersey, has taken up certain habits of the San Francisco start-up scene himself, including drinking potent Macha green tea, sitting on a yoga ball, and he incorporates elements of a yoga practice into his boxing training. Despite that he's an entrepreneur himself, the similarities between Onello and his start-up clientele stop there.
"When you spar with Mike, you kind of do it in public. With other people watching you, it's very nerve wracking. You think, 'what if I look stupid?'" says David Chen, pictured, a student of Onello who co-founded early-stage start-up NunaHealth. "It's almost the same as when you give a presentation to a conference or something. It helps, because giving a presentation is so much more pleasant than being chased around the ring."
"Being in the ring with another person trying to hit you for one minute is a totally life-changing level of physical exertion. It's everything you can do to stay standing when you're done," says Philip Rosedale (pictured), the serial entrepreneur behind Second Life, who is now working on a new start-up called High Fidelity. He's been boxing for three years, and says that in that time he's come to recognize fear--in and out of the ring. "Now I can say, 'Wow, I'm afraid of my board member right now, and I'm not reacting in a way that's productive for this company.'"
While Onello says he doesn't think of himself as an entrepreneur, so much as a daily boxer, he says he held plenty of jobs as a teenager, but quit or got fired from every one. "I started my own business because, who the hell would hire me? They'd have to be insane."
Today, thanks to prodding and programming help from a student, Onello's gym has a vibrant website, a brand, an app, and he's the author of two books. He's looking to expand the gym into a social club, with a cafe, bar, locker rooms, and multiple rings for sparring.