Why More Priests Need To Train As Fighters (And Why We Don't See Many Boxers in Church)

Mar 4 21:57 2005 Rev. David B. Smith (Sydney's 'Fighting Father') Print This Article

"Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do notfight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make itmy slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself willnot be disqualified for the prize."(1 Corinthians 9:26-27)

St Paul was a fighter. I don't think he ever competed in thering,Guest Posting but that wasn't because he lacked the discipline or wasafraid of the pain.

I always say that to be a fighter you need to have two thingsgoing for you. Firstly you need to have a lot of energy insidethat needs release. Secondly, you need to be not too concernedabout your own health. This fits the profile of most of our youngmen perfectly - on the edge of the drug culture, full oftestosterone, and with no thought for the future. It also fitsperfectly the profile of another group - single fathers,struggling to gain access to their children.

That was how I got into the fight game. I hadn't taken it up as ateenager, and I certainly hadn't been born into it. My dad was apriest for God's sake, and an academic. Fighting had not been mybirthright. I came in through the back door of pain andloneliness and bitter struggle.

Separated, and struggling for the right to see my daughter, I hadmade one half-hearted attempt at suicide already by that stage.And I had met with my bishop the following day and he had told menot to 'trade off' my situation (in other words, not to get toocomfortable). I appeared to be losing my family, my vocation, andmost of my friends at the same time. Full of emotional energy,obsessed with thoughts of self-destruction, and drinking way toomuch, I managed to find my way to the Mundine gym. It was mydecision not to go under, but to fight back.

Mundine's is situated in the middle of Everleigh Street, Redfern- the roughest street in one of the roughest neighborhoods in ourcity. Redfern is a largely Aboriginal suburb on the outskirts ofcentral Sydney. In recent years the government has come throughand 'cleaned it up' somewhat, which meant pushing a lot of thelocal residents further out west. Even so, it is still a rougharea.

I had grown up in the vicinity of Everleigh Street. My dad hadbeen a lecturer at the Anglican seminary located only a fewblocks from this dark heart of Aboriginal Sydney. It was alwaysan odd location for the seminary. The ecclesiastical communitynever had anything to do with the adjoining aboriginal enclave.On the contrary, most persons associated with the religiouscommunity dealt with their black neighbours by practising thesame sort of avoidance strategy that I'd learnt as a kidscurrying quickly past the end of Everleigh Street and itsenvirons whenever circumstances put us unavoidably within itsreach.

Ironically this strategy had to be invoked every time you got offa train from Redfern station. The platforms seemed to be designedto feed directly into Everleigh Street! Of course I never madethe mistake of straying down that way myself, and as a youngster,I had heard many a nasty story about the price paid by some ofthe less wary.

None of this is to suggest that the reputation of Everleigh wasbased on hearsay. I had seen plenty with my own eyes.

Countless times I had seen young toddlers and their slightlyolder siblings wandering the streets at night while their parentsgot drunk at the local. One night I watched as a stupid womanstopped her car after these kids had thrown rocks at it. She gotout and tried to confront the kids about what they had done. Theresult of course was that they found some bigger rocks and acouple of bricks. They made quite a mess of that car.

My brother told me that he had witnessed a roll take place fromthe top of the street in broad daylight. Some boys had pulled aknife on a university student who had handed them his wallet. Thestudent had then located a nearby policeman and had pointed outthe boys to him, but the copper did nothing about it. He said hedidn't want to start a riot!

I had seen the bonfires that would be lit when the new phonebooks or Yellow Pages directories were delivered. I had seen theshells of burnt out cars in the street. I had seen plenty, andhad plenty of good reasons to never deliberately venture downthat street, which is why my first walk to the Mundine gym waslike wading through water - every step being a slow anddeliberate effort. But I was determined to become a fighter, andI'd just as soon lose my life in Everleigh Street than give up onmy dream to have my day in the ring.

The exterior of Mundine's Gym is not designed to draw attentionto itself. You'd walk right past it if you didn't know it wasthere. It's missing entirely that glittering windowed streetfrontage with the sleek bodies of well-groomed athletes ondisplay for passers-by - the type that we associate with thesorts of gyms where you pay a costly membership fee. Mundine'shas no membership fee. I don't remember there even being a signout the front. Mundine's looks like just anotherhousing-commission block, with its inglorious entrance at thebottom of a stairwell. But you pick up that it's a gym longbefore you reach the top of those stairs. The smell of linimenthits you half way up - that manly smell that mingles soharmoniously with the melodic whir of the skipping rope tap, tap,tapping its way through another round.

This is what makes a real gym the smell of liniment, the sound ofthe rope, the less rhythmical thwacking of glove to bag, and ofcourse the fighting. When you step inside Mundine's, you knowyou're in a real gym. No pretty boys. No glamour workouts. Nowhite-collar boxercise sessions for indulgent professionals. Justbodies, sweat, testosterone and blood.

They play hard at Mundine's. That's governed by the sort of guysthat show up there of course, but it's also embedded in thearchitecture of the gym to some extent. The ring stands in thecentre of the building and it's a small ring, made for brawlers.There is a small assortment of bags strung around the sides, butno fancy speedballs or floor-to-ceiling bags, such that you couldjustify turning up just to have a workout on the bags. There area few pieces of weights equipment too, but again not enough toallow them to become a serious point of focus. No. The wholestructure is designed to channel you into the ring. Everythingelse is just padding. That's the way it should be in a real gym.

