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Take Your Medicine Like A Man Putting up your dukes at an Australian outback carnival is risky business

Dec. 20, 1999
Dec. 20, 1999

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Dec. 20, 1999

Take Your Medicine Like A Man Putting up your dukes at an Australian outback carnival is risky business

By Allen Abel

We are under a tent in the Australian outback, on a spring night
in September with sand in the air. Coming at me is a hazel-eyed
heavyweight with a choirboy curl across his brow and a thousand
rounds behind him. I am an unranked amateur in the first boxing
match of my life.

This is an article from the Dec. 20, 1999 issue

The ring is a canvas mat on a dirt floor with no ropes to
enclose it. Three hundred ranchmen and roustabouts, most of them
already legless, as the Aussies say, on Victoria Bitter and Emu
Lager, line the perimeter, smelling blood and whooping. I have
no mouth guard, no headgear, no protective cup. I have a burning
stomach and an empty head.

My opponent, a tall, fleshy menace nicknamed the Friendly
Mauler, is windmilling his arms and grinning. Forty-nine years
and seven months after I entered this world, he is preparing to
knock me out of it. "Why do they call you the Friendly Mauler?"
I had the sangfroid to ask him just before the fight.

"Because the harder you hit me, the friendlier I get," he
replied with a diagonal smile.

The referee blows his whistle, we come to ring center to touch
gloves, and reality jabs me: I can hide behind my fat red mitts,
but I can't run. Not now, with all these cowboys watching. "Come
at me like I'm your worst enemy in the world," the Mauler
commands.

"But I don't have any enemies," I reply.

"If you just muck about, people will laugh," he replies. "I
don't like that. It makes me mad. So hit me! I can take a punch."

The tent has been erected in a ghost town called Birdsville,
whose population of a few straggling dozens swells to about
6,000 for one crazed weekend every year. The surrounding region
is sparsely populated too, a swatch of desert the size of
Indiana with about 300 permanent residents. We are a long, long
way from the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef and Elle
Macpherson. But this, the men all say, is the true Australia.

A century ago, before the British colonies of the southern
continent were joined into a single dominion, Birdsville was a
bustling customs post where livestock from Queensland was
counted and taxed, then mustered toward the distant sea. Today
Birdsville is a convergence of yellow sand highways, an artesian
well whose water comes rocketing out of the ground at
210[degrees]F, a gas station and the only licensed pub for
hundreds of miles.

In 1882, to relieve the isolation, a race meeting was begun.
This has grown into a bacchanal of beer drinking, boxing, whip
cracking, bull riding and thoroughbred racing on an oval of
dust--a combination of the Kentucky Derby, Munich's Oktoberfest,
the Calgary Stampede and Lawrence of Arabia. Half the throng
descends in private planes and camps out under their wings. The
rest drive 18 hours or more on rutted trails from Brisbane or
Adelaide and sleep (if they sleep) in the dust. A few men have
been known to pull up on camels. Many, when the weekend is over,
do not remember having been here.

A brotherhood of boxers who take on all comers has been a
fixture at the Birdsville meeting and at other outback carnivals
for more than a century. Now this manly sideshow has taken on a
melancholy air. Under the big top, as I face the Friendly
Mauler, I am a flat-footed footnote to history: Fred Brophy's
Boxing Troupe--of which the Mauler is the paragon, the Nureyev,
the prima donna--is the last of its kind. "The last one left not
only in the world but in Australia," Brophy says with typical
antipodal hubris.

Brophy, 47, is a Queenslander whose father managed a troupe like
this, as did Brophy's grandfather, and so on, back four
generations to the family's Dreamtime. Now Brophy and his wife,
Sandi, and their three children and their mongrel roster of
sluggers, rasslers and kickboxers, young and aged, whites and
Aboriginals, travel from town to town across the infinity of
soil and spinifex that the Australians call the Never Never,
peppering stooges like me with uppercuts and big, long, looping
hooks.

"I'm gonna keep on going till I die," said Brophy as he hauled
an enormous bass drum to the front of his tent on the evening of
the big fight. "I'm not doing it for the money. I'm doing it for
Australia. There's no one left in the world doing this. The
other people who had boxing tents, they found easier things to
do."

