It’s the last event of the amateur boxing season. To round off 2016, we’re at Rumours nightclub in Toowoomba for the second annual Brayd Smith Amateur City v Country Cup, to be fought over nine fights as a curtain raiser to a pair of professional fights that will round out the evening. As it’s a Pro-Am card, the better-dressed, better-paid and better-fed pro referees are along. We, the amateur officials, are on our best behaviour.
Here among the boxing fans of Toowoomba, we’re deep in blue collar, white working class, Hanson territory. This is a ground-level, close-knit, community-driven activity – people holding onto their sport and their passions against either indifference or hostility. I’m here to judge the boxing, not the people; to arbitrate on technical matters, on rules of the sport, on quality blows, on competitiveness, on compliance with fair play. That said, there’s no doubt that in any working class entertainment such as this, in Toowoomba, or Inala, or Rosewood, or Beaudesert, or any other of the small towns of the inland south-east where we regularly hold tournaments, there will be a fair share of Pauline Hanson supporters. I stress this as an observation, not a judgement: nevertheless, it is hard to square these generous people with the demonic portraits painted by a distant and often highly prejudiced southern press corps. These folk are not the two-headed yokels of lore.
Yet this is not as grassroots as boxing can get: that privilege, in my experience, goes to the showground sheep pavilion at Barcaldine last year, open on all sides to balmy air and flies, where one young Indigenous fighter after another stepped for the first time into the ring. Or perhaps it was one mid-winter night in 2014 at Coober Pedy, where the Croatian Club hosted a 15-fight card. Townsfolk came from far and wide – and deep below the earth. Oddly for this outpost of civilization, I’d never seen so many miners dressed in women’s clothing, staggering around with their endless beers, stuffed bras and plates of Balkan cooking. That night, to help lengthen the event, I climbed into the ring with an old sparring partner for a Masters (over 41 years of age) exhibition match, a quick 3 x 2-minute rounds. Towards the end of the third round, relieved I’d gotten through the fight without making a fool of myself, I let my guard down just before the final bell and had my nose smashed for my troubles. My face stung all the way back to Adelaide next morning.
Here at Rumours, we start at sunset; it’s been a long, hot day and the evening is already warm as the first amateur fights take place. A group of six ring girls have come down for the evening from The Vault, just a few blocks away on Ruthven St. The Vault proudly advertises itself as an award-winning venue: twice voted, in 2015 and 2016, Australia’s Best Adult Nightclub. Up to 1500 punters are on their way in: less public for the amateur fights, a greater crowd for the later pro fights, especially for Matt Casboult versus local talent Brent ‘Golden Boy’ Rice, for the Australian super featherweight title.
As a professional who has spent most of his working life in the worlds of media, publishing, education, arts and literature, I’ve often had to explain to my colleagues – most of whom could accurately be described as belonging to the now much-maligned category of ‘liberal elites’ – about my attachment to the sport of boxing. Some colleagues and friends become awkward when the topic is raised; some shuffle away, as if looking for more polite or enlightened conversation. Some appear not to know how to deal with this apparent barbarity in one they had assumed cultured in all the ‘correct’ ways. Some – but very few – are genuinely interested.
Yes, the prejudice against boxing runs deep.
Although my professional life has taken me to a range of jobs around the world, I originally trained as an anthropologist, and it is partly the lore and ritual, at the most basic level, that attracts me to grassroots, community-based, amateur boxing. The gnarled and grumpy trainers; the young men and women with an undefinable courage in their eyes; the complex rules; the fundraisers and raffles; the parents; the factions and the ruthless power struggles to control state bodies; the boasting; the arguments over technicalities; the sheer athleticism; the slow rite of hand wraps; the intense sweat. The dreams – every boxer has one. The overwhelming generosity of people who are, for the most part, relatively poor. Here in amateur boxing is an example of Australia in all its multiracial and multicoloured variety, together with a common goal. Sport can do that; few sports can do it the way boxing can.
And of course, the other attraction: the edge of brutality, so absent now in most sports: the thunderous punches, the blood; the thrill of the eight-count. The dance; the footwork; the egos undone in a millisecond; the sheer glory of a battered fighter lasting and lasting, and giving some back. The sport is, at its best, unrelenting, aesthetic, thrilling.
