An evening with Australia’s last traveling boxing troupe

TThe crowd outside is several drinks deep and beginning to get restless as Fred Brophy calls his boxers to the center of the tent and hands them a bottle of port. One by one they swallow until the wine is gone. Then they step out to meet the 300 beer-drinking cowboys, miners and ranchers itching to see some action.

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

Traveling boxing troops like Brophy’s were once common Down Under. But Australia’s transformation into a progressive, urbanized country has come at the expense of some of its stubborn frontier traditions.

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

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

Brophy is a fourth-generation spriker, as they say in Australia: a showman who tricked passers-by into paying around $25 to see — or attend — the event. His mother was a trapeze artist; his father, a shocked World War II veteran turned struggling circus operator. Brophy traveled from town to town helping set up the tent where he boxed with other kids for pennies before the adults’ fights. His fighting spirit led to a troubled youth, the scars of which he still bears.

Boxers including Charles “The Gentleman” Page (right) share a traditional bottle of port before fight night begins

(Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

“I was impaled, shot, strapped in, crushed,” says Brophy, who is limping. “I got 85 buckshot in this leg and 17 in that one because I was strapping people in, so they got a gun and they shot me,” he says, pointing to his injuries. “The doctors wanted to cut my leg off, but I said, ‘No, I’m going to need it to dance.'”

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

Once settled, Brophy started his own traveling boxing tent. He tells the crowd that boxing was Australia’s first sport, born when British convicts and later prospectors fought for a few coins or a bottle of rum.

The format hasn’t changed much since then. Anyone with a ticket sober enough to step on stage can fight one of his boxers. Win and get $70 for three minutes of play. Losers get a sticker – and some bruises.

Fred Brophy (center) is a fourth-generation Spriker

(Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

Each challenger signs a waiver stating that they will not sue for normally minor injuries such as a bloody nose or a split lip. Meanwhile, the police are thrilled to see Brophy arrive in town.

“It expresses the frustration in the community,” said Queensland Police Service Sergeant Jake Lacy, stopping by the tent ahead of the fighting. It was Mount Isa’s rodeo weekend – Australia’s largest – and the town of 20,000 was packed with beer-sipping young men. “We tell people, ‘Don’t do it here, go over to Fred’s tent and fight one of his guys,’ so they can lose in a controlled environment,” says Lacy.

The troops used to criss-cross the country. But Brophy is no longer taking his show to New South Wales or Victoria after saying states required him to hold the fights in a proper ring.

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

The force may be the last of its kind in Australia

(Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

He then bangs a drum while introducing his boxers by the nicknames he gave them — including flashbacks to a less politically correct era. When Tony Tseng joined the troupe a decade ago, Brophy nicknamed him “Chopstix.”

“I think that was the first thing that came to Fred’s mind,” said Tseng, 38, who came to Australia from Taiwan as a toddler. The nickname initially angered him, he said. But over time he had embraced it.

“I’m really living my dream,” says Tseng, a boxing and martial arts instructor. He sometimes makes more than $1,000 during a four-day boxing stint like the one at Mount Isa. “Many people cannot pursue their passion in life.”

For Tseng, the first few seconds of a fight are the most frightening as he tries to figure out if he’s dealing with a liquid-courage-fueled hypocrite or a former pro. Many viewers are now filming the fights, adding another danger.

Brophy amid preparations for fight night at Mount Isa

(Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

“You’re one mistake away from being someone else’s highlight,” says Nick Larter, a 42-year-old criminal defense attorney whose boxing nickname is “The Barrister.” (Hit him and he’ll defend you for nothing, Brophy likes to say.)

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

An arm injury prevented The Barrister from boxing at Mount Isa, so he helped Brophy at the show. After Brophy pairs the boxers and challengers, to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” the boisterous crowd pours into the tent and sits on folding chairs and bales of hay surrounding a rubber mat.

“Bring in the first customer,” calls Brophy as a slight man in khaki and a collared shirt nervously stands up. Tseng makes it easy for him, drawing boos from the crowd by pretending to smack his opponent on the back of the head.

The Spriker beats a drum and announces his boxers for the night

(Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

The second fight was a four-woman tag team, or “Sheilas” in Brophy’s salty outback slang. Minutes earlier, Soraya Johnston had streamed live on TikTok to her 55,000 fans. Now the Sydney model steps into the makeshift ring, her face smeared with Vaseline. Her father was tent boxing legend Glynn “The Friendly Mauler” Johnston, who had won all of his 1,000+ bouts in Brophy’s tent. But this was her first competition.

Your opponent comes out swinging, each Haymaker eliciting a roar from the crowd. As the first round ended, Glynn Johnston told his daughter to stop being gentle with the woman. Soraya starts attacking, landing jab after jab and she and her partner narrowly win. Then the four women hug.

“It was on my bucket list,” says Caitlin Duffie, one of the contenders, as she sips a post-fight beer and plucks Vaseline from her hair. She had come to rural Queensland for two weeks as a nurse, fell in love with the outback and stayed a year. “This is our Wild West,” she says. “It’s changing, probably for the better.”

Soraya ‘Miss Mauler’ Johnston fights Caitlin Duffie, an audience volunteer

(Washington Post photo by Michael Robinson Chavez)

In one particularly fierce tag team match, two brothers faced off against local miner Caleb Teece, known as “Little White Lightning,” and Soraya Johnston’s 17-year-old nephew.

“We’re drunk, man,” admits Arlen Hepi, one of the brothers, afterwards. He says they drank heavily for more than seven hours and the social media posts proved it. Given their condition, the brothers gear up well in the ring, although Hepi says his brother fell ill once the fight was over.

“He spat,” says Hepi, a purple spot on the bridge of his nose.

In the final match of the night, Soraya’s older brother – a tent boxing veteran – faced off against a heavily built miner in a cowboy hat. Halfway through the heavyweight bout, the miner removed his shirt and the crowd went berserk. He then attempted a muay thai flying punch that sent both of them crashing into the stands.

When the three minutes were up, Brophy put both fighters’ hands in the air. It was a draw – the only surprise of the evening.

Brophy says he has no plans to retire and that his show is more popular than ever. But his cheering is a bit more tired than it used to be, and every year he finds it harder to climb onto the stage. In the end, he says, he will apply the same rule to himself as to the thousands of challengers who passed through his tent.

“As long as I can climb the ladders out there,” he says, “I’ll keep going.”

© The Washington Post An evening with Australia’s last traveling boxing troupe

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