In a bunker-like hall in Townsville a boxing ring is set up under fluorescent strip lights and 200 people – trainers, enthusiasts, pugilists past and present – sit in monsoonal heat, watching two ten-year-old Aboriginal boys punching the stuffing out of each other. The boys are competing for a 2008 Australian Amateur Boxing League national title. One minute they look like gladiators in oversized gloves and helmets, belting hard at the other’s head; then, when they fall half-crying with exhaustion into each other’s arms, like brothers caught fighting in their bedroom.
By one corner of the ring stands Ray Dennis, 71, coach of the all-Aboriginal Palm Island Boxing Team. Dennis is softly spoken, tall and patrician, with the look of a man who’s just been hit. His nose, four times broken, has found a new position on his face; rust-rimmed glasses hang there at an angle. When he was ten he started primary school and got badly bullied. At 15 he bought boxing gloves and started training. Each session left his mouth busted, but he persevered until he could beat grown men; until, in 1956, he was runner-up to represent Australia at the Olympics. Later he worked at a drycleaners, at a meatworks, in construction – and all the time he trained other boxers to win a hundred or so state and national boxing titles.
Ten years ago, Ray Dennis found himself out of work. Each day he made more home-brew and started killing himself drinking it. Then he remembered the talent of the young men he’d trained from Palm Island, the Aboriginal ex-mission community north of Townsville. He decided to move there with the aim of training an Olympic gold medallist. In the beginning he put a boxing ring in a paddock and started teaching the sons and nephews of his old protégés. More kids came, and now Uncle Ray never turns a child away.
In the ring Ray’s boxer, the angel-faced Steen Walsh, is representing Queensland in the burgundy-and-white uniform of that state. Steen is small for his age but as muscular as a gymnast. For years he had been watching the other kids train, with Ray promising he could join them when he turned ten, the legal age for boxers in Queensland. Ray’s challenge is getting kids young and encouraging them to keep off booze and dope. (On Palm Island, he says, he has potential world champions now too stoned to compete.) So far, Steen has won his only three fights. His style is freakishly adult: tough, fast, brutal. But it’s been drilled into him that if he loses he has to congratulate the other boy: anyone who cries or throws a tantrum won’t be allowed on other excursions. And without these trips to boxing competitions, funded by piecemeal donations and Ray’s pension, many of the young boxers wouldn’t have the chance to leave the island. Tonight the team are just a ferry ride from Palm. In a way they’re on home turf, but this is the Deep North, and in Townsville a taxi driver will turn to the white visitor and spit that blackfellas are vermin.
The rest of the Palm Island team sit in the front row cheering for Steen. “Take it to him! Make him miss!” calls 25-year-old Noby Clay, a radiant, delicate-limbed light flyweight. She sits next to a baby stroller, in which 11-week-old Lorna, her third child, lies covered by a white blanket with pink and purple hearts. Noby has just fed Lorna, and even with the baby on her breast she moves lightly from one foot to the other, staying loose, starting the dance. Ringside she tries to calm herself, listening to the rapper Soulja Boy on her phone: Now you watch me! Now you watch me! Now you watch! Most of her teens were spent in a blur of drugs and grog and street fights. “The lifestyle on Palm is plain and simple,” Noby says. “You live to fight; you fight to live. When you fight in the streets you’re earning respect.” The street-fighting season on the island overlaps with school holidays: girls come home from the mainland; they fight; then their sisters and mothers get involved. These battles have no rules: “You just get out there and anything goes. In the streets, if they dish it out dirty way, you can do the same.”
One day, when Noby was 17, she followed her brother to boxing training and asked Ray Dennis if she could have a fight. Noby’s father and her uncles, and both her grandfathers, were all champion boxers. She too was a natural, picking up everything Ray taught her immediately, “firing off perfect punches,” he says, “like machine-gun bullets”. She came back every day and Ray encouraged her to give up smoking marijuana and sniffing paint. He encouraged her to stop street fighting. Then, with her life straightened out, Noby started having babies. Tonight will be her first fight in five years.
Sitting two rows behind the Palm Islanders are the members of the Tasmanian team, wearing matching green uniforms with TASMANIA in gold capitals along their backs. How to say this? If you were casting a group of white supremacists for a film, you could consider recruiting from gyms in outer-suburban Hobart. The men have shaved heads, or hair close-cropped with long rat’s tails, and muscular, crossed arms baring heavy-duty tattoos: a wolf’s head donning an Indian chieftain’s feathered headdress, a samurai wrestling a tiger, an Aztec warrior, Chinese symbols, tributes to other boxers, stars, scorpions, skulls vomiting jewels – everything, basically, bar a dot painting of a Dreamtime spirit. And sitting among them is a creamy skinned 17-year-old lightweight called Rebecca Miller, who’s about to have her first fight – with Noby Clay.