But it’s also necessary to explain to my ‘liberal’ friends and colleagues that boxing is one way I find to have real and present relationships with Indigenous Australians; to work with them, to enjoy their triumphs and their athleticism. So too – and this is especially the case in and around the south-east Queensland city of Logan – the contact with Pacific Islander communities, people of such imposing physical strength and yet such quiet and gentle manners, many of them deeply committed Christians into the bargain. These are complex, marvellous and good-natured people; it is always a joy to be with them.
I sat on a panel discussing our love of boxing at the 2016 Brisbane Writers’ Festival, with writers Grantlee Kieza and Arnold Zable, hosted by Courier-Mail arts editor and boxing aficionado Phil Brown. Wasn’t boxing, at this point, akin to greyhound racing, someone asked? That is to say, were we not all utter pariahs? Yes, I responded, there was no doubt amateur boxing is a struggling sport, as parents are loathe to expose their children to anything that so clearly resembles harm. But there was a solution, and a tidal shift: what will save grassroots boxing, I argued, was the phenomenal growth in the numbers of young women taking up the sport. In a world full of aggression and outrage, boxing is, despite its reputation for braggadocio, a place of profoundly respectful behaviour. With very few exceptions, young amateur boxers are polite, humble; countless tales are told of young girls finding confidence and abiding friendships in the sport. And it goes without saying that the boxing community is one where people are quite genuinely colour-blind.
I would be hard-pressed to find a better recommendation for young women than five or six years of amateur boxing: it will give supreme fitness, great physical strength, and enormous self-confidence. These are of course qualities attractive to young boys too; not least the many troubled ones who find their way into the sport from difficult family backgrounds.
I have been a judge and referee for four years now. (You can only become a referee after being an experienced judge.) Before that I boxed, largely for fitness and the communal friendship found in clubs, for around 20 years. Having been heavily involved in athletics, rugby and cricket all through my school years, I had gone off the rails (and disappeared overseas) in my twenties and was looking for a way, entering my thirties, to get back into good physical shape. A friend recommended boxing, and so it was I ended up in Sunnybank, in the backyard shed of legendary Queensland trainer Jim Young. It was love at first sight – this was a serious but beautiful activity.
Yet despite my immediate attraction to the sport – not least its gruelling discipline and often monkish asceticism, attractive in a tangential way to the son of a preacher man like myself – I’ve never been a boxing ‘fan’ in the sense that one might track the fortunes of fighters, know the histories, the controversies, the legendary matches, mis-matches, the Indigenous history, the path from dusty outback rings to wealth, fame and city women, and hence to pathos, fear and ruin. I’ve never bought into those stories, so I am in some respects atypical among boxing officials. The first time I ever heard anyone talk about boxing was in a bar in King’s Cross in 1986; a student at the time, I also did occasional roadie and lighting work for a friend’s band. They had played support act that night to The Moodists in the Yugoslav Club (another reminder of a bygone era, socially and politically). We were all having a post-show drink and Dave Graney was enquiring, in those pre-mobile, pre-internet days, about the outcome of a Jeff Fenech fight that had taken place that night in Sydney. At the time, boxing was not something that informed any part of my life.
And so from Jim Young’s backyard shed a path led me, eventually, into officiating in boxing tournaments – a vocation in desperate need of practitioners. If amateur boxing is a sport in retreat, even more so the collective of those men and women who officiate. We are rare animals; in Queensland there are not more than 20 of us, covering a vast state that has Australia’s most active amateur boxing community. The men and women who make up our referees and judges collective include two former war veterans hardened and, in their own ways, traumatised, by engagement in frontline battles (one in Vietnam, the other in the former Yugoslavia); a house painter; a school teacher; a real estate agent; a travel agent; a horse trainer; two air conditioning technicians; an insurance salesman; a welfare worker. We are as mixed a bunch of ‘ordinary folk’ as you might find; naturally, the tales told of a night are anything but. We do this for the love of the sport and the love of community; no one goes into amateur refereeing for the money.
Tournament days (most Saturdays) are simple affairs: one or two of us arrive very early for the weigh-in, around 9am. After weigh-in, the boxers need to be matched; much haggling goes on between trainers. Some boys and girls train for weeks only to be left without a fight at the last moment; yet, despite the temptation, or the eagerness of trainers, junior boxers with more than one weight division or two years of age between them cannot legally be matched. The remaining officials arrive an hour before the fights begin, usually around 2pm or 4pm, and we go through till 8 or 10pm, depending on the card. We dress in the standard black trousers, white shirt and soft black shoes; in QLD, other than in state titles, no bowtie is worn, which for me is a great disappointment. I like the old-world charm of a bowtie: nowadays such an unlikely object, it is great to have an excuse to wear one.
