Harmanbir Brar (MFin 2022)

A test of strength: what is it like to be on the Cambridge Boxing Blues Squad?

30 May 2023

The article at a glance

What’s it like to box for Cambridge? Current Cambridge Judge Business School student Harmanbir Brar tells us how he balances his Master of Finance studies with a gruelling training regime, and how the mental endurance has helped him to succeed on the programme.

What’s your background, and what led you to Cambridge?

I was born and raised in Punjab, India and moved to Canada 14 years ago. I then studied Chemical Engineering at the University of Waterloo, and completed an MBA in Madrid. It was the academic rigour and collegiate system that really drew me to Cambridge. In addition, Dr Manmohan Singh – the former Indian Prime Minister and a fellow Punjabi Sikh who I greatly admire – completed his masters at Cambridge. I visited in 2019 to see what the city was like and was enthralled by all the history here, so I decided to apply.

How did you get into boxing, and how did you get onto the Cambridge Boxing Blues Squad?

I started boxing training in 2017 and began sparring in 2019, but then my training stopped due to the pandemic. I got back into sparring again in 2021 and began training for a fight in Canada. When I got into Cambridge, I took a brief hiatus to relocate to the UK, but quickly picked up where I had left off and decided to try out for the team. Around 250 men and women show up for Cambridge Boxing Blues Squad trials every year, so the competition was tough. I went through three rounds of sparring on separate days and was then told I’d made the 40-person squad.

What’s it like to be a member of the team?

It’s an absolute honour and privilege to be part of the team. The Cambridge University Amateur Boxing Club’s (CUABC) history goes back to 1896, so it’s one of the most prestigious clubs to be part of. Everybody is fighting for their spot in a competition, so there are no easy training days – it is a challenge, but you miss it when it’s done! Everyone pushes each other and improves together. Before Cambridge, I competed in swimming and athletics competitions, and missed training as part of a squad towards an end goal.

What is it you love about boxing?

I played football for a long time before getting into boxing, but in team sports there are so many variables you can’t control. With boxing, having the fitness and technique is all down to you. In the words of Mike Tyson, “Talent? I don’t believe in talent […] It helps when you have talent. But as long as you have a lot of determination and willpower, that’s all you need, and you have to have the will to win”. Also, we spend a lot of time on screens now rather than in nature or doing combat – I felt boxing was one of the ways to connect with my original state.

What kind of training is involved?

We usually have between 10-12 hours of training each week, depending on where we are in the season. There’s also a week-long training camp in January for select members of the squad; this involves training 35 hours in a week, so it’s very intense. Training comprises refining boxing technique, circuit training, running, hill sprints, and fighting in the ring – sometimes with teammates, and sometimes external fighters. The hardest part of the training is the fighting; whether you’re feeling it or not, when you’re called upon to step into the ring, you need to switch it on.

You were chosen to represent the University of Cambridge at the Town vs Gown event – what was that like?

It was a very memorable experience. Hearing the Cambridge head coach Lee Mitchell say I’d been chosen was magical. It felt like not only the past four months of training but also years of working on my fitness was coming to fruition.

When I was in the ring, the atmosphere was electric, with more than 350 people in the audience. However, in boxing there are a lot of factors that can cause a fight to fall through. In my case, I was recovering from a hamstring injury so I was worried about aggravating it. I lost the fight by split decision so it wasn’t the result I wanted, but it went the full three rounds. It was my first amateur boxing bout, and I was incredibly proud to have been chosen as one of the 14 fighters to represent the University of Cambridge.

What skills have you developed through boxing, and how have these helped you at Cambridge?

Physical endurance is the most important skill, of course – if you aren’t in shape, there’s no way you’ll survive the training. Out of all the sports I’ve tried, boxing is the most tiring. When you’re in the ring fighting and tired, 30 seconds feel like 30 minutes. Fitness is tested by coaches taking your weight on a regular basis and bleep tests to measure your cardiovascular strength.

Mental endurance is the second most important skill, because the training is tiring and can be a challenge to balance with MFin studies. I had two Michaelmas exams during the January training camp, which I managed to successfully pass, and definitely improved my prioritisation skills.

Also, in training, you’re bound to have a bad sparring session where you’ll get beaten up in the ring and that hurts your confidence. Training has pushed my limits and helped me to find mental strength I never thought I had. That extra strength has definitely helped me on the MFin, and I hope it will help me in the corporate world too.

What’s your experience on the Master of Finance been like more generally?

The MFin has been hugely enriching in terms of developing my technical finance knowledge, as well as networking and learning from others’ experience. The highlights for me have been the electives on Quantitative Asset Allocation and Algorithmic Trading, through which I’m learning to use Python from a financial perspective, which is becoming essential.

Living in College has been a fundamental part of the experience; while I’m academically immersed in the MFin, I’ve also had a chance to meet people from different backgrounds at Churchill, and attend formals at other colleges too. Our house has eight people, each with different academic and extracurricular focuses, which is why it’s so enriching to learn from one another. Churchill also has exceptional sports facilities – the running track is second to none, and the gym is great – so I think that’s really helped with my success in the Blues squad.

What are your goals for the future?

In the near term, my goal is to get a role in the sales and trading divisions of an investment bank or a corporate finance role in a chemicals company in London or the Middle East. In the long term, I would love to one day move back home to Punjab and open my own boxing gym to help others from the region become champions in the field.

Separately from your studies, last year you won the World Bank’s 2022 Ideathon for Climate Change in East Asia and the Pacific – can you tell us a bit more about this?

The competition was open to 18-35 year-olds across the world, and we were tasked with creating a solution to help make a water and sanitation utility more resilient to climate change. I was shortlisted from 100+ applicants around the globe and my idea made it to the final round of the competition. I then captained a team of 3 to further develop my initial idea and apply it to a case study. For the final round, I pitched this idea virtually, and we won the competition based on votes from a panel of judges. It was a really rewarding experience and gave me the chance to learn from my teammates in Indonesia and Nigeria, who brought their unique perspectives to the challenge.