6 Things I Learnt from Fighting in a Boxing Tent … and Losing

Have you heard of touring boxing tents?

They started in the late 19th Century when boxing troupes of professional fighters would travel the mining towns and outback of Australia, following fairs and carnivals, putting up big top tents and taking on all-comers for cash in the ring.

Fred Brophy still travels with his touring boxing tent and his troupe across Queensland.  He’s the last one.  The last touring boxing tent in the world.

‘My name is Fred Brophy and I’m the fairest referee in the Australian Outback!’

That’s how Fred starts every show in his boxing tent.

‘Ladies and gentlemen. I will show you something you have never seen before, and something you will never see again . . .’

Fred Brophy insists he will continue travelling with his tent and boxing troupe, until he dies, even though the sport was banned in New South Wales, Victoria, Western Australia and South Australia in 1971 by the government, due to health concerns.

You might have also heard of the Birdsville Races.  Far, far western Queensland and remote.  The nearest city is 7 hours away.  The population is around 100 people.  There’s one pub, a bakery, a service station, post office and not much else.  Oh and there’s a horse racing track.  During the first weekend of September every year this small outback town swells with around 6,000 people convening for a weekend of horse racing, beer drinking, camping, live entertainment (and that’s just the punters) and a general good time.

 

We are here – Birdsville – Outback Queensland

So Fred Brophy’s Boxing Tent is almost always at the Birdsville Races and it’s a highlight.  Two shows each day where thousands of race goers gather outside the tent to hear and see the professional fighters introduced and to see the brave punters stepping up from the crowd agreeing to fight these professional, touring boxers, hoping to win a few dollars.  It’s a show like no other, and that’s just on the outside of the tent.  Once the professional boxers are matched up with the punters from the crowd, around 1500 lucky ones get to go inside the tent and enjoy the entertainment for a few hours.

I’d been to the Birdsville Races and Brophy’s Tent two times before but this particular year, my third time, things were different.  I was drawn, from the time I got there, to move from being a spectator, to getting in to the arena.  I was tired of being on the sidelines and wanted in on the action, so to speak.  To taste a little of this long standing tradition – to be a part of touring boxing tent history.

That’s how I found myself standing on the platform outside Brophy’s Tent one Saturday night at the annual Birdsville Races, getting lined up against one of Fred’s professional female fighters.  Her name was the ‘Beaver’ and frankly, she was built like a ……. professional fighter and frightened the hell out of me.

 

Fred shaking my hand before I head in to the tent to fight the Beaver

The crowd was going wild – the Beaver hadn’t had a fight on the Friday night as no woman would step up and fight her.  This was her first bout for the weekend.

And here I was …. approaching 50, with my extensive experience in the corporate and government world, my one time experience at one of those boxing fitness classes, and of course, my black belt in macramé.  I was clearly not well qualified to be up here.  I hadn’t even partaken in a few stiff shots of something strong to give me some dutch courage.  I looked into the Beaver’s eyes before we were moved into the tent proper to wait our turn to get into the ring.  It was one of the most frightening moments of my life.

You can probably imagine how I went.  Not so well by all accounts but I lived to tell the tale.  It was an amazing (and somewhat painful) experience – here’s what I learnt:

No. 1 – Sometimes the fear won’t go away – so you have to do it afraid.

I was shit scared.  It was one of those ‘sounded like a good idea at the time’ moments.  What was I doing?  What was I thinking?  I had to consciously bring myself back to my reasons for choosing to do this – those made when I was of sound mind.  I wanted to do this.  I was going to be afraid.  There was a fair chance I was going to remain afraid until the final bell rang and it was over.

Fred Brophy says there’s absolutely nothing like the thrills, spills, fear, sheer entertainment and displays of absolute courage of a traditional boxing tent.  It does take courage, I can attest to that.  But that doesn’t mean the absence of fear.  The fear was there until the last moments.

There are times we have to do things afraid, when the fear won’t go away, and that’s perfectly ok. Saddle up and get on with it and pack that fear with you – it can come along for the ride. 

 No. 2 – Gather your Support Team when you have to do something challenging

It’s important to gather around you a support team.

