Each week critic Sarah Ward takes a look inside On The Ropes. This week she kicks off with episode one 'The Fire'.
Sarah Ward

28 Nov 2018 - 9:15 PM  UPDATED 10 Dec 2018 - 4:35 PM

On the Ropes starts with a wander into another world. Wearing a green hoodie and filmed from behind, a figure walks off the Sydney streets, through hallways, up stairs and into a large room, where a boxing match is underway. When the hood comes down, we meet Amirah Al-Amir (Nicole Chamoun), who lives and breathes the sport that’s intertwined in her family’s life. Her brother Hayder (Tyler De Nawi) is a top fighter, her former Olympian and ex-world champion father Sami (Igal Naor) is a trainer, and she works in the latter’s boxing gym. She’s at the match to watch one of her dad’s contenders, but she’s also there to follow her dreams of becoming a boxing trainer herself.

When the bout comes to a standstill courtesy of a bloody injury, the new medic tells veteran promoter Strick (Jack Thompson) that his fighter can’t go on. Demonstrating her quick thinking, Amirah comes up with another plan. She tells him to call for a second opinion from the senior medic, a move that’ll buy enough time for the bleeding to stop. It works, and with Strick impressed, she talks him into giving aspiring boxer Jess Connor (Keisha Castle-Hughes) a spot on the undercard at the weekend’s big match. Hayder’s bout is the big draw, but Jess will take on rising star Jinx (Marlee Barber) before the main event.

In this opening sequence, On the Ropes puts everything in the ring. This is a boxing drama, but in the vein of Girlfight rather than Raging Bull. Switch wrestling for boxing, and it’s Australia’s answer to GLOW, exploring women striving to be taken seriously in a male-dominated realm. Anchored by Amirah’s Iraqi-Australian family and community, it’s also a portrait of womanhood rallying against tradition. In her convincing spiel to Strick, Amirah touts Jess as “a classic underdog story”, but that’s her own tale as well.

From the moment Strick agrees to Amirah’s plan, she’s told it’ll fail. Hayder knows that their dad won’t approve, so Amirah tries to keep it from him. Making matters difficult is Jess herself — she wasn’t expecting to fight, so he had three beers and a pie at the match. Amirah tells her that they’ll cut the weight in time.

At home the next day, other matters monopolise the household’s attention. Matriarch Layla (Neveen Hanna) is video-chatting to relative Sabeen (Eliana Dona), who wants to secure a visa and is waiting on an immigration lawyer. But talk among the Al-Amirs turns to boxing, as it always does. After drinking beer at the match too, Hayder has his own issues. Sami orders him to the gym to sweat it out.

That’d be Sami’s Boxing Gym, where Amirah works around her university studies. Lately, she’s been working more and studying her commerce degree less and less. Her father is hardly happy about her efforts with Jess — “stop training, start cleaning,” he orders — and he can barely maintain his calm when he asks Amirah about Jess’ upcoming pro fight. Not only does he learn that Amirah organised it with Strick herself, but that she has officially registered as a trainer.

While cross-generational struggles are common TV fodder, On the Ropes grounds Amirah and Sami’s tussle not in their father-daughter relationship, but in the juxtaposition of their culture with Al-Amirs’ new life in Australia. After moving from Basra, Sami and Layla have worked hard to establish a future for their family. It’s at the forefront of Layla’s mind, especially after Sabeen calls to say her visa has been approved, but she needs $55,000 for the application fee. If that wasn’t enough of a reminder, Amirah’s other brother Tariq (Claude Jabbour) is getting married to Amal (Priscilla Doueihy), who Layla clearly considers the perfect picture of a modern Iraqi woman in Australia.

Chatting about her upcoming engagement party, Amal doesn’t hold back with her disdain for Amirah’s choices. Before Amirah arrives home, Amal shows Layla photos of potential suitors, saying she’ll set up a profile on Minder — Muslim Tinder. When Amirah walks in the door, the conversation turns to her appearance, the fact that she’s not married, her love of boxing and even Jess’ sexuality. “Don’t tell anyone at my party about the boxing — my relatives wouldn’t understand,” Amal exclaims, before promising Layla that she’ll book Amirah in with her colourist. “Do you know he styled Delta once?”