He mounted a ladder to a rickety catwalk, stood in front of a
huge painting of himself and began to wallop the drum.
"Challenging all comers, and there's no one barred!" Brophy
bellowed above the din of thousands who had come back thirsty
from the race course and were listing to starboard in the
ankle-deep sand of Birdsville's only street. Admission to the
show was $15 Australian (about $10 U.S.), but those who fought
would get in free.

As the drumming intensified, the pugilists paraded from the tent
in robes and trunks and singlets: the Friendly Mauler, White
Lightning, the Cave Man, the Spider Man, Kid Valentine, Young
Cassius, the Palm Island Tiger. Six of us civilians bravely
answered the summons and scaled the trellis to pose beside them.
"Are you scared?" I asked the fellow next to me.

He was about one third my age, with a stomach the size of a
bushel of apples, and wore a dirty gray bathing suit. "I'm much
too drunk to be scared," he said, smiling. As it turned out, he
would be my partner on a tag team.

The Friendly Mauler is a father of five from central Queensland
named Glynn Johnston. "Why do men volunteer to fight you?" I
asked him, and he responded with a staccato catalog of reasons:
"To prove themselves. Bit of an ego trip--typical male, bit of
bonding, something to talk about with their mates, have a few
beers and tell how they did it."

I'd covered so many boxing matches that I thought I could box,
too. In my sportswriting days I was at ringside for the best of
them--Ali-Frazier, Frazier-Foreman, Leonard-Hearns, Roberto
Duran's "No mas." Throw in a few hundred Olympic and club
brawls, and my secondhand education was complete. What would it
be like in the ring, I wondered, with the lights and the crowd
and the fear?

Suddenly I am to find out. Brophy blows the whistle again to
start the fight, and I am prancing with innocent confidence
toward the Friendly Mauler, who sticks out his left and taps me
on the crown as I get nearer.

Remembering the Mauler's command to make the bout appear
ferocious, I bow low and come in headfirst, completely
neglecting to protect myself, and pepper as many fast little
body punches as I can muster before my arms turn to lead. This
takes about 10 seconds. Then I straighten and notice that the
Mauler is winding up to throw a haymaker. "He's going to pop me
in the nose," I say to myself as the punch approaches. His aim
is perfect.

"That hurts!" I tell my brain--time has stopped ticking; a
heartbeat lasts an hour--"I should fall down." So I roll over,
scraping my knees on the canvas, and tag my bulbous partner, who
rumbles forward with his mouth open like a gasping salmon,
throws a few punches, takes a wallop to the gut and goes down as
if shot.

After two two-minute rounds--the big boy and me getting the
worst of it from the Friendly Mauler and the Cave Man, a small,
quick, toothless, gray-haired 40-year-old Aboriginal (though, of
course, the pros are pulling their punches), my partner and I
are ready to say "No mas," but Brophy strides to our corner.
"You're doin' grite, just grite," he says, and persuades us to
give it one more go.

Round 3 lasts a hundred years. Still leading with my chin and
remembering the rather distressing adage Kill the body and the
head will die, I burrow into the thicket of the Cave Man's
elbows and ribs and try my flurry of stomach blows again. He is
unimpressed and taps me apologetically in the face, and I go
down once more, this time crawling to tag off with Tiny.

When it finally ends and I realize that I have survived with
only some bruising around the breastbone and a slight wobble in
my nose, I meet the Friendly Mauler again at the center of the
ring. He hugs me, tells me, "I didn't think you'd really get in
there and fight" and compliments my lion's heart. Good old Fred
Brophy calls it a draw.

Out in the night, strangers approach, beer-handed, with
congratulations and awe. "Good on yer, good on yer," they say.

Music is playing from a tent somewhere. Under a tapestry of
Southern stars, the boxer dances home.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY MICHELLE CHANG
My opponent, a tall, fleshy menace nicknamed the Friendly
Mauler, is grinning.
Many men, when the weekend is over, do not remember having
been here.