The Palm Island boys whisper to Noby that her rival is behind them. Weighing in at 59 kilograms, Rebecca is 12 kilograms heavier. Noby turns around and sticks out her hand to introduce herself: “I’m Noby, like Moby-Dick but with an N,” she says. “Me and you going to be fighting tonight.” Noby then tells Rebecca how nervous she was before her first fight, and asks how she’s finding the weather.
Noby stands and pushes the stroller to the makeshift change rooms to get ready. Around her, sleek, hard, teenage boys, their skin shimmering with sweat, skip furiously, or spar with their trainers, or punch at the fetid air. Noby finds a corner for Lorna’s stroller and stretches on the concrete floor, limbering up, her hair in a bun at the nape of her neck. She is swan-like, more ballerina than boxer.
Ray Dennis comes to help her prepare. He walks with a slight limp after a Palm Island boy riding one of the island’s brumbies charged out of the darkness one night, knocking Ray over. Later, his boxers went and beat up the rider.
Ray starts wrapping Noby’s hands with old black bandages and looks like he’s going to cry. He looks like a father about to give away his daughter: proud, nervous, slightly forlorn. He loves her and she loves him. Noby’s own father saw her when she was six months old; they have not met again. Ray finishes, and she raises a strapped fist to his face, softly wiping the sweat from his brow.
Opposite, in another jerry-rigged cubicle, three men prepare Rebecca Miller for the fight. Rebecca is a polite, sunny girl and she is also tough. She became interested in boxing 18 months ago; other girls have come and gone from the boxing gym but she’s stuck with it, even though she works full-time while also being homeschooled. She wants to graduate and get a plastering apprenticeship.
Rebecca has been training hard for six months; boxing wearing three jumpers; sparring in a sauna to ready herself for the heat. Still, when she stepped off the plane into the Townsville humidity she found she couldn’t breathe. She has never left Tasmania before. All she knows about Aboriginal culture is from a DVD a teacher once showed about “how they lived way back and that. It was different.” Now she sits while the men massage her legs, then help her dress. With an efficient tenderness, they secure the breast protector. She has diamanté earrings and a diamanté in her bellybutton. She removes them and the men tie the lacy cummerbund of her boxing shorts; they knot her high red boxing boots. Then Rebecca stands and starts to spar: one, two; one, two; one, two. The air doesn’t move at all. She’s red-faced, determined: one, two. Other Tasmanians come and act as bodyguards, folding their arms, making a tattooed barricade so she can’t be seen by her opponent.
Meanwhile, Noby and the boys from Palm Island are goofing around. The super heavyweight, Nat Seaton, 18 – an enormous, sweet-natured young man – always has a baby in his arms or play-spars with a little barefoot five-year-old. His younger brother is Selwyn, a cocky 16-year-old voted Queensland’s best junior boxer. He has teen-idol looks, wet curls and a coral necklace. Selwyn briefly spars with Noby, but before long they’re both laughing.
Noby has trained for two weeks. She’s had 13 fights and won just five, but Ray says that three times she’s been robbed. In each she has had to give away weight to her opponent. Tonight her opponent is four divisions above light flyweight. Will Noby really be able to take on this much bigger girl?
The ring has red, white and blue ropes; the Australian flag flies in each corner. This is family entertainment, Townsville-style. Barefoot toddlers roam around, following bigger kids who play on the fight’s margins, while their parents watch on, hungry for a knockout. The dingy hall’s alive with bloodlust and camaraderie. Waiting for the rains, everyone is covered in sweat. It’s like we’re all together in a fever, and as the delirium kicks in two mismatched women, one black and the other white, enter the ring. The grave coaches strap on their fighters’ gloves, giving them their mouthguards.
“From Tasmania, ladies and gentlemen,” calls the MC, “a big round of applause please for Rebecca Miller!”
Wolf whistles. Applause. The referee, in black and white, circles the pair.
“From Queensland, ladies and gentlemen, Noby Clay!”
The bell rings. “Round one!”