When I was moved in to the ring and took my seat in my corner, I was greeted by the tent Doctor and the trainer assigned to me.  The Doctor was there to check on me during the rounds and make sure I was of sufficient health to continue.  The trainer was the person who, when I first met him, commenced smearing my entire face with a thick layer of Vaseline, before helping me don some boxing gloves.  As it turned out, these two items – Vaseline and boxing gloves – were the extent of my protection for the fight.  No mouthguard, no headgear, just a slimy smearing of the old Vaseline and some gloves!

 

In my corner…

Both of these men however had my best interests at heart, they were both experts in this field I was entering and they knew things I didn’t (like keep your hands up – easier said than done I can attest to).  The Doctor knew from my eyes whether I could go back in for another round (checking for concussion) and each of them were there to help me achieve my goal (walking away from the fight).

It is so important to not only gather your support team around you but to understand who needs to be on the team, who will have your best interests at heart as you reach for your goals, who can help you get there, who can offer advice, who are the experts you can lean on? 

 Who’s on your support team to help you achieve your goals?   

No. 3 – Get your Supporters together – get them cheering for you

Now supporters are important too, but they’re different to your support team.  My supporters were in the crowd, some I knew, many I didn’t – and all of whom were cheering me on, yelling my name, and generally encouraging me to get back in the ring and take another hit.  They weren’t providing advice, and they weren’t necessarily experts in this field, but they were important and they helped me achieve my goal.

For some reason, maybe nerves, I simply could not stop laughing and smiling while I was in the fight.  I have no idea why as this isn’t a normal fear reaction for me so I can’t explain it.  What I do know for sure is that my constant laughing and smiling did two things.  The first is it got the crowd going and they cheered even louder – likely wondering how on earth I was continuing to smile as I was copping a pounding from the Beaver.  The second was that my reaction in the ring did nothing to enamour me to the Beaver – it is likely she saw my laughing and smiling as an affront to the fight, which resulted in her upping the game – trying I would suggest to actually wipe the smile off my face.

I can’t believe I was smiling!

That aside, the support from the crowd was amazing and certainly helped me get back out for the three rounds.

Supporters are important – who’s supporting you in your goals?  Who are your cheerleaders? 

 

No. 4 – Decide on your Commitment before you start

I was hurting by the end of the second round.  I could barely lift my arms and though my smile might not have shown it, I was starting to really feel it!  I didn’t want to walk back into the ring and go another round with the Beaver – I wanted to get the blood off my face and go to the beer garden!  When I think of that few minutes, sitting in my corner, the trainer reapplying Vaseline to my face and spraying water in my mouth (just like the Rocky Movies – kind of), and the Doctor shining a torch in my eyes, I can feel my body get heavy and I can  taste that metallic flavour of blood in my mouth.

But I did go back in, because I wanted to finish what I started and I was committed to that goal.  I didn’t want to.  I didn’t have to.

But I did and I am so proud of myself for doing so.  Backing out without being knocked out simply wasn’t an option – but that was something I had to decide before I set foot in the ring.   I had to commit before I went in – committing to myself that backing out was not an option, and when it isn’t an option, you look for something else.

That something else for me, right then, was again, my supporters, the crowd.  They were calling me back out there and given I had already and in a far more reasoned state of mind, decided backing out wasn’t an option, I went back in that ring.

I hurt all over, I was bleeding, and I couldn’t lift my arms.  The ding from the bell at the end of that round was the sweetest sound.

A good friend who adventures a lot harder than I ever will, once told me that if you truly want something, ask yourself, ‘what am I prepared to do?’ Then go and do it. 

No. 5 – Take some time to be proud of your achievements

I didn’t fare very well against the Beaver, as you might have gathered.  But in front of a raucous and mostly intoxicated crowd of over 1500, I managed to get through three rounds (I think Fred might have called the last round up short and I thank him for that), and walked away with the most amazing sense of achievement.  I walked away with pride, with respect for the Beaver, and the profession.  I walked away with new friends, with a rather large swollen lip where my teeth had gone through.  I walked away with many bruises and a black eye.  I walked away knowing I can do hard things, and that I was brave enough to do it afraid.  At the time, I was just happy to be walking away rather than being carried away like some of the other fighters that night.

