A brotherhood of boxers who take on all comers has been a fixture at the Birdsville meeting and at other outback carnivals for more than a century. Now this manly sideshow has taken on a melancholy air. Under the big top, as I face the Friendly Mauler, I am a flat-footed footnote to history: Fred Brophy's Boxing Troupe—of which the Mauler is the paragon, the Nureyev, the prima donna—is the last of its kind. "The last one left not only in the world but in Australia," Brophy says with typical antipodal hubris.
Brophy, 47, is a Queenslander whose father managed a troupe like this, as did Brophy's grandfather, and so on, back four generations to the family's Dreamtime. Now Brophy and his wife, Sandi, and their three children and their mongrel roster of sluggers, rasslers and kickboxers, young and aged, whites and Aboriginals, travel from town to town across the infinity of soil and spinifex that the Australians call the Never Never, peppering stooges like me with up-percuts and big, long, looping hooks.
"I'm gonna keep on going till I die," said Brophy as he hauled an enormous bass drum to the front of his tent on the evening of the big fight. "I'm not doing it for the money. I'm doing it for Australia. There's no one left in the world doing this. The other people who had boxing tents, they found easier things to do."
He mounted a ladder to a rickety catwalk, stood in front of a huge painting of himself and began to wallop the drum. "Challenging all comers, and there's no one barred!" Brophy bellowed above the din of thousands who had come back thirsty from the race course and were listing to starboard in the ankle-deep sand of Birdsville's only street. Admission to the show was $15 Australian (about $10 U.S.), but those who fought would get in free.
As the drumming intensified, the pugilists paraded from the tent in robes and trunks and singlets: the Friendly Mauler, White Lightning, the Cave Man, the Spider Man, Kid Valentine, Young Cassius, the Palm Island Tiger. Six of us civilians bravely answered the summons and scaled the trellis to pose beside them. "Are you scared?" I asked the fellow next to me.
He was about one third my age, with a stomach the size of a bushel of apples, and wore a dirty gray bathing suit. "I'm much too drunk to be scared," he said, smiling. As it turned out, he would be my partner on a tag team.
The friendly mauler is a father of five from central Queensland named Glynn Johnston. "Why do men volunteer to fight you?" I asked him, and he responded with a staccato catalog of reasons: "To prove themselves. Bit of an ego trip—typical male, bit of bonding, something to talk about with their mates, have a few beers and tell how they did it."
I'd covered so many boxing matches that I thought I could box, too. In my sports-writing days I was at ringside for the best of them—Ali-Frazier, Frazier-Foreman, Leonard-Hearns, Roberto Dur�n's "No m�s." Throw in a few hundred Olympic and club brawls, and my secondhand education was complete. What would it be like in the ring, I wondered, with the lights and the crowd and the fear?
Suddenly I am to find out. Brophy blows the whistle again to start the fight, and I am prancing with innocent confidence toward the Friendly Mauler, who sticks out his left and taps me on the crown as I get nearer.
Remembering the Mauler's command to make the bout appear ferocious, I bow low and come in headfirst, completely neglecting to protect myself, and pepper as many fast little body punches as I can muster before my arms turn to lead. This takes about 10 seconds. Then I straighten and notice that the Mauler is winding up to throw a haymaker. "He's going to pop me in the nose," I say to myself as the punch approaches. His aim is perfect.