Real Boxing Only: the Dubai gym helping women become more comfortable with the sport

Founder Michelle Kuehn has built a community around 'no flash, just real boxing'

Michelle Kuehn, founder of Real Boxing Only. 
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Among the many chits peppered with the words “awesome”, “it’s a great honour” and “power-packed”, there’s one in particular that makes Michelle Kuehn laugh out loud. “I love you more than shawarma”, it reads, and is one of several thank-you notes pinned above the desk of the founder of Real Boxing Only gym.

The 38-year-old American, who moved with her family to the Gulf in the mid-1990s, was inspired to start her own gym two years ago, and now she is proud to be inspiring a growing army of boxing lovers in Dubai. “There was a point in my life, in my career, that I decided I’m just going to call up a gym to take my first boxing lesson,” Kuehn says. “I did it just to get fit. I was in the media industry, and it was stressful. But I didn’t think it would have such an impact on my life.”

In her first session, an out-of-breath Kuehn managed to run for only four minutes on the treadmill. “I thought I had run a marathon,” she says. “By session three, I ran 15 minutes.”

Kuehn was so impressed by her progress that she had an epiphany that night. “Everything” was about to change. “What struck me most was not that I wasn’t able to before, but that no one had ever told me I could,” she says. “No one had pushed me, and I hadn’t pushed myself. There was a feeling of accomplishment, but also a massive sense of urgency that I had to change my life. What I had been doing was mediocre; I wasn’t going to be that person anymore.”

One or two weekly sessions quickly became five, then six, and Kuehn reaped the benefits both physically and mentally. “Physically, your circulation increases, you become sharp. You feel switched on all the time and you move a lot faster. You get up earlier and you’re not sluggish, but I also learnt to do things I’d never done before. It stretched my mind,” she says. “Everything was moving at a really fast pace, and it felt good.”

Kuehn, who co-owns The Media Network in Dubai, increasingly felt drawn to the gym. When she decided to take a step back from her the day job in 2017 to start a boxing gym, the stars aligned for Kuehn. A fellow gym-goer was interested in investing, and the idea snowballed.

“I stated using hashtags on my social media before I had even opened the gym: #RealBoxingOnly,” she says. “I was obsessed with real boxing. The traditional spit bucket, running at five in the morning. Nothing flash, just straight boxing.”

After securing the investment, she found an abandoned gym in Al Quoz, and formed a training team led by two fighters from Cuba, a hotbed of boxing talent. Others joined as the space was fitted out. RBO, intentionally, retains a lean, spartan look, and the classes are designed to appeal to people of all ages and backgrounds, from children and teenagers to boxing professionals.

Boxing for women 

Real Boxing Only has a floor dedicated to womens-only sessions 

Kuehn’s personal gratification, however, comes from conducting ladies-only sessions. “Boxing empowered me, and I wanted to empower others,” she explains. “There are so many things in this world that makes us women insecure. That we’re not thin enough, we’re not strong enough. You hit like a girl, you fight like a girl – these are not empowering statements. Boxing helps you find that inner confidence, that strength. Which is what I discovered on that day during three lesson. I wasn’t weak; I just wasn’t taught how to be strong.”

As more women discover and embrace boxing, Kuehn wants RBO to provide a safe space for them. “When I set up the gym, I put the ladies changing room upstairs to ensure I can block off the floor for female-only classes,” she says. “I’ve lived in the Middle East most of my life, and I would never want anyone not to come to my gym because there’s not a female-only space for her. That would be withholding the sport from a person based on where she’s from, or her religion, or her upbringing.”

Positive feedback

Those who have taken up the sport now feel very much at home. “Boxing and RBO have had an immense impact on my life,” says member Terri-Lee O’Kelly, 35, from South Africa. “What Michelle has created is a gym where, regardless of your shape, size and level of boxing knowledge, you are welcomed and made to feel part of a family. It isn’t intimidating for a newbie, no one is judged and it doesn’t have the pretentiousness of [some] other gyms in Dubai.”

Members testify that boxing is both physically and mentally therapeutic 

Fellow South African Meghan Muller, a teacher, joined RBO a year ago. "It was one of the best decisions I have made in a long time," says Muller, 31. "Boxing allowed me to release my inner demons and built-up frustrations. You're also continuously challenging and pushing yourself. It's personal, and it's my therapy."

A source of pride for Kuehn is that within a few months of training, many women feel confident enough to join the mixed classes. Perhaps no one epitomises the RBO family spirit more than Sera Rajapakshe, 19, a recent boxing convert and now Kuehn’s assistant. “It’s a trump card against anxiety and depression,” says Rajapakshe, 19, who is from Sri Lanka. “Punching the bag makes me feel strong – it helps me take back control. I’ve had to overcome abuse at a young age, and boxing helps me realise that I am strong enough to overcome anything.”

Professional plans

At the other end of the boxing scale, RBO has become a training hub for many professional boxers before big fights, thanks to its facilities and Dubai’s weather. David Coldwell, who runs Coldwell Boxing in Sheffield, England – and trains the likes of Tony Bellew, Dereck Chisora, Anthony Fowler and Jordan Gill – is a fan. Boxers including Shakan Pitters, Rohan Date, Waleed Din, Mohammad Ali Bayat have also set up base there.

Next Kuehn has set her sights on taking RBO worldwide, with branches planned for other parts of the Middle East and North Africa in the next few years. “As someone who’s been here for more than 25 years, I want to keep attracting as many female boxers as possible in this region,” she says. “My message is simple: do you want to continue living a good life, or do you want to be great? Fight to find her, that warrior inside you.”