Amirah isn’t the only one straining against expectations. At their mosque, cleric Ahmad (Michael Denkha) is vocal about his disapproval of boxing to his daughter Ranya (Setareh Naghoni), although she thinks it’s “kind of exciting”. And at the gym, one of the students in Amirah’s self-defence class has told her dad that she’s at the library so that she can come to the session. Woman by woman, On the Ropes makes plain just how hard it is for Amirah and company to make their own choices, let alone pursue their passions.

Jess has troubles too: making weight. Her son Iggy (Otis Dhanji) has cooked up bolognaise for dinner, but she can’t even think about eating it. And when she’s still over the required 57 kilograms the next day, it threatens to derail her big shot. Amirah tries to help by getting Jess to strip naked behind a towel on the scales, but when that doesn’t work, she’s disqualified — until, once again, the aspiring trainer works her magic.

This time, in the car park, it’s Jinx that Amirah convinces. If Jinx agrees that the fight can go ahead, then Jess’ weight doesn’t matter. Jinx is reluctant to go against her own trainer’s decision on the matter, which is where Amirah strikes. Hitting hard on the gender imbalance in boxing, she notes, “we have no power, no audience, we make no money — and they’re the ones who are making the decisions for us”.

More training follows, but while Jess is ordered home to chill out and have a good sleep — and even have sex, because it’ll raise her testosterone levels — Amirah has Amal’s party to attend. Tariq brings her a tight pink dress that Layla has approved, and tells her to behave, conform in general and not get on their father’s bad side. Amirah isn’t willing to change for anyone, though. “Allah is my only judge, bro,” she tells him.

Monopolising On the Ropes’ first episode, Chamoun is a force to be reckoned with as Amirah. Viewers don’t just witness Amirah’s struggles, and the way that someone is constantly trying to put her in her place, be it her father, mother, one of her brothers or Amal. Thanks to Chamoun’s quietly expressive performance, the audience feels every blow that their words have, as well as the steeliness that simmers inside Amirah in response. They keep pushing her onto the ropes of her dreams, but she always bounces back fighting.

That’s evident when, after changing and literally letting her usually braided hair down, Amirah arrives at Amal’s party. While the men play games and chat about having good wives elsewhere, the women dance and celebrate — and instantly judge anyone who doesn’t fit the norm. Amirah does her best to blend in, but she’s soon trying to sell tickets to Jess’ fight to the other partygoers, a move that invokes the ire of Amal. Layla warns that boxing is dangerous, that she’ll never approve, and that Amirah needs to put her family first.

Again, Amirah isn’t the only one bucking the status quo. During a quiet moment outside, she spots Ranya secretly getting cosy with Jess in a car. It doesn’t take long for Ranya to admit that they’re in a relationship once she’s inside. Amirah warns her, saying she’s trying to protect Jess’ career, but Ranya points out that Jess is scared about the fight and Amirah doesn’t even know it. Visiting Jess, Amirah finds her vomiting, although an impromptu pep talk helps settle her nerves.

When the big moment arrives, everything is on the line. Hayder gives Iggy advice about women while Jess gets ready, while Jess warns Amirah not to mess with Ranya. But the night is about boxing and both women are ready for the monumental task at hand, even if Sami won’t believe that that’s the case.

Fireworks follow, but not in the ring. This isn’t Rocky, thankfully, but On the Ropes knows that what happens around the fray is just as important as what happens in each round. When Jess gets jabbed repeatedly by Jinx, pushing her against the ropes, Sami leaps up and declares that the fight must end. When Amirah refuses, he throws in the towel himself. In the chaotic aftermath, he also hits a boxing official, putting both Hayder subsequent bout and his own 19-year career at risk. Focusing on their situation, Amirah and Jess are both furious.

The episode’s biggest fight comes when Amirah confronts her father the next day. It’s verbal, and its a knockout. Sami puts his foot down, saying she should never have been in the ring in the first place — and that she just doesn’t have what it takes, but Amirah refuses to back down. She’s fought hard to get where she is, and while she knows that being her father’s daughter has opened doors, she also knows that if she was his son, she’d be doing what she loves without any hassles. When she unleashes her parting statement, it’s KO time: “you’re wrong, and I don’t need you”.

On The Ropes airs every Thursday night at 9:25pm on SBS. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand. 

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