An evening with the last travelling boxing troupe in Australia

·7 min read
Soraya ‘Miss Mauler’ Johnston (right) fights a volunteer from the audience (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)
Soraya ‘Miss Mauler’ Johnston (right) fights a volunteer from the audience (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

The crowd outside is several drinks deep and starting to get restless when Fred Brophy summons his boxers to the centre of the tent and hands them a bottle of port. One by one, they swig it until the wine is gone. Then they step out to meet the 300 beer-clutching cowboys, miners and cattle ranchers who are itching to see some action.

“Who wants to have a fight?” Brophy asks the cheering crowd. Seven men and two women climb onto a narrow stage for the chance to get punched in the face.

Travelling boxing troupes like Brophy’s were once common Down Under. But Australia’s transformation into a progressive, urbanised country has come at the cost of some of its unruly frontier traditions.

Today, Brophy’s troupe is the last of its kind in Australia, a relic of a bygone era before Netflix when a boozy boxing match was a small town’s blockbuster entertainment. In the eyes of some Australians, the end of such unregulated events is a sign of progress. But for others, it is another step toward losing an Outback way of life.

“That’s why they all come to the show,” Brophy, 69, says shortly before a slate of Friday-night fights last month in the Queensland mining town of Mount Isa. “They know that when I go, that’s it, they won’t see another one.”

Brophy is a fourth-generation spruiker, as they say in Australia: a showman who entices passersby to pay around $25 to watch – or join – the event. His mother was a trapeze artist; his father, a shell-shocked World War II veteran turned struggling circus operator. Brophy grew up travelling from town to town, helping put up the tent where he’d box other children for pennies before the adult bouts. His eagerness to fight led to a troubled adolescence, the scars of which he still bears.

Boxers, including Charles
Boxers, including Charles

“I’ve been speared, shot, belted, smashed,” says Brophy, who walks with a limp. “I’ve got 85 shotgun pellets in this leg and 17 in that one because I belted people, so they went and got a gun and shot me,” he says, gesturing to his injuries. “The doctors were going to cut my leg off but I said, ‘nah, I’m going to need it for dances.’”

He is missing parts of two fingers, which he cut off in a failed bid to escape from prison, and an attempt to prove his love to his wife, according to his autobiography.

After settling down, Brophy launched his own travelling boxing tent. He tells crowds that boxing was Australia’s first sport, born when British convicts and, later, gold-seekers battled each other for a few coins or a flagon of rum.

The format has not changed much since then. Anyone with a ticket who is sober enough to climb onstage can fight one of his boxers. Win and they get $70 for three minutes of effort. Losers get a sticker – and some bruises.

Fred Brophy (centre) is a fourth-generation ‘spruiker’ (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)
Fred Brophy (centre) is a fourth-generation ‘spruiker’ (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

Each challenger signs a waiver saying they will not sue over what are usually minor injuries, like a bloody nose or busted lip. Police, meanwhile, are thrilled to see Brophy arrive in town.

“It gets the frustration out in the community,” says sergeant Jake Lacy from the Queensland Police Service as he stopped by the tent before the fights. It was the weekend of Mount Isa’s rodeo – Australia’s largest – and the town of 20,000 was bursting with beer-guzzling young men. “We tell people, ‘don’t do it here, go across to Fred’s tent and fight one of his guys,’ so they can lose in a controlled environment,” Lacy says.

The troupe used to crisscross the country. But Brophy no longer takes his show to New South Wales or Victoria after he says the states demanded he holds the fights in a proper ring.

“I’m not changing for any politician, any bureaucrat or any copper in the world,” he tells the crowd in Mount Isa.

The troupe may well be the last of its kind in Australia (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)
The troupe may well be the last of its kind in Australia (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

He then beats on a drum as he introduces his boxers by the nicknames he’s given them – also throwbacks to a less politically correct era. When Tony Tseng joined the troupe a decade ago, Brophy gave him the moniker “Chopstix.”

“I think it was the first thing that came into Fred’s head,” said Tseng, 38, who came to Australia as a toddler from Taiwan. The nickname rankled him at first, he said. But over time, he’d embraced it.

