HONG KONG'S MOVERS, shakers and deal makers aren't afraid of a little verbal sparring, but they don't come to actual fisticuffs - at least not in the office. It's a different scene in the city's martial arts gyms, however, where they exchange suits and ties for boxing gloves and karate belts. Their motivation isn't simple fitness, but also building fighting spirit. 'I work out hard, I'm getting in shape and I get to hit my client in the face,' says derivatives trader Matt Hobbis. For the past eight months, he's been getting a thrice-weekly workout in Thai kickboxing along with fellow trader Nick Jones. For a number of executives in high-pressure jobs, embracing the rigour of martial arts has brought improved professional and personal lives. 'It's made me more disciplined,' says Jones. 'It's given me more energy for the job. In terms of being more conscious of health and getting to bed earlier and not drinking as much - all the bad living you do in Hong Kong - I've cut back.' Jones and Hobbis train at Impakt gym in Central, where instructors include world martial arts champions, and the convenient location attracts professionals in the business district. Kareem Arditti, an Impakt founder and their coach, says the pair came to the gym 'in very poor condition due to the fact that they're stockbrokers, and had to go drinking and entertain clients a lot'. 'They were at a stage where they had achieved something financially, but health-wise they were on a slippery slope,' he says. 'So they came to us and said 'Look, can you help us with the fitness side?' They'd been to gyms before, but not one that engaged them in the martial sense.' Of the many forms of martial arts taught at local gyms, few are more punishing than kyokushin, or 'ultimate truth' in Japanese. A particularly hard-hitting form of full-contact karate, kyokushin emphasises sparring without protective padding. The only banned moves are punches or elbows to the head; kicks or knees to your opponent's head are within the rules. James Kouame is the only third-dan kyokushin black belt in Hong Kong, and teaches the martial art at Impakt. 'It's much harder than kickboxing,' he says. 'It differs from full-contact karate in that there are forms, or kata. Regular full-contact karate doesn't have forms.' To earn his first-dan black belt in the discipline, the 33-year-old Ivorian had to complete consecutive two-minute bouts against 10 kyokushin black belts, with a minute's rest between fights. For his third-dan belt, Kouame had to face off three times the number and beat at least 25 of his opponents. But for all its violence, he says kyokushin 'gives you more self-control' than other martial arts. 'It gives you more peace of mind.' 'Kyokushin is about never giving up,' says Christian Wetzel, a German engineer who took classes with Kouame because he wanted 'something more demanding'. 'With kyokushin, you have to hang on and do your best even at the very end,' Wetzel says. 'It helps you to focus. And it's helped me to cool down - to take things more easily. But the training is really tough.' Among Kouame's standard exercises is to have students hold the straddle stance, with knees bent and arms outstretched, for 10 minutes. 'If they move I'll have them do maybe 100 push-ups,' he says. Meanwhile, Kouame is in training for the Kyokushin World Open Tournament in Tokyo in November. The contest brings together top qualifiers from all continents every four years in open matches with no weight categories. And to build endurance for the fight, Kouame - who placed 18th in 2003 - runs up 75 flights of stairs a day. Kouame's students are too new to be thinking about competition, and most are content to improve their fitness and proficiency in the discipline. 'I don't want to fight 30 people,' says television journalist Jameson Wong, who had been practising shotokan karate before trying kyokushin. 'The real rough houses in the gym are the men and women who do kickboxing,' Wong says. 'I may be in the minority here. I'm more interested in traditional karate, but some of those guys are hardcore.' Kickboxing has a strong following in local gyms and among the 'hardcore' students is restaurateur Harlan Goldstein, who trains with Alain 'The Panther' Ngalani, a heavyweight champion in the World Professional Muaythai Federation. 'As a businessman, the most important thing for me is to de-stress,' Goldstein says. 'People ask me 'Why would you go in the ring and box [Ngalani] six rounds, get the s*** knocked out of you?' My reward is to be able to hit him twice. If I score a point on him with the technique he's taught me I feel very satisfied.' Goldstein shed almost 28kg when he began training with Ngalani six years ago. He kept the weight off for two years but has since regained 9kg, which Ngalani is now helping him lose. 'He's been a big mentor to me,' Goldstein says. 'A lot of people say 'This guy is tough and he makes you work your ass off, and it hurts'. But if he didn't do that, you wouldn't feel like you achieved anything. Does it hurt sometimes? Yeah, sometimes you got to take the punch. But I'm a New York kid. I was born on the street.' The restaurateur is kickboxing mainly to stay healthy. 'I don't do this as a violent act,' he says. 'I do it for exercise and to be able to switch off for an hour and a half.' Comparing studying a martial art with learning different moves in chess, Arditti says this challenge is a key attraction for students. 'You learn the basics first and you can apply them. It's different from just pumping weights all the time; it's doing something where each time you've got a new skill to learn and you've got to improve.' Hobbis agrees. 'I've worked out in gyms before - the whole iPod and weight-room routine; this is a lot tougher,' he says. '[Trading] is a tough job and we're pretty tough on ourselves after hours, too. We spend a lot of time eating and drinking, entertaining clients. You need something to counteract all that.' But neither Hobbis nor Jones plans to go beyond training. 'I'm just enjoying the fitness aspect,' Jones says. 'I'm not a fighter.' 'Guys my age and with my job don't need to go to the office with a black eye and a broken nose,' says Hobbis. 'Going into competition against young guys who have four hours a day to train would be hazardous to my health.' For Wong, the attraction of kyokushin is with its aesthetics. 'I'm mostly in it for the kata; there's a beauty to it.' Arditti, however, places the appeal of martial arts at a more basic level. 'Punching something or kicking something, and kicking it well, is always very satisfying.'