Rebecca comes straight for Noby. She keeps her fists close to her face, her shoulders high. Her hair, in its high plait, sticks out of her helmet, bobbing up and down. She’s engine-driven, fierce: aiming for Noby’s face. But the thing is, being hit relaxes Noby. Noby’s arm seems to grow longer and she punches hard. “Once I taste her hit and she taste mine, I’m right. I’m right then.”
Rebecca is stronger, fitter. It’s her first fight; her technique is not as fine, but she gets Noby on the ropes and keeps hitting rhythmically – one, two; one two – as if in a boxercise class. The hits and groans are just audible under the crowd’s cheering. And do I imagine it, or is the mob crying louder for the white fighter?
The Palm boys, in the front row, sing out to Noby to get off the ropes. By the end of the second round, Ray Dennis is ready to throw in the towel. It pains him to see Noby taking hits, although after each bout she comes back to the corner and insists on continuing: “People like her don’t want to give in.”
In the third round Noby isn’t moving – she’s scared her legs will give way – but now she can read Rebecca’s style. Noby’s on the ropes, but she’s not done for. She knows what Rebecca’s going to do: one, two; one, two. She lets her land the first hit but as soon as Rebecca goes to land her second one, Noby weaves under and punches Rebecca in the ribs. Then again. Then a third time.
The women look like wind-up toys, and as Noby loses energy her movements become slower, jerkier; she’s running out of power, while Rebecca just keeps pounding.
At last the bell sounds. The referee separates the women. Noby immediately moves in to hug Rebecca who, surprised, instinctually jabs her in the ribs, under those breasts swollen with milk. Then she recognises the embrace and returns it, smiling, baring her big white mouthguard. When Rebecca is declared the winner, the referee holds her hand in the air. Then Noby congratulates her and her coach, before doing something none of the other boxers do: she moves around the ring, leaning through the ropes to shake hands with the judges. Noby likes watching Oscar de la Hoya fight because, she says, he’s a gentleman: “He quiet but inside he exploding.” Noby is supremely ladylike, all politesse and charm covering her own turbulence. Her huge, winning smile doesn’t fade as she climbs down from the ring and returns to the stroller, her lower lip bleeding and the flesh beneath one eye bruised.
Ray Dennis stands to one side, waiting for Noby. When she joins him he puts his arm around her, clearly moved by what she’s chosen to endure. Later, Noby tells me she knew she wasn’t going to win. “I just wanted to let people know that I’m back.” If Ray had thrown in the towel, she says, she’d have punched him. He is one of the few people in her life she has always been able to rely on. “Every time I go [to training], he be there. No matter what time. It could be raining, could be hot, he’d be there. I go there, he be there.”
Still half dizzy from the punches, she turns to Ray and says, “You never give up on me, so I won’t give up on you.”
Taking Lorna in her arms she finds Rebecca, surrounded by the other Tasmanians, and shows them all her baby. Rebecca, still doused in sweat, a gold medal round her neck, coos and smiles at the infant, admiring her. The white men stand back, surprised but friendly. “When you’re black you feel like you’ve got to fight,” Noby tells me. “I know there’s racism around all the time. I know it’s there. But to me boxing is a totally different fight. The girl I’m fighting – she could be my mate. We could be sitting down before [the bout], yarning up, and we’ll get in the ring and slug it out. Then we’ll go back to being friends again.”
I notice the Palm Island boys are talking to the white boys they’ve just been fighting. One of Ray’s great hopes – the lanky, hard-punching Reggie Palm Island, 15 – is locked in conversation with a white kid with whom he’s just left the ring. They’re joking, laughing. Steen Walsh is sitting with another mixed group of kids, playing, cheering other fighters.
“These young fellas learning valuable lessons which will get ‘em a long way when they become young men,” Noby tells me. “That’s respect for themselves and other people. They don’t feel afraid of white people in general. They come to realise there’s a lot of white people that actually like blacks and they can get along good, and the same with white people. They come to meet blacks that are pretty nice.”
Reconciliation: the very word is so belaboured and co-opted, it’s barely worth using. The Palm Island kids know their home was once a gulag for blacks, but none of them knows exactly why their grandparents were sent there – just as Rebecca Miller doesn’t know how her family ended up in Tasmania. Whatever reconciliation means in other parts of the country, here it is taking place between people who may not even know why they need to reconcile; people who don’t have much but are making the most of what they do, whacking each other without mercy while other black and white Australians dodge and weave in their seats as if they too are in the ring. The boxers could be battling over the past 200 years, battling over their past and present and future, but then they take their gloves off and it seems they start talking.
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