Amateur Boxing: Twenty-four hours in Bundaberg

It’s been a busy year for amateur boxing in Queensland. Inevitably, the sport has been dominated north of the border by the triumphant march to fame of local boy Jeff Horn, with his victory over superstar Manny Pacquiao. Here was success both well-earned and hard-earned; Horn is a product of the local amateur boxing community, emerging from the humble suburbs to chart his route to the top. Yet well beyond the glamour – the spectacle, politicking and glitter – that attached itself, not so much to the mild-mannered Horn but to the event itself, the sport of amateur boxing has carried on at grassroots level, week in, week out.

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The first assignment of the year for our referees was back in February with an eleven-fight Queensland v Scotland card held in Nerang. The Scots had spent some time out here getting to know the Gold Coast and its facilities ahead of next year’s Commonwealth Games. Even allowing for the worsening of Australia’s already erratic weather patterns, they had been unlucky to strike a heat wave hitting 45 degrees, yet they seemed unfazed. There was a casual feel to the evening as old friends came together again after the end-of-year break; a pair of Year 12 film students, still in school uniform and cameras slung over their shoulders, had travelled down from Noosa District High to document the evening’s fights for an assignment. Very unusually, the card did not include any female fighters, and while they were notable by their absence, perhaps not everyone had managed to get with the changing times: in an accent so exaggerated it was comical, the Scottish team doctor confessed to his offsider, ‘I still cannae git ma head aroond the lassies fightin’. But no sooner had he said this, his attention was taken by a bagpiper stepping up onto the apron of the ring.

 

A bagpiper warms up the crowd ahead of the Queensland v Scotland fights.

 

Undeterred by the extreme temperatures, the Scots moved in and out, fleet-footed; they hit harder and were themselves harder targets to find. They appeared, chess-like, to have established plans of attacks various moves in advance, and worked across the canvas, deploying their strategies: withering combinations, hard jabs, excellent defence, a domination of the ring that allowed them to use the space to their advantage. With one or two exceptions, they set about towelling up the local team. In one fight I refereed, the Scot – in this case a smaller version of 80s euro-beefcake Dolph Lundgren – was so clinical I needed to call time twice to wipe copious blood from his opponent’s battered face.

 

Since that opening night, we’ve been to Toowoomba, Seventeen Mile Rocks, Beenleigh, Mt. Gravatt, Southport, Browns Plains, Caboolture, Beaudesert and many places in between, while in other regions of this vast state, tournaments have been held in Townsville, Cloncurry, Barcaldine, Cairns, Mackay, Gladstone, Ayr and Hervey Bay. As Australia’s largest state by a factor of three in terms of registered amateur boxers, the show rolls on, even as we continue to struggle for numbers to augment the pool of qualified judges and referees. In the populated south-east of the state, we are down to a roster of around 14 officials; given seven officials are needed as a minimum – five judges and referees, timekeeper and supervisor – and volunteers need weekends off for any number of reasons, it is often a close-run thing to get a crew in place to run the tournaments. And yet the sport itself is unstoppable: the boxers and trainers are always there, champing to go.

 

Queensland v Scotland

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A highlight this past winter was a trip up to Bundaberg for the Wide Bay titles. As I live in the Scenic Rim region of mountains near the QLD-NSW border, this meant getting out of bed at 4:00am on Saturday for a 5:15am departure. From the mountains, I drove with my daughter Eva (our gloving steward for the day) to Wynnum in Brisbane’s bayside area, where at 7:00am we transferred onto the bench seat of a colleague’s air-conditioning truck. By 8:00am we were at our next rendezvous, Caboolture, where we joined up with two other colleagues, and the five of us switched to a Landcruiser with all the equipment – boxing gloves, protective rubber gloves, shoes, bell, uniforms, score cards, registration and pregnancy forms and a change of clothes – stashed in the back.

 

Poor Caboolture: it had just that week been named and shamed in Canberra as the nation’s ‘dole bludging’ hotspot, beating out western Sydney’s Blacktown. This badge of ill repute had been angrily rejected by the mayor, and on Saturday morning the town was buzzing with industry, markets and a vintage car show.

 

Some of us snoozed and others chatted on our way up through the Sunshine Coast hinterland, to Gympie for breakfast, then bypassing Maryborough and on to historic Childers. We stopped briefly at the famous Childers Peanut Van to sample from the bewildering array of flavoured peanuts. It was a struggle, but I managed at last to find my favourite – ‘salted’. Nothing like a traditional classic. Then through pineapples and sugar cane, macadamia orchards and simple scrub, we arrived under very bright blue skies at the Bert Hinkler ‘Welcome to Bundaberg’ sign. In the town centre, at the Anglican Church Hall, the boxers had all weighed in earlier in the day and a range of community groups were setting up their stalls.

 

When the fights begin at around 4:00pm, the great sense of community that attaches to the amateur boxing family is again obvious. The MC acknowledges the local Wide Bay sponsors, and they are legion: a pest control firm, a strawberry farm, a cabinet and joinery business, an accountancy firm, a trucking and transport company, a local eatery, a kindergarten, a tree service business, auto repairs and screens and blinds – it seems the whole community has come together. The agricultural, manufacturing, financial, administrative and educational sectors are all there, in one way or another, to support grassroots sport. A raffle is held, with all proceeds to help a cancer victim from the community undergoing chemotherapy. This is the fabric from which our national champions are woven. And for all those others, the vast majority who do not go on from the grassroots base to bigger things, as Jeff Horn has done, there are the rewards of inclusion in community; strength in body and purpose, and self-esteem.

