TeaWhen Fred Brophy calls his boxers to the center of the tent and gives them a bottle of port, he sips several drinks outside and becomes restless. One by one, they swirl it until the wine runs out. They then head out to meet 300 cowboys, miners and ranchers who are itching to see some action.
“Who wants to fight?” Brophy asks the enthusiastic crowd. Seven men and two women climb a narrow platform for a chance to be punched in the face.
Traveling boxing circles like Brophys were once common in Down Under. But Australia’s transformation into a progressive, urbanized country has come at the cost of some of its unruly marginalized traditions.
Today, Brophy’s troupe is the last of its kind in Australia, a relic of a bygone era before Netflix when a boozy boxing match was a small-town blockbuster entertainment. In the eyes of some Australians, the end of such irregular events is a sign of progress. But for others, it’s another step toward ditching the Outback lifestyle.
“That’s why they all come to the show,” Brophy, 69, says in the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa, shortly before a slate of Friday-night fights last month. “They know that when I go, that’s all, they won’t see another.”
Brophy is a fourth-generation spruiker, as they’re called in Australia: a showman who entices passersby to watch the event – or pay around $25 to join. His mother was a trapeze artist; His father, a shell-shocked World War II veteran, became a struggling circus operator. Brophy grew up traveling from city to city, helping set up tents where he would box other kids for money before adult bouts. His eagerness to fight led to a troubled adolescence, the scars of which he still bears.
“I’ve been spear, shot, belted, shattered,” says Brophy, who walks with a limp. Pointing to his injuries, he says, “I have 85 shotgun shrapnel in this leg and 17 in one because I gave belts to people, so they went and took a gun and shot me.” “The doctors were going to amputate my leg but I said, ‘No, I’ll need this for dancing.'”
He is missing parts of two of his fingers, which he had amputated in an unsuccessful attempt to escape from prison, and according to his autobiography tried to prove his love for his wife.
After settling down, Brophy launched his own traveling boxing tent. He tells the crowd that boxing was Australia’s first sport, which originated during the time of the British criminals and later, gold-seekers fought each other for some coins or flags of rum.
The format hasn’t changed much since then. Anyone with a ticket who is calm enough to climb the podium can fight with one of their boxers. Win and they get $70 for three minutes of effort. Losers get a sticker – and some bruises.
Each challenger signs a waiver stating that they will not sue what usually results in minor injuries, such as a bloody nose or cracked lips. Meanwhile, the police are thrilled to see Brophy coming into town.
Sergeant Jake Lacey of the Queensland Police Service says, “It stirred frustration in the community as he stopped near the tent before the fight. It was the weekend of the rodeo of Mount Isa – Australia’s largest – and a town of 20,000 beers.” The drink was bursting with young men. “We tell people, ‘Don’t do it here, go to Fred’s tent and fight one of his boys,’ so they can lose in a controlled environment,” Lacy says.
The troupe traveled around the country. But Brophy no longer takes his shows to New South Wales or Victoria because he states that the states demand that he keep fights in the proper ring.
“I am not turning for any politician, any bureaucrat or any copper in the world,” he tells the crowd at Mount Isa.
He then beats on a drum as he introduces his boxers to the nicknames given to them – lulls even in a less politically correct era. When Tony Tseng joined the troupe a decade ago, Brophy nicknamed them “Chopsticks.”
“I think it was the first thing that came to Fred’s mind,” said Tseng, 38, who came to Australia as a toddler from Taiwan. The surname ranks him first, he said. But over time, he embraced it.
“I’m really living the dream,” says boxing and martial arts instructor Tseng. He sometimes earns over $1,000 during a four-night boxing run like Mount Isa. “Many people are unable to fulfill their passion in life.”
For Tseng, the first few seconds of the fight are the most worrying as he tries to figure out whether he’s facing fluid courage or a pretense inspired by a former pro. Many viewers now film the fights adding another danger.
“You’re one mistake away from making someone else’s highlight reel,” says 42-year-old criminal defense attorney Nick Larter, whose boxing nickname is “The Barrister.” (Hit him and he’ll defend you for free, Brophy likes to say. )
“I defend murderers and rapists and bank robbers, then I come here and cut people in half,” Larter says with a laugh.
An arm injury prevented The Barrister from boxing at Mount Isa, so he was helping Brophy on the show. Following Brophy’s pairing of boxers and challengers, crowds throng inside the tent to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and sit on folding chairs and bales of hay around a rubber mat.
“Bring the customer first,” shouts Brophy as a modest man in khakis and a collared shirt panics. Tseng made easy work of him by drawing the boo out of the crowd by pretending to punch his opponent in the back of the head.
The second bout was a tag team consisting of four women, or “Sheila”, in Brophy’s salty outback vernacular. A few minutes ago, Soraya Johnson was live-streaming to her 55,000 fans on TikTok. Now, the Sydney model enters the makeshift ring with Vaseline on her face. His father was tent boxing legend Gaylin “The Friendly Mauler” Johnson, who won all of his 1,000-plus fights at Brophy’s tent. But this was his first match.
His opponent comes out swinging, each mower roars from the crowd. When the first round was over, Glynn Johnson told her daughter to stop being soft on the woman. Soraya began to attack after Jab landed, and he and his teammate narrowly won. After this the four women hugged.
“It was on my bucket list,” says one of the challengers, Caitlin Duffy, as she drinks beer and picks Vaseline from her hair after the fight. She came to rural Queensland for a two-week stint as a nurse, fell in love with the outback, and stayed there for a year. “This is our Wild West,” she says. “That’s changing, probably for the better.”
A particularly fierce tag-team fight pits the two brothers against local mine worker Caleb Tees, better known as “Little White Lightning”, and Soraya Johnston’s 17-year-old nephew.
“We’re drunk, man,” one of the brothers, Arlene Heppy, later admits. He says he had been drinking heavily for more than seven hours and had social media posts to prove it. Seeing their condition, the brothers prepare themselves well in the ring, although Heppy maintains that his brother had become ill as soon as the fight was over.
“He was spouting,” Heppy says, a purple blotch on the bridge of his nose.
In the final battle of the night, Soraya’s older brother – a tent boxing veteran – dressed in a cowboy hat as a roughly built miner. Halfway through the heavyweight bout, the miner took off his shirt and the crowd went crazy. He then attempted a Flying Muay Thai Punch that threw both of them into the stands.
When three minutes passed, Brophy threw both fighters’ hands in the air. It was a draw – the only upset of the night.
Brophy says he has no plans to retire, and his show is more popular than ever. But his spooking is a little tireder than before, and every year it gets harder for him to climb the stage. In the end, he says that he will apply the same rules to himself as to the thousands of challengers who have passed through his tent.
“As long as I can get up those stairs from there,” he says, “I’ll keep going.”
© Washington Post
Credit: www.independent.co.uk /