BIRDSVILLE, Australia — A sea of beer can-clenching, rowdy folk in flannelette shirts and cowboy hats are huddled in near darkness at Fred Brophy’s feet. The Australian outback icon is fitted out in his customary red shirt, faded blue jeans and dark brown boots, crouching on a raised platform and beating a bass drum as old as he is. He pauses for a moment before barking; “Who wants a fight!?” His legendary spruiking sparks raucous cheers, as one by one, overly ambitious punters, emboldened by their various levels of inebriation, throw their hands towards the sky, accepting his challenge.
Each brave, soon-to-be amateur boxer is then escorted up a rickety wooden ladder to join Brophy and answer his series of rapid-fire personal questions, as the drum continues to be pounded and tensions rise. This ‘rallying cry’ is how each one of Brophy’s shows commences, and once half a dozen volunteers have been found, those remaining part with AU$45 and pour into his cauldron for a truly unique Australian experience.
Fred Brophy’s boxing troupe — a travelling circus which offers everyday Joes the chance to punch and be punched, all in the name of entertainment — is the last remaining legal boxing tent in the world.
“We fight anyone,” Brophy tells ESPN in his no-nonsense, grizzled tone. “We don’t care who they are or what reputation they got. If they’re pros, or whatever, we don’t care.
“But if they do that cage fighting … if those UHF, or HIC; Kentucky Fried Chicken, I call them,” he says, referring to UFC, “If they do that to my blokes, we’ll do it back to them.”
Brophy has lived one hell of a life.
Born in Perth to a trapeze artist mother and circus operating father, Brophy was hustling for cash by the time he could stand on his own two feet. He developed a taste for violence at a young age, fighting other local children in his father and uncle’s boxing tent which toured Queensland, the warm-up act to the adult bouts. He’s been “shot with a double-barrel shotgun” more than 100 times, had spears thrown at him, cut parts of his own fingers off in a failed attempt to escape from prison, received an OAM (Order of Australia), and runs multiple pubs, along with the famous travelling boxing tent, of course.
“It belongs to Australia,” Brophy declares as he points towards the red earth under his feet. “Tent boxing is an Australian tradition. A show that celebrates everything about the outback and I’m proud of it.
“Out here you get flies, you get dust, you get rain and you get wind. But you get a lot of friends for life. It’s a real, 100% Australian experience.”
Thousands of people travel to the Australian desert each year to watch the iconic ‘Melbourne Cup of the outback’, run on a dirt track.
When you set foot inside Brophy’s boxing tent, you may as well be hopping into Doc Emmett Brown’s DeLorean. It’s a throwback to a time in Australia when the term ‘political correctness’ had no meaning. Men smoke cigars and drink brown liquor, while women are referred to as ‘Sheilas’, in a non-ironic way. For some, the Brophy experience is a reminder of what the nation once was, while for others, it’s a history lesson, highlighting how far society has come.
WITH JOHNNY CASH’S “Ring of Fire” blaring through tinny, plastic, retro speakers, Brophy steps to the centre of the fighting mat and summons ‘Beaver’.
“She comes from King’s Cross, where the women are tough and the men are pretty. She’s got hairs on her legs that would spear a rat, that’s how tough she is,” Brophy warns her opponent, an unassuming mid-20s carpenter from country New South Wales. After a few minutes of Brophy’s theatrics, the pair touch gloves and begin dancing in the ring. It begins quite tame but quickly escalates into a brawl, with each punch thrown receiving a roar of approval from the capacity crowd.
Beaver, also known as Brettlyn Neal, has been a regular on Brophy’s boxing roster for 12 years. She works in tandem with the likes of ‘Digger’, a six-foot-six army veteran, and ‘Chopstix’, a Taiwanese immigrant, making true on Brophy’s slogan “The boys from the Bush are back. We fight all comers,” which is emblazoned outside their bright green tent.
“Back in 2010, I was the security guard at the Birdsville [Hotel] pub and I saw this amazing tent, with lights up the front and a drum beating. I wanted to be a part of it,” Beaver tells ESPN. “I went over and put my hand up [to fight]. I drew one and then won one. The third night I came back and Fred said ‘you fight for me now’. I’ve been with him ever since.”
Beaver has barely broken a sweat while her opponent looks as if he’s just gone 12 rounds with Mike Tyson. He’s hurting. Not even the wild encouragement from his entourage can spark a second wind. Beaver fakes left before stunning him with a brutal right hook, earning a second knock-down in as many minutes. “That’s enough,” Brophy shouts, while rushing back out onto the mat to check on the welfare of the battered carpenter. With a thumbs up given, Brophy raises Beaver’s left arm in triumph, the tent again cheers in delight.
“I love fighting the blokes,” Beaver tells me. “They’re never going to win when they jump in, are they? If they hit you, then they’re a wife-basher, and if you beat them, then they’re a p-nsy. But at the end of the day we’re here to give people an experience and make sure the crowd enjoys their night. It’s entertainment. It’s as simple as that.”
What would make someone volunteer to be pummeled and bruised, you ask? I was determined to find out, and asked the man who had just tackled Beaver.
“It’s the experience,” he says. “When are you ever going to get the chance to do something like that again?” It turns out that for the few who are able to get the better of their seasoned opponents fighting for the tent, a cash prize of AU$30 per minute survived can be pocketed.
Brophy’s tent travels around the outback of Queensland, the only Australian state or territory where it’s still legal for strangers to box on with semi-professionals. But once it’s outlawed there, that might spell the end for boxing tents worldwide. Still, until that day comes, Brophy has no plans to retire.
“I’ll be doing it until I can’t climb up that ladder,” he says. “And I’m not changing for anyone.”