The Last of the Outback Boxing Tents

As unlikely as it sounds, there was logic behind my decision to partake in an outback Australian tent fight. There’s usually logic behind the decisions I make, albeit often convincingly disguised as recklessness or folly.

It started back in Melbourne.

The cozy interior of the Rollerdoor cafe.

It was the day before I left for Queensland. I was saying bye to the folks at Rollerdoor Cafe, our back courtyard neighbors. While there a gent, hearing I was leaving and knowing I was a fighter, mentioned the tent. At this point it was just a comment, a legend. “I hear they have this traveling boxing tent up in Queensland where fighters will take on anyone who wants to challenge them for cash.” How delightfully old school. How fucking outback. But shit like that didn’t still actually exist.

. . . Did it?

Then, while working on Mellish Park, I heard about the troupe a few times more, often when someone was visiting. They’d hear I was training MMA and the tent troupe would come up. My curiosity, as well as my hunger to find this legend, continued to grow.

I should start training again. . .just in case.

But despite having the vast knowledge of the internet at my fingertips now, I did not grow up in a generation that had this privilege all lifetime. When faced with an ‘I want to know more about this’ type situation, ‘Just look it up online’ isn’t actually my brain’s immediate default setting. Particularly given the old-timey carny legend of this traveling fight tent, it just didn’t occur to me that the troupe would have, say, a Facebook page.

My fight training came up in conversation yet again on Sweers and, upon hearing I was planning to head down to the Isa rodeo, the suggestion was made by one of our guests: “You should hit the boxing tent there.

My ears perked up. He’d heard of it?

Of course. They’re usually at the Isa Rodeo. Check it out.”

What a novel idea: Look up the thing I was interested in finding as opposed to hoping to just stumble across it on some random drive through the red dirt of Northern Queensland. Like some roadside herd of cattle would suddenly part to reveal a dancing whirliwind settling itself into the poles and canvas of a carny fight tent, the slow rhythmic beating of a drum emanating from its interior, bidding me to steer the ute off of the road, out into the bush and whatever fate may await me there.

I don’t suppose y’all have seen a fight tent anywhere round these parts?

I opened my laptop and there it was: Event pages, a Facebook group, a Wikipedia article mentioning the troupe and its long, proud history. . .even a photoshoot from Australian Geographic and a short ABC documentary on the group and its figurehead, Fred Brophy.

Fred Brophy, the man behind the tent. Photo Credit: Dean Saffron, via Australian Geographic

Fred Brophy, the man behind the tent. Photo Credit: Dean Saffron, via Australian Geographic

Why hey there digital age. How you doin?

I spent an evening browsing the articles and groups, watching videos. . .and with each new piece of information my hunger grew. I wanted this.

As I mentioned, there was logic behind that want. And, though I believe that seeking adventure (and just having a laugh) is a noble and logical reason to do something in its own right, it was not the primary goal driving me towards that tent. What was: I wanted a taste.

Taken back before my fight training even began. Photo credits to Jared Reid.

I want to fight professionally. Or I at least think I do. I haven’t, so how can I be certain? Training and sparring are (I assumed) quite different from actually stepping in the cage against someone looking to win (by making you lose). I pour a lot of time and heart into my training. There are sacrifices. A lot of them. Training costs money, and eats a lot of the time you would traditionally use to make money so fighters, as a rule, tend to be poor. Or certainly not wealthy. We put our mind and body through a lot and, while that’s an education I would never turn down, there’s no denying it’s hard. And while I have vastly enjoyed the process of training for training’s sake, and learned more about myself than ever before during the course of it, I’m forced to admit I’d be kind of bummed to eventually step in the cage just to hear my head, after eating it’s first real punch, declare “Nope. Big tall glass of nope. Do not like.

So I wanted the taste, as well at the experience. That way, if life and fate do allow me to eventually step in the cage proper, I won’t be doing so as a complete virgin. Valuable, that. And, should I get injured during my training this time around, or should life just not co-operate in some other way with my goal of getting my pro fight in, at least I would know. At least that itch would be scratched somewhat: I would know what’s it’s like to be in a fight (without starting one in some seedy downtown bar).

So that was how I decided to go. I became more strict with my diet, got back into running and yoga, even had one day of shadow boxing in the sand at low tide. Now, how it came to be that the entire fucking troupe was expecting me was Lyn’s fault.

She looks so innocent, right? Bloody Irish.

Lyn Battle, one of my employers on Sweers and a class human being all around, was very supportive of. . .well, anything really. She’s just one of those people. She was supportive of my desire to fight. She was also supportive of getting me onto ABC radio to host one of her weekly recipe segments that she broadcasts from the island via phone, despite my not having any particular desire to do so (I’m not great on the phone. Think deer in headlights. But more awkward). She was in fact so supportive that she elected to volunteer me for the segment, then refused to tell me until 5 minutes before it was going to happen.

I managed to share the ridiculously decadent french toast recipe I had picked up back in Germany without too much social awkwardness. But then it happened.

Krys, just before I let you go”, Elly, the interviewer, started, “I hear that you’re heading to the Isa rodeo this weekend. . .

