We are under a tent in the Australian outback, on a spring night in September with sand in the air. Coming at me is a hazel-eyed heavyweight with a choirboy curl across his brow and a thousand rounds behind him. I am an unranked amateur in the first boxing match of my life.
The ring is a canvas mat on a dirt floor with no ropes to enclose it. Three hundred ranchmen and roustabouts, most of them already legless, as the Aussies say, on Victoria Bitter and Emu Lager, line the perimeter, smelling blood and whooping. I have no mouth guard, no headgear, no protective cup. I have a burning stomach and an empty head.
My opponent, a tall, fleshy menace nicknamed the Friendly Mauler, is windmilling his arms and grinning. Forty-nine years and seven months after I entered this world, he is preparing to knock me out of it. "Why do they call you the Friendly Mauler?" I had the sangfroid to ask him just before the fight.
"Because the harder you hit me, the friendlier I get," he replied with a diagonal smile.
The referee blows his whistle, we come to ring center to touch gloves, and reality jabs me: I can hide behind my fat red mitts, but I can't run. Not now, with all these cowboys watching. "Come at me like I'm your worst enemy in the world," the Mauler commands.
"But I don't have any enemies," I reply.
"If you just muck about, people will laugh," he replies. "I don't like that. It makes me mad. So hit me! I can take a punch."
The tent has been erected in a ghost town called Birdsville, whose population of a few straggling dozens swells to about 6,000 for one crazed weekend every year. The surrounding region is sparsely populated too, a swatch of desert the size of Indiana with about 300 permanent residents. We are a long, long way from the Sydney Opera House, the Great Barrier Reef and Elle Macpherson. But this, the men all say, is the true Australia.
A century ago, before the British colonies of the southern continent were joined into a single dominion, Birdsville was a bustling customs post where livestock from Queensland was counted and taxed, then mustered toward the distant sea. Today Birdsville is a convergence of yellow sand highways, an artesian well whose water comes rocketing out of die ground at 210� F, a gas station and die only licensed pub for hundreds of miles.
In 1882, to relieve the isolation, a race meeting was begun. This has grown into a bacchanal of beer drinking, boxing, whip cracking, bull riding and thoroughbred racing on an oval of dust—a combination of the Kentucky Derby, Munich's Oktoberfest, the Calgary Stampede and Lawrence of Arabia. Half the throng descends in private planes and camps out under their wings. The rest drive 18 hours or more on rutted trails from Brisbane or Adelaide and sleep (if they sleep) in the dust. A few men have been known to pull up on camels. Many, when the weekend is over, do not remember having been here.