"Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." -- (1cCorinthiansc9:26-27) St Paul was a fighter. I don't think he ever competed in the ring, but that wasn't because he lacked the discipline or was afraid of the pain. I always say that to be a fighter you need to have two things going for you. Firstly you need to have a lot of energy inside that needs release.
Secondly, you need to be not too concerned about your own health. This fits the profile of most of our young men perfectly - on the edge of the drug culture, full of testosterone, and with no thought for the future. It also fits perfectly the profile of another group - single fathers, struggling to gain access to their children. That was how I got into the fight game. I hadn't taken it up as a teenager, and I certainly hadn't been born into it. My dad was a priest for God's sake, and an academic.
Fighting had not been my birthright. I came in through the back door of pain and loneliness and bitter struggle. Separated, and struggling for the right to see my daughter, I had made one half-hearted attempt at suicide already by that stage. And I had met with my bishop the following day and he had told me not to 'trade off' my situation (in other words, not to get too comfortable). I appeared to be losing my family, my vocation, and most of my friends at the same time. Full of emotional energy, obsessed with thoughts of self-destruction, and drinking way too much, I managed to find my way to the Mundine gym.
It was my decision not to go under, but to fight back. Mundine's is situated in the middle of Everleigh Street, Redfern - the roughest street in one of the roughest neighborhoods in our city. Redfern is a largely Aboriginal suburb on the outskirts of central Sydney.
In recent years the government has come through and 'cleaned it up' somewhat, which meant pushing a lot of the local residents further out west. Even so, it is still a rough area. I had grown up in the vicinity of Everleigh Street. My dad had been a lecturer at the Anglican seminary located only a few blocks from this dark heart of Aboriginal Sydney. It was always an odd location for the seminary. The ecclesiastical community never had anything to do with the adjoining aboriginal enclave.
On the contrary, most persons associated with the religious community dealt with their black neighbours by practising the same sort of avoidance strategy that I'd learnt as a kid - scurrying quickly past the end of Everleigh Street and its environs whenever circumstances put us unavoidably within its reach. Ironically this strategy had to be invoked every time you got off a train from Redfern station. The platforms seemed to be designed to feed directly into Everleigh Street! Of course I never made the mistake of straying down that way myself, and as a youngster, I had heard many a nasty story about the price paid by some of the less wary. None of this is to suggest that the reputation of Everleigh was based on hearsay. I had seen plenty with my own eyes. Countless times I had seen young toddlers and their slightly older siblings wandering the streets at night while their parents got drunk at the local.
One night I watched as a stupid woman stopped her car after these kids had thrown rocks at it. She got out and tried to confront the kids about what they had done. The result of course was that they found some bigger rocks and a couple of bricks. They made quite a mess of that car.
My brother told me that he had witnessed a roll take place from the top of the street in broad daylight. Some boys had pulled a knife on a university student who had handed them his wallet. The student had then located a nearby policeman and had pointed out the boys to him, but the copper did nothing about it. He said he didn't want to start a riot! I had seen the bonfires that would be lit when the new phone books or Yellow Pages directories were delivered.
I had seen the shells of burnt out cars in the street. I had seen plenty, and had plenty of good reasons to never deliberately venture down that street, which is why my first walk to the Mundine gym was like wading through water - every step being a slow and deliberate effort. But I was determined to become a fighter, and I'd just as soon lose my life in Everleigh Street than give up on my dream to have my day in the ring. The exterior of Mundine's Gym is not designed to draw attention to itself. You'd walk right past it if you didn't know it was there.
It's missing entirely that glittering windowed street frontage with the sleek bodies of well-groomed athletes on display for passers-by - the type that we associate with the sorts of gyms where you pay a costly membership fee. Mundine's has no membership fee. I don't remember there even being a sign out the front. Mundine's looks like just another housing-commission block, with its inglorious entrance at the bottom of a stairwell. But you pick up that it's a gym long before you reach the top of those stairs. The smell of liniment hits you half way up - that manly smell that mingles so harmoniously with the melodic whir of the skipping rope tap, tap, tapping its way through another round.
This is what makes a real gym - the smell of liniment, the sound of the rope, the less rhythmical thwacking of glove to bag, and of course the fighting. When you step inside Mundine's, you know you're in a real gym. No pretty boys. No glamour workouts. No white-collar boxercise sessions for indulgent professionals.
Just bodies, sweat, testosterone and blood. They play hard at Mundine's. That's governed by the sort of guys that show up there of course, but it's also embedded in the architecture of the gym to some extent. The ring stands in the centre of the building and it's a small ring, made for brawlers.
There is a small assortment of bags strung around the sides, but no fancy speedballs or floor-to-ceiling bags, such that you could justify turning up just to have a workout on the bags. There are a few pieces of weights equipment too, but again not enough to allow them to become a serious point of focus. No. The whole structure is designed to channel you into the ring. Everything else is just padding.
That's the way it should be in a real gym. I wore my clerical shirt and collar the first time I went there. Even now I don't think it was an entirely stupid thing to have done. I wanted to be up-front about who I was and where I was coming from. Even so, I hadn't really thought through the effect that this was going to have on the other boys at the gym, most of whom were, initially, very reluctant to hit me. They got over it though, particularly after they realised that I had no qualms about hitting them.
Within a couple of weeks I was coming home each night bruised and bleeding from head to toe, and I knew I was one of the lads.
Rev. David B. Smith (the 'Fighting Father') Parish priest, community worker,martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of three. Get a free preview of Dave's book,Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist when you subscribe to his newsletter at www.fatherdave.org