• Signage at Jimmy Sharm's Troupe (CC-BY-SA)
For years, young Indigenous boxers fought in 'a round or two for a pound or two', touring tent boxing circuses. Legendary talents were born under these tents such as, Lionel Rose and Tony Mundine.
By
Laura Morelli

3 Feb 2017 - 2:17 PM  UPDATED 4 Jun 2017 - 11:34 AM

'Who'll take a glove?' 

For generations - and still to this day - boxing is a major spectacle of the Australian show landscape.

Boxing troupes, or tent boxing circuses, were at their prime in the beginning of the 19th Century. An ensemble of professional fighters would follow carnivals across Australia, where boxing tents would be the main stage for open fights with local competitors and great entertainment for locals looking for fresh talent.

The infamous boxing tent legend in Australian carnival history was the 'troupe of Jimmy Sharman's' who attracted a number of young Aboriginal boys that looked rough, mean and 'ready to rumble' but more importantly, were looking for respect, equality and a bit of dough to put in their pockets. 

This was the famous slogan from one of Australia's best known boxing tents. The Sharman Troupe would take to the roads at agricultural shows in search of the next best champion boxer, most of them Aboriginal, who would soon become the biggest names in Australia.

Back at a time where the only contact perceived as equal respect between a whitefella and a blackfella was in a boxing ring meant that boxing tents gave Indigenous people a long shot to make a living. Many of the Aboriginal boxers came from the Aboriginal missions and would take to fighting in order to earn money as their was little work on offer. 

Sharman made quite the name for his troupe. He recieved so much attention that the legendary rock band, Midnight Oil even wrote a song about them. 

Fighting in the spotlight
Eye's turn blacker than their skin
For Jimmy Sharman's boxers
It's no better if you win

The touring tent boxing circuses showcased the talent, tricks and physical power of young Indigenous men who were hungry for not only the sport but the prize that came with it. These tropes saw the likes of champions such as, Lionel Rose, Douglas Nicholls and Tony Mundine.

 

Legendary Boxers

Bundjalung man and Australian former boxer, Tony Mundine, is one of the country’s most accomplished Indigenous fighters. He’s renowned for being the only Australian boxer to compete professionally in four weight divisions.

He paved the way for thousands of aspiring boxers, including his own son, Anthony Mundine, who followed in his father’s footsteps becoming a former world champion boxer. But the road to success wasn’t always a smooth swing for Tony. Being an Aboriginal man in the 1960s meant you were judged by the colour of your skin and scarcely given a fair chance. But for Mundine, he found a way to knock his way to the top and earn a decent living for his future was through boxing.

Talking as if it was only yesterday, Tony Mundine remembers taking his first swing in 1969, a 'full rounder' in Marrickville RSL, one that would see a victory, just like the rest of his career.

"I remember every year when the boxing tents came to Grafton... We’d have the tents once a year every year in October and boy was it fun," he said.

Despite Midnight Oil lyrics that suggested these Aboriginal boxers were exploited throughout the shows, former Indigenous boxers like Mundine, recall Sharman's tents taking pride in professionalism.

"There were 9 or 10 guys on the tent, walking around and would match you up to make sure you’d be able to play someone similar to your height and weight," he said.

"And they'd always make sure you got your dollar - they'd pay you well for fighting."

"A round or two for a pound or two" was one of their trademark calls to lure in young boxers to the ring, and that prize money was the drive for Tony to swing harder than the rest.

"Back in the days we were poor and had no money for stuff so when these shows come to Grafton it was always a big deal," he said.

"I was climbing the ladder so quickly I was knocking everyone out. I had 25 knockouts in a row. It was big cash my friend, big cash."

"I was climbing the ladder so quickly I was knocking everyone out. I had 25 knockouts in a row. It was big cash my friend, big cash."

"We’d get 5 pounds which was a lot of money back in the day... a lot of money."

On February 1968 Mundine remembers seeing Lionel Rose for the very first time. It was the same day Rose won the world bantamweight boxing title from Japanese fighter Masahiko 'Fighting' Harada in Tokyo, making him the first Indigenous Australian to ever claim a world championship belt.

"When I met him I didn't know him from a bar of soap," he said. But after Rose's win, Mundine knew he too could become a big name for Indigenous Australian boxers and start a fighting career of his own.

"So I started training at a gym in Redfern and would push push push and soon after the boxing matches just kept on coming."

His boxing career kicked off at the ripe age of 18-years-old, that was when he had his very first fight.

"In 1970 I made a lot of money, it was all through boxing – I was able to buy a house in Sydney and back in the days that cost me only 18,000 pounds," he said.

"I was climbing the ladder so quickly I was knocking everyone out. I had 25 knockouts in a row. It was big cash my friend, big cash."

By 1972 Mundine had fought in Paris, Rome, Garma, South Africa, South America, Figi, Thailand, New Zealand, and several other places all over the world.

"It was a chance no one else got - going overseas to work and be paid money for, I was really on top." But he also remembers that not all perks are perfect.  

"Back in the days to fight overseas it would take you 4 or 5 stops just to get over there - imagine the jet lag."

Looking back on it all now, Mundine says he has good memories. 

"I had 96 professional fights, 65 knockouts and I lost 9 times in my career."

And ever since his days back at the touring boxing tents, the 66-year-old hasn't stopped working hard. 

"I’m still doing 900 different exercises every morning from Monday to Friday."

(In fact he informed me that he was doing them even when we were speaking over the phone!)

As the superstar speaks about the success of his son, Professional boxer, Anthony Mundine, he says that the best medicine is fitness. And in wake of Mundine's big match tonight, the humble father uses the same message he used for himself just before he'd enter the ring.   

"Tell that brain box - don't think about it just go and do it!"

 

I’m Your Man explores the diverse history of some of Australia’s best-known boxing legends, using innovative technology to create a fully interactive and immersive experience.

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