. . .oh, shit.

“. . .and are actually going to fight in Brophy’s tent.

Goddamn it.

“ . . .I’ve also heard along the grapevine that you’re on the hunt for a cowboy. Is that right?

GODDAMN YOUR EYES, LYN.

If you think you can make it up to me with adorable fondant creations. . .yeah, you might be right.

Two days and over four hundred kilometres later I arrived at Fred Brophy’s tent. I had stopped by earlier that day to find it empty.

 

When I returned at 7pm, this was no longer the case.

I paced the back of the crowd for a while, considering my options. I didn’t know how this worked. What if I’d missed the call for challengers? Should I just head in, cross my fingers it’d work out and I’d have my chance? After a few minutes I spotted a man near the front of the crowd selling tickets and made my way over to him. I asked the cost and, with an amiable smile, he answered. “Thirty.”

Timidly I inquired, “And. . .if you want to challenge?

His eyes went wide. He stuffed the tickets into a pocket and grabbed my hand with an alarming suddenness. “You’re the Canadian Sheila!!

Turning his back on the crowd, the gent dragged me through the tent and out into a back area where a group were gathered around a crackling fire pit and announced, “I’ve found her!

Many hands were shaken and many abrupt introductions made. Turns out that Elly, as well as some other media figures, had been by already so the troupe had been awaiting my arrival. Amongst the expectant crew was my would be opponent, Brettlyn Neal aka ‘The Beaver’. She laughed as I told her more about myself – turns out her mates had been feeding her (somewhat hyperbolized) stories all day about the Canadian ‘world champion’ who was coming to knock her head in. Cheeky dickheads.

The troupe would be putting on two shows that evening, so they invited me to watch the first and fight the second, so I’d have a better idea of what to expect. This also gave them the ability to announce my fight after the first show, hoping to draw back some of the spectators for the second with the alluring promise of an international bout.

Fred Brophy is nothing if not a showman.

I would have my fight. With that initial anxiety and curiosity now quelled I was able to really take in the spectacle of what truly is the last surviving outback Aussie fight tent. The drum was beaten. The bell was rung. A respectably sized crowd had already gathered but the ruckus was drawing still more in. As the final rodeo events of the day winded down the patrons, not yet ready to call it a night, trickled down towards Brophy’s classically painted tent and the promise of entertainment it offered to those who paid to step inside.

Fred put out the call for challengers. A young cowboy, his hand still taped from a bull ride earlier that day, volunteered to have a go. A dread-locked German traveler also put his hand up. “Can you fight?” Brophy asked the man from Munich once he’d stepped up on stage. “No,” the German replied with a thick accent. “But I love pain.” The crowd cheered. He was matched up, as were the remaining challengers, with members of Brophy’s troupe; large and small, young and old. A tag team was assembled to round the evening off. A young local was pulled from the crowd to act as ring girl, her hat and Daisy Duke jean shorts just. . .perfection. I had just come off four months of cattle station work and was still unsure if I’d ever more strongly felt “Shit, yeah. I am in Australia” than in that very instant.

Seriously. Fucking Straya, mate.

Brophy’s tent is part of a dying breed, a throwback to an era I wasn’t alive to witness. Someday, likely soon, it will pass into the history books and the only place it will live on is through the wistful stories of those that were there – The men and women who had a go, whether for the romanticism of it, the chance at a purse or because, just one beer away from being entirely legless, some cheeky mate had convinced them it was a good idea. In our modern nanny state society, which can often needlessly smother us with unyielding rules and regulations, the fact that something like this manages to survive, however peripherally, warms every defiant and obstreperous bone in my body.

Even so, it wasn’t what made my heart sing most strongly that evening. What did came in the intermission between rounds 2 and 3.

Photo courtesy of Elly Bradfield.

My assigned corner man was throwing me some advice and I began smiling. I’d been just nodding up til then, using the time between rounds to get my breath back. But suddenly there were words that wouldn’t stay in me.

It feels really good,” I said suddenly.

Yeah,” Big Jack nodded in agreement, “You’re doing alright.”

No, I’m getting flogged,” I laughed. “What I mean to say is. . .it feels really good. This. I want to do this.

It’s no secret that I’m an introspective person. I sometimes bore myself with my own underlying existentialism. I over-think everything into the dirt and spend a lot of energy trying to front that I am not as socially awkward or emotionally bankrupt as I often feel inside. It is all a cunning act, somewhat foiled by my tendency to later admit it all in public writing after the fact.

Constantly questioning yourself (and everything else) is exhausting. Those of us with a tendency to do so, if we wish to get sanely through life, need to find a release; an occasional holiday from our own relentless inner dialogue. Running gives me this. Yoga (sometimes) gives me this. Interacting with certain, well-loved people gives me this.

Fighting gives me this more effectively than anything else.

Photo courtesy of Elly Bradfield.