 

Brophy’s Tent at the Birdsville Races – it’s not going to be there forever.

I achieved my goal – to fight in the last touring boxing tent in the world.  To fight on the same mat as so many before me.  To carry in my heart and my soul that little memento of being a part of this historic sport and outback tradition.  To be in the arena, not in the grandstand. 

No. 6 – Choose your Inspiration

On 23 April 1910, Theodore Roosevelt gave what would become one of the most widely quoted speeches of his career.  It is commonly referred to as ‘The Man in the Arena’ and it’s inspired me my entire life.  It inspired me that September night in far outback Queensland as I bumped gloves with the Beaver at the commencement of my fight.  It continues to inspire me to be the one in the arena, not the one in the grandstand.

Even if that means I know the bloody, metallic taste of defeat from time to time.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”  Theodore Roosevelt

 Do you choose to be in the grandstands where you will taste neither victory nor defeat? 

 Or do you choose to be in the arena where you have a chance to taste both?

‘Let your life be your message’ Mahatma Gandhi

It’s shaken you to awaken you.. earthquake survival 101

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” ~Carl Gustav.

It used to be my favourite guided meditation. You know the one about the mountain, where you imagine yourself as the mountain? Strong, tall, standing firm in the face of all that comes at it—rain, hail, shine. Letting it all wash off without getting rattled by it.
One of the reasons I used to love that particular guided meditation was because I could relate to it. I could relate to it because I love mountains. I love trekking and I love mountains. Big mountains. Immovable. Stable. Reliable. Regardless of what was thrown at them.

Then the mountains moved. I found myself in Nepal at over 4000m above sea level, scrambling to stop my body from sliding down the side of the mighty Himalayas as a 7.8 magnitude earthquake cracked open these mighty mountains and shook them from 18km beneath the ground.

I can’t even bring myself to listen to that meditation any more.

I heard it before I felt it. It sounded like a deep guttural scream, the earth itself crying out in pain. No other sounds, no animals, no people, just this sound unlike any sound I’d ever heard before.

Stillness and quiet followed—for what was probably only seconds—before my life was fundamentally redefined.

Before boulders the size of cars came hurtling down the mountain, before the narrow path on the steep ridge I was trekking started to literally disappear beneath my feet, before I could hear someone screaming for me to run.

I remember every detail. Every little detail. I wish I didn’t.

Sleep was a luxury not afforded to me as aftershocks continued through that first night, forcing the group of us sheltering in what was left of a Tea House out into the snow and below freezing temperatures time and time again.

Surviving the actual earthquake was only the beginning and it was a challenging and emotional journey as I made my way, through devastated villages, down the mountain. The aftershocks continued for several days, with one in particular carrying almost as much force as the actual earthquake.

Patchy reports of what had occurred in Kathmandu, Everest Base Camp (where I had been two days before) and other villages were coming through. I was devastated and bewildered.

As the days went by I continued to make my way down the mountains. The Australian Embassy was advising that until I got myself back to Kathmandu they couldn’t help me. The Australian Defence Force was being deployed to assist. The reports of casualties and devastation became clearer.

In all, over 9,000 people lost their lives. I personally knew one of those people, but every day I pray for all of them.

The trauma, destruction, and death I was experiencing and witnessing every day for five days altered my sense of being entirely.

Visions that would normally bring me to my knees were becoming commonplace.

Stepping over the bodies of beautiful souls, crudely wrapped in blue tarpaulins far too small for the job, became just something I had to do to get to safety.

Watching as a fellow trekker’s body burned in a traditional Buddhist cremation, out in the open on the side of a hill. Watching as his friends gathered his ashes in a bucket to take home to his loving family. Watching, but not really seeing… it was like I was outside of my body, looking on.

Days went by before I found myself standing outside the Australian Embassy in Kathmandu. You would think I could start to feel safe, but Kathmandu was badly damaged, and mourning the massive loss of lives. There continued to be aftershocks. It was not safe.