 

Bundaberg – fights in the Anglican Hall

 

Once again, the racial mix among the boxing community gives the lie to the popular myth that working class Australians (not least in this part of the world) are irredeemably racist. This has always been a taunt used to denigrate the communities from which these boxers and their families emerge. Yet rarely have I seen such goodwill among different racial groups; indeed ‘racial category’ thinking is not part of these people’s way of being, but is rather a charge laid against them by others who make it their business to judge.

 

I’m reminded of a recent conversation on Radio National between Michael Cathcart and writer Tony Birch, discussing his new collection Common People: stories of the working class and Indigenous, who rarely interact with people outside their class. This rough-edged existence is their life; it is their normal. That is, it is not something to be defined by deficit, or pity, or moral concern. This life, Birch argued, contains neither self-reflection nor self-criticism – both hallmarks of an angst-ridden middle class – but exist as self-contained. And while these ‘poorer’ folk might understand there are things they do not have, in a material sense, they are without envy or bitterness. Whether we understand it or not, Birch says, their world has value for them. They understand their world in a much more positive sense than many of those who worry on their behalf. They know what they have, they know their limitations, and they live within those limitations.

 

So here they are, the working class of Bundaberg and surrounds, unselfconsciously enjoying their popular pursuits. They use their own language. They are still, for the most part, unchained by those conventions by which the middle class increasingly police each other’s behaviour and speech patterns. Despite often being maligned doubly – as part of Australian class politics, and as part of the general dislike of the sport of boxing – these men, women and children value their world and, as Birch says, value it deeply. They are too busy in their struggles, and their pleasures, to bother with what others think.

 

It is a long evening in good company, with people blending together in the common pursuit of sporting success and, even more importantly, the satisfaction that comes from the greatest of achievements – simply getting in the ring in the first place. It is this simple act that justifies the months and years of sacrifice, of pain, of desiring to be and do something more. Of aspiring, and of bringing that radical plan – radical precisely because it is so often seen as an unpopular and uncouth thing to do – into action. Realising a dream.

 

Referee Luke Stegemann working under the stars by Moreton Bay.

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The fights are of middling standard, with one or two highlights. The last fight of the night brings the inevitable controversy: a local hero, backed by a tableful of cheering young women, takes the red corner, while his opponent from Gladstone lines up in the blue. The local fighter is a slab of a man, built like the proverbial outhouse, tattooed from head to foot; the Gladstone lad is slender, elegant, and quick on his feet. Red comes out spraying punches like a nightmare bouncer; Blue meets his wild blows with correct defence and upright stance. The problem for Blue is some of the Red haymakers connect, and while Blue shows huge strength to absorb, parry, dodge and keep fighting, and maintains a purer technique throughout the fight – and even in the third round starts giving back – yet the brawler, for all his technical deficiencies, has landed the better punches. Quite possibly by chance, but land them he did. The judges are divided. When the MC announces a split decision the crowd, well-oiled and raucous anyway, are outraged that at least one judge might not have awarded it to their man. The decision, however, goes to Red: the Anglican hall erupts.

 

A split decision, especially in such a wild scrap, fought with two such distinct techniques, is often a cue for a disgruntled trainer to take up a complaint. The tournament supervisor is under no obligation to discuss the result with the trainer, or indeed with anyone. And yet, amid the relaxation as the night winds down and the local club members set about dismantling the ring, as much as possible is done to placate an angry trainer. As in this or any other sport, some quiet words of explanation can be given. It will never change the snarl and the complaint, but it serves as a balm. There is always the next fight.

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After a cup of tea the five of us are back on the road and into the night. It is extraordinary how dark the world becomes, and so quickly, back from Australia’s light-spangled coast. In the depths of a velveteen darkness we are suddenly buffeted by squalls of rain sweeping over the Wide Bay, Burnett and Sunshine Coast regions. A roadwork-riddled national highway turns into a greasy obstacle course of curves and dips, rivulets and muddy edges. Massive bodies of stilled machinery loom up in the headlights, or emerge suddenly from formlessness into metallic dinosaurian death traps; animals wander on and off the highway, littered here and there with stolen cars and roadkill.

 

We’re back in Caboolture by 1:30am, at Wynnum by 2:00am, and then drive our last stretch up to the mountains near the NSW border. Finally at 4:00am on Sunday morning, exactly twenty-four hours after getting up, I go back to bed.

 

I wouldn’t want it any other way.

 

Luke Stegemann is a writer, editor, Hispanist and boxing referee. His recently published book, The Beautiful Obscure, blends art, history, politics and memoir to relate the interweaving cultural histories of Australia and Spain.

Comments

  1. Luke;
    Absolutely magnificent.
    On many, many levels.

    What a great line: “an eleven-fight Queensland v Scotland card held in Nerang.”
    Right through to the death traps looming in the night time darkness.

    Wonderful observations of self-worth and a life; the living of a life.
    Magnificent.
    Thanks.

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