There are 13 women presently registered to vie for the title of Northern Pole Princess in Newcastle, England on July 6. As you may have surmised, NPP is a crown given to the winner of a pole dancing competition. There is nothing at all peculiar about this event—pole dancing long ago moved out of unsavory strip clubs and into legitimate fitness centers and competition venues. There's even talk, in some cases by strange ambassadors, of making it an Olympic sport. So a small pole dancing showdown in northern England is nothing out of the ordinary.
What some people might find odd about the event is that there's a 14th competitor, and it's a he. Jim Burman, a six-month veteran of the pole dancing arts, will be among the field chasing that coveted title. But really, even Burman's involvement isn't that strange: seven men competed in the World Pole Dance finals in 2011, the first year dudes were allowed to enter, and Burman himself got into the sport after a friend made mention of a men's pole fitness class being added at her studio.
No, what's really remarkable about the episode is that prior to becoming a competitive pole dancer, Burman was an MMA journalist and then, briefly, a competitive fighter himself. That's not a resume you're likely to find on LinkedIn.
Anyone familiar with Burman—who hails from Sunderland, England, and is by day a manager for a prominent charity—isn't really shocked by his latest hobby. I've known him since 2001, when we met among the anemic, yet enthusiastic, media pool covering UFC 36 in Las Vegas. Burman built a career as one of the most prominent MMA writers in the U.K., having trained alongside pro fighters since 2002. Then he dropped his notepad and entered the cage in 2009, earning a first-round TKO victory.
Burman broke his cheekbone two times during his short-lived fighting career (both times in training, which led to retirement with a pristine 1-0 record). Earlier this year Burman was the only guy to show up to the local studio offering a “pole fitness” class for men. Rather than waiting around for classmates who weren't likely to come, he pulled on short shorts and joined a women's class. Excluding bruises in non-traditional places, pole dancing has been decidedly kinder on his body—and yet, punishing in its own way.
“I constantly feel like I’m the punchline to my own joke,” said the 39-year-old Burman, “but it’s one of the best workouts I’ve ever had. Two days after my first class, I felt like I’d been hit by a car.”
After submitting a four-minute audition tape to the Northern Pole Princess competition for feedback, Burman was surprised to get an invitation. His specialty is inverted poses, but he will perform a full routine to The Black Crowes’ “Hard to Handle” for about 100 people, including his wife. He is not a betting favorite.
“My instructor will tell you I dance like a cagefighter, and my old training partners would probably tell you I fight like a pole dancer,” said Burman. “It’s less ‘Magic Mike’ and more ‘Tragic Mike.’” Still, he says there are subtle similarities between cagefighting and pole dancing, such as how hanging upside down is akin to the feeling of locking in an armbar on one’s opponent. Additionally, both disciplines require a mastery of transitions from move to move.
“The thing I used to love about fighting was the camaraderie, the community you felt when a group of people are trying to improve and get better together,” he said. “They’re both mentally exhausting, but there’s a real sense of achievement when you land a new position or transition.”
And that's coming from a man who's very familiar with challenging transitions.