Reality Check: 'White Collar Brawlers' airs show shot here

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Cross "Fight Club" with "The Office" and you have "White Collar Brawlers."

The rebranded Esquire Network's six-episode series premiered last week, but the first segment shot here airs at 10 tonight. It shows what might happen if squabbling co-workers trained for six weeks and then took to the ring for a sanctioned amateur fight.

Each city features a seasoned boxing Yoda; in Pittsburgh's case, it's Jimmy Cvetic, owner of the Third Avenue Gym, where the neophyte brawlers trained.

Rest assured, there will be blood.

"White Collar Brawlers" is part of the man-up strategy NBC Universal chose for the former Style Network. In less than a year since the rebranding, viewership has jumped from 20 percent male to 60 percent.

Three Pittsburgh and three NYC stories are played out on alternating weeks. In each hour, we are introduced to a pair of workmates who have reason to dislike each other. In the case of Paul Matthews and Allen Lu, both 28 and finance project managers, their competitive natures create friction in their Downtown health care office.

"We're more like 'frenemies,' " said Mr. Lu of Ross. "We hang out together and things like that, but we also have office rivalries: who can climb the corporate ladder faster. It's a healthy thing to have that competition."

Mr. Lu has a formidable opponent. Mr. Matthews, of Fineview, is married to a personal fitness trainer and had just run the Pittsburgh Marathon when Esquire arrived to begin the shoot.

By his admission, Mr. Lu was in pretty soft shape at the beginning.

"I was out of shape, maybe working out once a week, if that. I think I needed that fire lit beneath me."

He laughed, adding, "I thought, 'Hey, if three boxing trainers can't motivate me to work out, then I'm just going to give up. ...' As a bonus, I get to punch Paul in the face."

Viewers meet Mr. Cvetic, a retired Pittsburgh police officer who has trained boxers at the national level. The crusty coach pulls no punches.

"I guess that's what old men do, they bark at people," Mr. Cvetic said. "I didn't bite anyone."

Early in the episode, he chastises the men when they appear to be surprised by the difficulty of the workout: "If you want to have fun, go buy a puppy."

Mr. Matthews said he was surprised to discover a poetic side to Mr. Cvetic. "I think, somewhere in the midst of the first training session, he was wearing this hat with 'Charles Bukowski' on it. I asked him about it and said, 'You like Bukowski? I've read his books.'

"And his demeanor just changed. He said, 'Yeah, I'm a poet. I write plays.' "

Esquire and Authentic Entertainment chose well in going with the Third Avenue Gym, Downtown. Mr. Cvetic is well known for producing not just top-flight amateur boxers but also for creating the kind of gym-as-sanctuary environment rarely seen these days outside of the movies.

He has worked the corners for generations of young boxers, including the two who trained Mr. Matthews and Mr. Lu, Johnny Spells and Darren Doby.

"I watched them and I will criticize them without mercy, and they expect it because they are teachers now, too. They are part of this brotherhood," said Mr. Cvetic, who in the show refers to the gym as a "cathedral."

"He truly does this out of passion," Mr. Lu said. "When you enter that gym, you hang all those preconceived notions of status -- what job you have, what school you went to -- you hang that at the entrance and just forget all of that. It's liberating."

As the two Brawlers are put through a brutal six weeks of footwork, boxing technique, situps, running, pushups and sparring, there was an obvious change in the relationships they had with Mr. Cvetic and their trainers.

"These guys were delusional, that would be the word," Mr. Cvetic said of their first meeting. "They had no respect for the game. They thought they could come in, strap on a helmet and rock and roll right away.

"But now I treat them like my sons."

A future episode (Dec. 10) focuses on IT recruiters Geoff Morgan and Corey Walker, who are described in press materials as two men nursing grudges over the perception of stealing clients. On Dec. 24, Kyle Stewart and Cameron McDowell, who work at a commission-based car rental company, fight over customers before fighting in the ring.

Mr. Cvetic said he liked all of the athletes who crossed the threshold of his gym, although some he liked better than others.

Months after the experience, Mr. Matthews said he still likes to drop by Third Avenue for a quick workout. He and Mr. Lu are no longer co-workers; the latter works for Pittsburgh tech company Branding Brand.

Mr. Lu doesn't frequent the gym but bought a punching bag: "It's a hell of a stress-reliever."

And they still take (figurative) jabs at each other. When Mr. Matthews recalled Mr. Cvetic laughing at him and saying he had "two left feet," Mr. Lu jumped into the interview to note, "and we're pretty sure you still have two left feet, Paul."

Is it any wonder these two ended up in the ring?

Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478 or @MariaSciulloPG.

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