“I’m living the dream, really,” says Tseng, a boxing and martial arts instructor. He sometimes makes more than $1,000 during a four-night boxing stint like the one in Mount Isa. “A lot of people don’t get to do their passion in life.”

For Tseng, the first few seconds of a fight are the most anxious as he tries to figure out if he is facing a pretender fuelled by liquid courage or a former pro. Many spectators now film the fights, adding another danger.

Brophy amid the preparation for fight night in Mount Isa (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)
Brophy amid the preparation for fight night in Mount Isa (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

“You’re one mistake away from making someone else’s highlight reel,” says Nick Larter, a 42-year-old criminal defence attorney whose boxing nickname is “The Barrister.” (Beat him and he will defend you for free, Brophy likes to say.)

“I defend murderers and rapists and bank robbers, then I come out here and fold people in half,” Larter says with a laugh.

An arm injury prevented The Barrister from boxing in Mount Isa, so he was helping Brophy with the show. After Brophy pairs the boxers and challengers, the boisterous crowd pour inside the tent to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and sit on folding chairs and bales of hay surrounding a rubber mat.

“Bring in the first customer,” shouts Brophy as a slight man in khakis and a collared shirt nervously rises. Tseng makes easy work of him, drawing boos from the crowd by pretending to punch his opponent on the back of the head.

The ‘spruiker’ bangs a drum, announcing his boxers for the night (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)
The ‘spruiker’ bangs a drum, announcing his boxers for the night (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

The second bout was a tag team involving four women, or “Sheilas,” in Brophy’s salty Outback vernacular. Minutes earlier, Soraya Johnston had been live-streaming to her 55,000 fans on TikTok. Now, the Sydney model enters the makeshift ring with her face smeared with Vaseline. Her father was tent boxing legend Glynn “The Friendly Mauler” Johnston, who’d won all of his more than 1,000 fights in Brophy’s tent. But this was her first contest.

Her opponent comes out swinging, each haymaker drawing a roar from the crowd. When the first round ends, Glynn Johnston told his daughter to stop being soft on the woman. Soraya begins attacking, landing jab after jab, and she and her partner win narrowly. Afterwards, the four women hug.

“This was on my bucket list,” says Caitlin Duffie, one of the challengers, as she drinks a beer and picks Vaseline out of her hair after the fight. She had come to rural Queensland for a two-week stint as a nurse, fallen in love with the Outback and stayed for a year. “This is our Wild West,” she says. “It is changing, probably for the better.”

Soraya ‘Miss Mauler’ Johnston fights Caitlin Duffie, a volunteer from the audience (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)
Soraya ‘Miss Mauler’ Johnston fights Caitlin Duffie, a volunteer from the audience (Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

One particularly fierce tag-team fight pitted two brothers against local mine worker Caleb Teece, known as “Little White Lightning,” and Soraya Johnston’s 17-year-old nephew.

“We are drunk, man,” Arlen Hepi, one of the brothers, admits afterwards. He says they had been drinking heavily for more than seven hours and had the social media posts to prove it. Given their condition, the brothers equip themselves well in the ring, though Hepi says his brother had gotten sick as soon as the fight ended.

“He was spewing,” Hepi says, a purple welt across the bridge of his nose.

In the night’s final fight, Soraya’s older brother – a tent boxing veteran – took on a thickly built miner in a cowboy hat. Halfway through the heavyweight bout, the miner stripped off his shirt and the crowd went crazy. Then he attempted a flying Muay Thai punch that sent both of them tumbling into the stands.

When the three minutes were up, Brophy thrusts both fighters’ hands into the air. It was a draw – the only upset of the night.

Brophy says he has no plans to retire, and that his show is more popular than ever. But his spruiking is a bit wearier than it once was, and each year it’s harder for him to climb onstage. In the end, he says he’ll apply the same rule to himself as to the thousands of challengers who’ve passed through his tent.

“As long as I can get up those ladders out there,” he says, “I’ll keep going.”

© The Washington Post