Sideshow boxing on the ropes in outback Australia
Australia's last touring boxing troupe takes on all challengers and stretches the boundaries of political correctness.
Glynn Johnston - aka "The Friendly Mauler" - brings one fist down in front of his chest and the other back over his head. "That's the scorpion. And this," he adds, winding his right arm like a bare-knuckle boxer of yesteryear, "is the windmill."
At close to midnight, Australia's last touring boxing tent is officially closed for the day. But Mr. Johnston lingers at the edge of the stained canvas ring, showing off his moves. "Did you know that I've never lost a fight?" he asks.
These days, redneck Australia, as sometimes portrayed in movies and beer commercials, is mostly a remnant of the past. Still, venture far enough into outback Australia, and you can find the occasional relic of frontier culture.
Enter Johnson and Fred Brophy's touring boxing troupe.
In an age when political correctness and changing social standards have knocked out the sideshows of times gone by, Mr. Brophy's boxing tent is the last of its kind in Australia and arguably the world.
"Thirty to 40 years ago, if you'd come to a show here, there would've been this boxing tent here and then next door, there'd be the fat lady. Then next door to her, there'd be the tattooed pig with the golden tooth," Brophy recalls.
Brophy's tent is one of the few remaining elements of a sideshow subculture in Australia that dates back to the 1880s and grew up around small-town agricultural fairs, according to Richard Broome, a historian at La Trobe University in Melbourne. Dr. Broome recently co-authored a book about Australia's sideshow alleys.
"By the 1920s and '30s, there were a half-dozen boxing tents touring Australia's eastern states," he says.
But most closed down in 1971, when the state of New South Wales started a nationwide trend by regulating the same legal and medical requirements for tents as for other boxing venues.
"He [Brophy] is the last one left, as far as I can tell," Broome says. "He's been doing it long enough - it's been decades - that he's probably becoming a bush legend."
But Brophy, a fourth-generation showman, says the legendary line will likely end with him. In his heyday, Brophy spent 12 months a year touring the Australian outback. These days, he is down to just a dozen agricultural shows and rodeos and the occasional gig behind a city pub.
On this night, Brophy works a crowd at the Cloncurry Merry Muster, a two-day rodeo that is the cattle and mining town's biggest event of the year.
Shouting challenges to the local manhood, he has recruited a half-dozen rodeo-goers to take on his fighters. The Brophy boxers are a motley crew of aging veterans and young aspirants. They earn about $60 a fight and a ring name - coined by Brophy - that often barges through the boundaries of good taste.
With 14 years' fighting in the tent under his belt, Johnston, the Friendly Mauler, is the heavy hitter of the crew. Brophy's troupe also features a dreadlocked former psychology student from Papua New Guinea who fights under the questionable moniker, "Afro Savage," and a shy 28-year-old surveyor's assistant known as "Gentleman Jim."
The challengers, too, are a diverse bunch. There's a local policeman, a newly minted father, and at least one tent veteran seeking revenge for previous losses. And there's Ben Moss, a soft-spoken 24-year-old rodeo rider.
"I just want to see what my ability is," he says, before stripping down to his jeans for his bout with "Kid Quick."
At first, Brophy's boxer walks all over Moss, and, by the end of the first round, the bull and bronc rider looks shellshocked. But then, as the crowd cheers "Come on, Cowboy!" Mr. Moss turns the fight around and, within minutes, knocks Kid Quick down twice to win the fight and about $30.
Moss is one of only two winning challengers this night. The other is Bruce Bevins, a 31-year-old road worker.
"This is the last place in the world where you can walk in and lose your anger," says Mr. Bevins. "You lose whatever stress you have in the ring."