Rumble in the Outback

BIRDSVILLE. — When Fred Brophy bangs a drum on the floodlit stage outside his boxing tent, the large crowd gathered in front of him falls silent in rapt attention.

Sporting a cowboy hat and a silky bright-red shirt, the tall and weathered 67-year-old looks every bit the showman. Brophy runs a boxing troupe – the last in Australia and one of the few left worldwide – travelling to outback towns where someone’s always up for a fight.

“I’ve been doing it since I’ve been five years of age. I was born into it,” Brophy said in a broad Australian accent in Birdsville, a remote town in the vast continent’s dry, dusty interior, around 1 500km west of Brisbane.
Having his own troupe is something of a family tradition, he explains.

“Me father had one. Me grandfather had one. Me great-grandfather had one. So I’ve got one.” Brophy and his touring pugilists are on their annual pilgrimage to the Queensland outback spot where more than 6 000 people travel for days and weeks across Australia to attend the centuries-old two-day Birdsville Races.

Racegoers, clutching beer cans while buffeted by dust and flies during the day, flock to Brophy’s big tent at night, eager for more action.

Back in the 1930s to 1950s, such tents were a fixture at country fairs and agricultural shows in the major cities, says Australian boxing author Grantlee Kieza. It gave aspiring boxers, particularly those from poor backgrounds, a chance to hone their skills in front of intimate yet boisterous crowds, pocket some money, and become the hometown hero. The troupes provided a foundation for some top Aboriginal boxers including Jack Hassen, George Bracken and Tony Mundine.

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