The supervisor brings us together in a huddle fifteen minutes before the first fight; we are assigned specific fights to referee; we prep key rules and go over certain technicalities or infringements to be looked out for, such as leading with the head, or a boxer trying to milk a low blow ruling, or spitting out a mouthguard in a clinch to gain a 15-second break. Our responsibility, it is always drummed into us, is first and foremost the safety of the boxers. This comes before all else. As judges of amateurs in Queensland, the fighters may be as young as 10 or 12, as light as 34kg. These are tiny beings – our safeguarding of them is paramount. Indeed, some consider it poor form on the part of a referee if a trainer throws in the towel – if a boxer is being so comprehensively outclassed, they argue, the referee should have called off the fight earlier, but these can be hairline decisions. Once in the ring, we go to each corner to check the equipment, especially the mouthguard (no red or orange allowed), protectors in place (boys); no facial hair, no items of jewellery. Nothing that might obscure a cut from the vision of the referee is allowed. On any given night one might go from refereeing 34kg schoolboys to a pair of raging 110kg Samoans: needless to say, while the rules are the same, flexibility is built in around interpretation of eight-counts (the younger the boxer, the less leeway is given).
The boxers are brought together after the equipment check to the centre of the ring. The referee has just four things to say: ‘Keep your heads up; no holding; no low blows; and good luck’. And so we begin.
Refereeing is a thankless task, even though it is the three judges seated around the ring who make the scoring decisions and so award the fight. There are so many things to keep in mind: the distance from the boxers; the way you move (backward steps are frowned upon); keeping a good ‘triangulated’ position at all times; observing the quality of blows; the fighters’ equipment; clinches on the ropes; holding; keeping heads up; any signs of weariness or fatigue that might be dangerous. No illegal punches; no trash talk; no showboating. Referees are shouted at by trainers and members of the crowd constantly – in an exciting fight, the noise can be deafening. It simply has to be blocked out, as in any sport. You are so exposed: everyone looking at your decisions (and a guaranteed 50% of the crowd unhappy with them). Perhaps most difficult of all is if, or when, to put on the first eight-count. Unless it is blatant, there can be fine distinctions to be drawn; split-second decisions have to be made. Sometimes you’re left with the awful feeling you’ve let a great punch go unrewarded by not putting on the eight-count (and you’ll hear the snarls from the trainer in the corner); yet at the same time, that thought cannot be allowed to prejudice subsequent decisions. In that respect, it is tabula rasa every moment of the fight, unless of course a pattern of dominance and punishment is being established.
Ultimately, we all cop criticism but, as our supervisor always reminds us: if the critics could do a better job, they would be up there doing it.
Tonight in Toowoomba, the best of the nine amateur fights sees two of Queensland’s most exciting young boxers face off: Jacob Wylie of Rose City Boxing, Warwick, and Dylan Biggs of Beaudesert. At around 60kg, both are ferocious yet nimble fighters; both are skilled dancers and free hitters. Biggs is so overflowing with energy and natural talent his coach worries that laziness can creep in – and so it is, after a tightly contested first round of feints and shadow play, that he stumbles in the second. Coming from a clinch, he twice fails to protect his face – forgetfulness or overconfidence? – and Wylie delivers two stinging left hooks, leaving Biggs stunned and facing consecutive eight-counts. From there, it is one-way traffic. Albeit Biggs holds his ground well, he has been shaken like seldom before and Wylie, recently crowned State Junior Male Champion in the 60kg category (Biggs was crowned State Junior Male Champion in 63kg), delivers a master class in control, timing and ringcraft. At the end of the night, City retain the Brayd Smith Cup they had first won the year before.
The first of the pro fights is a disappointment, a slow-moving and dull affair; not for the first time we’re able to observe the greater level of excitement – and even sometimes, skill – to be found in the closely-fought amateur bouts. Somewhat against the expectation of not a few of my colleagues, local Brent ‘Golden Boy’ Rice takes the fight and the Australian super featherweight title. One judge had it even; the other two edged it to Rice. The crowd love it: it’s what they came to see! Their local boy takes the belt, and continues on his way…
At this point, having been carrying an illness all week, and still facing a 200km drive home, I have to leave. It’s a pity not to see the final fight, but there will be plenty more next year. For now, the year is done, the officials’ books are signed and the gloves are packed away. We’ll be back next year, full of energy and anecdotes.