6 Things I Learnt from Fighting in a Boxing Tent … and Losing

Have you heard of touring boxing tents?

They started in the late 19th Century when boxing troupes of professional fighters would travel the mining towns and outback of Australia, following fairs and carnivals, putting up big top tents and taking on all-comers for cash in the ring.

Fred Brophy still travels with his touring boxing tent and his troupe across Queensland. He’s the last one. The last touring boxing tent in the world.

‘My name is Fred Brophy and I’m the fairest referee in the Australian Outback!’
That’s how Fred starts every show in his boxing tent.

‘Ladies and gentlemen. I will show you something you have never seen before, and something you will never see again . . .’
Fred Brophy insists he will continue travelling with his tent and boxing troupe, until he dies, even though the sport was banned in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia in 1971 by the government, due to health concerns.

You might have also heard of the Birdsville Races. Far, far western Queensland and remote. The nearest city is 7 hours away. The population is around 100 people. There’s one pub, a bakery, a service station, post office and not much else. Oh and there’s a horse racing track. During the first weekend of September every year this small outback town swells with around 6,000 people convening for a weekend of horse racing, beer drinking, camping, live entertainment (and that’s just the punters) and a general good time.

We are here – Birdsville – Outback Queensland

So Fred Brophy’s Boxing Tent is almost always at the Birdsville Races and it’s a highlight. Two shows each day where thousands of race goers gather outside the tent to hear and see the professional fighters introduced and to see the brave punters stepping up from the crowd agreeing to fight these professional, touring boxers, hoping to win a few dollars. It’s a show like no other, and that’s just on the outside of the tent. Once the professional boxers are matched up with the punters from the crowd, around 1500 lucky ones get to go inside the tent and enjoy the entertainment for a few hours.

I’d been to the Birdsville Races and Brophy’s Tent two times before but this particular year, my third time, things were different. I was drawn, from the time I got there, to move from being a spectator, to getting in to the arena. I was tired of being on the sidelines and wanted in on the action, so to speak. To taste a little of this long standing tradition – to be a part of touring boxing tent history.

That’s how I found myself standing on the platform outside Brophy’s Tent one Saturday night at the annual Birdsville Races, getting lined up against one of Fred’s professional female fighters. Her name was the ‘Beaver’ and frankly, she was built like a ……. professional fighter and frightened the hell out of me.

Fred shaking my hand before I head in to the tent to fight the Beaver

The crowd was going wild – the Beaver hadn’t had a fight on the Friday night as no woman would step up and fight her. This was her first bout for the weekend.

And here I was …. approaching 50, with my extensive experience in the corporate and government world, my one time experience at one of those boxing fitness classes, and of course, my black belt in macramé. I was clearly not well qualified to be up here. I hadn’t even partaken in a few stiff shots of something strong to give me some dutch courage. I looked into the Beaver’s eyes before we were moved into the tent proper to wait our turn to get into the ring. It was one of the most frightening moments of my life.

You can probably imagine how I went. Not so well by all accounts but I lived to tell the tale. It was an amazing (and somewhat painful) experience – here’s what I learnt:

No. 1 – Sometimes the fear won’t go away – so you have to do it afraid.

I was shit scared. It was one of those ‘sounded like a good idea at the time’ moments. What was I doing? What was I thinking? I had to consciously bring myself back to my reasons for choosing to do this – those made when I was of sound mind. I wanted to do this. I was going to be afraid. There was a fair chance I was going to remain afraid until the final bell rang and it was over.

Fred Brophy says there’s absolutely nothing like the thrills, spills, fear, sheer entertainment and displays of absolute courage of a traditional boxing tent. It does take courage, I can attest to that. But that doesn’t mean the absence of fear. The fear was there until the last moments.

There are times we have to do things afraid, when the fear won’t go away, and that’s perfectly ok. Saddle up and get on with it and pack that fear with you – it can come along for the ride.

No. 2 – Gather your Support Team when you have to do something challenging

It’s important to gather around you a support team.

When I was moved in to the ring and took my seat in my corner, I was greeted by the tent Doctor and the trainer assigned to me. The Doctor was there to check on me during the rounds and make sure I was of sufficient health to continue. The trainer was the person who, when I first met him, commenced smearing my entire face with a thick layer of Vaseline, before helping me don some boxing gloves. As it turned out, these two items – Vaseline and boxing gloves – were the extent of my protection for the fight. No mouthguard, no headgear, just a slimy smearing of the old Vaseline and some gloves!