Still, the welcome sound of the Aussie accent and the welcome sight of fresh water, food rations, and tents in the Embassy grounds were extremely comforting. More comforting was the next night, taking my seat on a plane to Malaysia, before a plane to Sydney. However the comfort, the relief, was mixed with bewilderment and much sadness. There was a part of me that didn’t want to leave.

Coming home was bittersweet. I was, of course, extremely joyful to be hugging my family and friends, but the event had taken its toll and I wasn’t remotely who I was when I had left Australia only a month before.

Shock and trauma had settled in me now that I was out of immediate danger, my body shut down, and my mind shut down. I was a mess.

Time passes and I’ve been able to look back at this time. I learned some things through this experience, mostly about myself, and I’d like to share these.2.

1. Without any warning, things can change. You can change.

I used to see natural disasters in foreign countries on the news and watch as travelers were urged to get to their Embassy and governments rallied to evacuate their citizens. I never thought it would happen to me though, because these things happen to other people. Right? Wrong.

Things can change regardless of how well you plan. Things changed, and well, I changed—in that split second where I fought for my own life, and the times in the days to follow where I felt it was likely my end, I changed.

This experience will forever be a part of who I am, and has irreversibly redefined me and my values. I have learned that as much as we like to think we have it all under control, we don’t, and we need to be prepared to change.

2. Embrace surrender and acceptance.

I now have a better understanding of what it means to accept and surrender. It doesn’t mean that I won’t have goals and I won’t plan, but I now understand what I can control and what I can’t control.   Consequently, I know now that there really is very little in this life I can control. I’m not perfect at this, but I am getting better, day by day.

When life does what it does, we can embrace each situation and accept it as it is, or we can demand that life be some other way. In the words of Eckhart Tolle in The Power of Now, “Whenever you are not honoring the present moment by allowing it to be, you are creating drama.” When we have no control of the situation, demanding it be some other way is a drama.

3. Your best, at each moment, has to be good enough.

The trauma and constant stress of living one minute to the next for five days, along with the situations I found myself in, and witnessed, not knowing if I would live that day or die, took its toll on me.

Everything came back to basics—safety from landslides and aftershocks, a supply of clean water and some shelter and warmth were the key priorities. My ability to think straight, my ability to comprehend what was happening, my capacity to fathom the extent of the destruction and death—all of these were compromised and this affected my thoughts and my behaviours.

We all just have to do our best, in every moment, because it’s all we have and that has to be good enough. Let’s be gentle on ourselves.

4. That which you think you can’t possibly get through, you can.

If you had asked me if I could get through the experience I went through, before I went through it, I likely would have said no.

I have learned that we are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for. Not only capable of surviving traumatic experiences, but showing compassion, love, and nurturing along the way; taking the gifts, however disguised they may seem at the time; and allowing change and growth to occur within ourselves. Walking right up to it, leaning in to it.

We can get through it, even when we think we can’t.

5. It’s okay to not be okay.

I hope to listen to the mountain meditation again one day, just as I hope to trek mountains again one day. The mighty Himalayas are still there. In parts, they look a little different and some are even a bit broken. But they remain, standing strong, in the face of the devastation they have had to witness.

I aspire again to be like that mountain. I’m a bit broken too, but I stand up again and face this life with a gratefulness that I wouldn’t have, had it not been for this experience. At the sound of a helicopter you will find me under the nearest table, and sudden loud noises bring me to my knees.

I struggle to hold a conversation about my experience without tears streaming down my face. I’ve learned that even though we might not be okay right now, and we might be a bit broken in places, we can keep getting back up, every day. Every single day.

I recognize the pull in my heart to return to Nepal; I accept that yearning and commit to returning when the time is right. I breathe in my life every second and I endeavour to practice acceptance in a much more authentic way than ever before.

I have changed—I’m not who I once was. That thing I thought I would never be able to get through, I did, and it has redefined my entire being.

I tentatively welcome the gifts from this experience each day, while never forgetting to honour my fellow adventurers who didn’t make it home and the beautiful people of Nepal, who lost their lives that day when the mountains moved.

Whatever it is you’re going through, have faith that you will get to the other side, and when you do, remember to look closely enough to recognize the gifts from your experience, and welcome the personal growth and change in yourself.

Do more than just exist.