I don’t see the crowd when I’m fighting. I don’t care what they think of me. Genuinely. I don’t care if my hair doesn’t look right, or if I’m having a ‘fat’ day. My mind doesn’t tell me I should be doing something else, or question the validity of my current actions. It doesn’t get trapped in repetitive thought patterns (what did that person mean when they said that thing? Why doesn’t that person like me? Why do I care whether or not that person likes me or not especially when I don’t even like them?), or obsessively dwell on things I can’t control. When I fight my mind is silent. Perfect.

Matthew Inman (aka The Oatmeal) wrote a fantastic comic a short while back explaining the terrible and wonderful reasons why he runs long distances. He concluded by quoting Haruki Murakami, that he runs ‘to seek a void’. He runs very fast, because he desperately wants to stand very still. I know exactly what he means. Because I fight very hard, because I desperately want to be very peaceful.

Photo courtesy of Elly Bradfield.

Maybe it’s an ego thing. Maybe when I’m busting my ass in the ring I don’t need to worry about putting up fronts because I’m too busy being bad ass. Maybe I’m just too focused on not getting my jaw knocked off to bother wondering about what the point of it all is. I don’t care the reason. I don’t want to over-think this. I have no desire to. It is beautiful and peaceful and

I

want

MORE.

Photo courtesy of Elly Bradfield.

The fight finished and Fred raised Beaver’s hand to indicate she’d won the fight. He then declared to the audience that I’d be back the next day to give it another go, which was news to me. He must have been taking lessons from Lyn.

Last year a training mate from Melbourne convinced me, just two weeks into my Brazilian Jiujitsu training, to enter a BJJ tournament. She convinced me with the argument that ‘every comp entered is like putting in three months of training’. I’m all for efficiency, so I entered. Hilariously, I lost two of my fights in no-gi (in which I’d been training) and won two in gi (in which I hadn’t. I had never worn a gi before that day. One of my victories was by mounted triangle, a choke I have not been able to pull off again since that day).

By the time I hit Brophy’s I had been out of training for five months. So, when Fred volunteered me for another match my first thought was “Huh. Two fights. So. . . this actually puts me a month up from the time I’ve missed.” Aces.

Post fight, with Fred and Beaver Brophy.

After the second evening’s fight, in which I went a bit better but still failed to match Beaver’s strength and skill, I spent a few moments in the ladies loo, attempting to wipe away what I took to be a smeared streak of mascara. After a couple attempts it finally registered: the dark mark at the edge of my eye wasn’t make-up but the beginnings of a small shiner.

Cowgirls take selfies too.

What do you know, I thought, running my finger over the fresh shades of blue and purple that were beginning to blossom there. One last souvenir to take home from my time in Queensland.

*

Fresh Hot Yummy Linkage:

*First up, you should check out this article from the Townsville Bulletin that explains what a stand-up lass Brettlyn is. She’s hitting the bitumen (1339km of it) via push bike to raise both funds and awareness for breast cancer research. You should check out her Townsville2Birdsville Facebook page, and consider donating to her very worthy cause.

*Secondly, I’ve just added a fancy schmancy ‘Media’ page to the site. On it, you will find links to both of the ABC interviews that were mentioned in this article, as well as links to a couple news stories and video footage of the second fight. Yes, video footage. I’m bringing shit up a level. Hold on, let’s see if I can go epically high tech and embed dat shit . . .


. . .fuck yeah.
I have
totally figured out a service 13 year old children have been using for years.

*Lastly, for those interested in learning more about the last of the great outback aussie boxing tents, I present to you the very best linkage from my own interwebs research:

A fantastic collection of photographs from a piece by Australian Geographic.

A short documentary, in which Fred explains how he lost (one of) his finger(s).

A snippet from an article in Outback Magazine, which I’d love to get my hands on.

A photo from a National Geographic series on ‘Extreme Fighting’ (which I would also love to get my hands, or in this case eyes, on).

Take Your Medicine Like A ManA narrative that appeared in Sports Illustrated back in December, 1999.

A great article on Fred Brophy’s Cracow Pub, viewable as a preview on flyingtheoutback.com or in its entirety as a pdforiginally published in Australian Flying magazine.

A radio series on the boxing tent by ABC, which I’ve yet to listen to. I’m all researched out, people. I’ve been all day bouncing between writing, reading, watching, video editing. . .it was either put my foot down on the Brophy’s research (particularly given this piece was a personal narrative as opposed to an investigative piece anyway) or never get this bloody blog up. I will watch this, though. Soon. Ish.

And finally, this: A slick-looking 2 hour documentary on the troupe and it’s members (which I’ve also yet to watch, but am greatly looking forward to).

. . .I’m now going to go die in bed. Or on couch, rather. Hey, anyone looking for a roommate in Melbourne?

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3 thoughts on “The Last of the Outback Boxing Tents

    • Facebook has spoiled me. Whenever someone makes a comment here that I’m like, ‘ah, that’s sweet. Yet I have nothing substantial/witty to say in reply to it’ I’ll just hit ‘like’. I have no like here. Dilemma.

      . . . ‘like’.

      (Thanks for the ‘gentle’ pushes, Lyn. and, you know, the job. and awesome food. And good company)

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