I wore my clerical shirt and collar the first time I went there.Even now I don't think it was an entirely stupid thing to havedone. I wanted to be up-front about who I was and where I wascoming from. Even so, I hadn't really thought through the effectthat this was going to have on the other boys at the gym, most ofwhom were, initially, very reluctant to hit me. They got over itthough, particularly after they realised that I had no qualmsabout hitting them. Within a couple of weeks I was coming homeeach night bruised and bleeding from head to toe, and I knew Iwas one of the lads.

Is it just me, or does every man need to go through somethinglike this at some time in his life - to know the joy of fallinginto your bed aching with the wounds that your sparring partnerhas inflicted on you that evening, and sleeping soundly in theknowledge that your ring brother is likewise doing his best tosleep off the impression that you made on him? I had many aglorious sparring session during those first weeks and months atMundine's. They weren't pretty to watch I suppose, but they wereepic struggles of the human spirit so far as I was concerned.

There are few things in life more deeply satisfying than a goodfight. A hard night in the ring is an enormous catharsis for aman who is struggling with life, but it's more than that too.When you step into a ring you're making a decision to takecontrol of your own destiny. The forces that oppose you are nolonger vague powers that threaten to overwhelm you from adistance - the law, the courts, the system. No. Your oppositiontakes on a clear material form in the shape of the other manadvancing on you from the other corner. To get into that ring andto stay in that ring is to make a decision to give it a go - toput your body on the line and to stand up to the punishment likea man. Fighting is more than a sport. It's a way of life. It isthe defiant decision to confront your pain directly and not to beovercome by it. Mundine's gym taught me that, or at least itplayed a significant role.

There was another vital lesson I learnt at Mundine's - perhapseven more important than what I learned about fighting. I learntto respect the fight community.

The fight community is a culture all of its own, and wascertainly spawned on an entirely different planet to the churchcommunity. I'm sure that some Anglican church-goers must havewondered why there are so many doctors and accountants in theircongregations and so few fighters. The truth is that most churchpeople just don't speak the same language as fighters.

The converse is also true. The fight community, as far as I cansee, has very little idea of what the church is on about. I don'tmean that fighters aren't spiritual guys. On the contrary, someof the most godly and inspirational men I have met have beenfighters. And yet they have no point of contact with theestablished church. The two groups just don't understand eachother at all. Never was this made clearer to me than on my fourthvisit to Mundine's gym.

I had turned up quietly in my tracksuit and was wandering over tothe bench at the side of the ring where we tended to leave ourgear while we were training. A group of guys were huddled theretalking, and there was nothing particularly private about thevolume of their conversation. I think they were discussingrelationship problems, though I didn't overhear everything. WhatI couldn't help hearing was one guy say very clearly 'So Igrabbed her, and I punched her in the fuckin' head'. He said itloudly and enacted a downwards punching motion as he said it.

Then he noticed me standing nearby and suddenly felt veryself-conscious. 'Oh, sorry Father' he said. And then he correctedhimself. 'I punched her ... (and he said it very slowly anddeliberately) ... in the head'.

If I'd had my wits about me that night I would have saidsomething clever like 'I don't think the Lord really gives a fuckabout your language brother, but I think He does care about yourwife.' As it was, I didn't say anything. I think I responded witha feeble smile. At the time, I just couldn't work out how thisguy had ever got it into his head that, as a priest, I would bemore concerned about the fact that he swore than I would be aboutthe fact that he beat his wife? Nowadays I take that sort ofperception for granted.

I think it's the church that has to bear the responsibility forthe communication breakdown. So much of the church nowadays reeksof a sort of insipid middle-class moralism that really does caremore about smoking and swearing than it does about domesticviolence or world hunger. I don't think the Lord Jesus or St Paulever intended to spawn any of these Christianized golf clubs thatcall themselves churches. Personally, I suspect that Jesus andthe apostles would feel more at home in the average boxing gymtoday than they would in the average church. Of course theywouldn't like the threats and the violence, but they would lovethe honesty. Fighters are very honest people.

One guy, again from the Mundine gym, summed it up for me. 'Aroundhere nobody stabs anybody in the back', he said to me. Then hepointed to his heart and added emphatically: 'You stab here!'That's why I have so much respect for the fight culture. I know Ican trust fighters. I know they won't stuff me round - smiling tomy face but stabbing me in the back when I turn around. I wishthe same could be said for all church people.

St Paul was a fighter. 'I do not fight like a man beating theair' he says. They had the ancient Pankration fighting in his day- a vicious form of no rules combat that was concluding event inthe original Olympics. Those guys certainly didn't 'beat theair'. When Ulysses came home from the Trojan War, legend has itthat his own mother didn't recognise him. According to my friendand former trainer Kon, legend has it that when the Pankrationchampion came home from the Olympic Games, his own dog couldn'trecognise him! Those guys knew what real fighting is about.

St Paul would have made one tough bugger as a fighter. What Iwouldn't give to be able to jump into the old Pankration ringwith him to go a couple of rounds! You'd never knock him downthough. I suspect most of the apostles would have been like that- warm big-hearted men, but as hard as nails in the ring.

I have a secret hope that when I get to heaven I'll be able totake on some of those boys and try my luck. I guess it's noteveryone's idea of heaven, but it is mine.

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Rev. David B. Smith (Sydney's 'Fighting Father')
Rev. David B. Smith (Sydney's 'Fighting Father')

'Fighting' Father Dave Smith - Parish Priest, community worker,professional fighter, father of three. Dave is the only Australian in Holy Orders to turn pro boxer to help fund his work. He is Parish Priest in Dulwich Hill, Sydney,and has received numerous awards for his work with young people
Get a free preview of his book, 'Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist' when you sign up for Dave's newsletter at www.fatherdave.org

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