In my corner…

Both of these men however had my best interests at heart, they were both experts in this field I was entering and they knew things I didn’t (like keep your hands up – easier said than done I can attest to). The Doctor knew from my eyes whether I could go back in for another round (checking for concussion) and each of them were there to help me achieve my goal (walking away from the fight).

It is so important to not only gather your support team around you but to understand who needs to be on the team, who will have your best interests at heart as you reach for your goals, who can help you get there, who can offer advice, who are the experts you can lean on?

Who’s on your support team to help you achieve your goals?

No. 3 – Get your Supporters together – get them cheering for you

Now supporters are important too, but they’re different to your support team. My supporters were in the crowd, some I knew, many I didn’t – and all of whom were cheering me on, yelling my name, and generally encouraging me to get back in the ring and take another hit. They weren’t providing advice, and they weren’t necessarily experts in this field, but they were important and they helped me achieve my goal.

For some reason, maybe nerves, I simply could not stop laughing and smiling while I was in the fight. I have no idea why as this isn’t a normal fear reaction for me so I can’t explain it. What I do know for sure is that my constant laughing and smiling did two things. The first is it got the crowd going and they cheered even louder – likely wondering how on earth I was continuing to smile as I was copping a pounding from the Beaver. The second was that my reaction in the ring did nothing to enamour me to the Beaver – it is likely she saw my laughing and smiling as an affront to the fight, which resulted in her upping the game – trying I would suggest to actually wipe the smile off my face.

I can’t believe I was smiling!

That aside, the support from the crowd was amazing and certainly helped me get back out for the three rounds.

Supporters are important – who’s supporting you in your goals? Who are your cheerleaders?

No. 4 – Decide on your Commitment before you start

I was hurting by the end of the second round. I could barely lift my arms and though my smile might not have shown it, I was starting to really feel it! I didn’t want to walk back into the ring and go another round with the Beaver – I wanted to get the blood off my face and go to the beer garden! When I think of that few minutes, sitting in my corner, the trainer reapplying Vaseline to my face and spraying water in my mouth (just like the Rocky Movies – kind of), and the Doctor shining a torch in my eyes, I can feel my body get heavy and I can taste that metallic flavour of blood in my mouth.

But I did go back in, because I wanted to finish what I started and I was committed to that goal. I didn’t want to. I didn’t have to.

But I did and I am so proud of myself for doing so. Backing out without being knocked out simply wasn’t an option – but that was something I had to decide before I set foot in the ring. I had to commit before I went in – committing to myself that backing out was not an option, and when it isn’t an option, you look for something else.

That something else for me, right then, was again, my supporters, the crowd. They were calling me back out there and given I had already and in a far more reasoned state of mind, decided backing out wasn’t an option, I went back in that ring.

I hurt all over, I was bleeding, and I couldn’t lift my arms. The ding from the bell at the end of that round was the sweetest sound.

A good friend who adventures a lot harder than I ever will, once told me that if you truly want something, ask yourself, ‘what am I prepared to do?’ Then go and do it.

No. 5 – Take some time to be proud of your achievements

I didn’t fare very well against the Beaver, as you might have gathered. But in front of a raucous and mostly intoxicated crowd of over 1500, I managed to get through three rounds (I think Fred might have called the last round up short and I thank him for that), and walked away with the most amazing sense of achievement. I walked away with pride, with respect for the Beaver, and the profession. I walked away with new friends, with a rather large swollen lip where my teeth had gone through. I walked away with many bruises and a black eye. I walked away knowing I can do hard things, and that I was brave enough to do it afraid. At the time, I was just happy to be walking away rather than being carried away like some of the other fighters that night.

Brophy’s Tent at the Birdsville Races – it’s not going to be there forever.

I achieved my goal – to fight in the last touring boxing tent in the world. To fight on the same mat as so many before me. To carry in my heart and my soul that little memento of being a part of this historic sport and outback tradition. To be in the arena, not in the grandstand.

No. 6 – Choose your Inspiration

On 23 April 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave what would become one of the most widely quoted speeches of his career. It is commonly referred to as ‘The Man in the Arena’ and it’s inspired me my entire life. It inspired me that September night in far outback Queensland as I bumped gloves with the Beaver at the commencement of my fight. It continues to inspire me to be the one in the arena, not the one in the grandstand.

Even if that means I know the bloody, metallic taste of defeat from time to time.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Theodore Roosevelt

Do you choose to be in the grandstands where you will taste neither victory nor defeat?

Or do you choose to be in the arena where you have a chance to taste both?

Everything counts.

Written by Michelle McFadyen



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