A punch causes damage. Sometimes it breaks the skin, bursts blood vessels and shatters bones. Sometimes it doesn’t leave a visible mark. Either way, there’s fallout — and in the first episode of On The Ropes, plenty of punches were thrown. Picking up where the drama left off, the series’ second episode keeps swinging and hitting, while also dealing with the aftermath of its initial blows. That’s boxing in a nutshell, and the world that aspiring trainer Amirah Al-Amir (Nicole Chamoun) has chosen: just as one punch lands, a flurry of others follow.
The show reunites with Amirah as she’s coping with the consequences of her strike against her boxing trainer and gym-owner father Sami (Igal Naor). After telling him that she doesn’t need him, she’s now sleeping and living in her car, and working out with Jess (Keisha Castle-Hughes) in a park. She’s making the best of a difficult situation, and powering on even though she knows that it’s far from ideal. When an irate store owner yells at the group of women for training opposite his shop, Amirah reacts accordingly — rounding up her crew, packing up and moving on — as yet another person tries to diminish her dreams.
If you missed episode one of On The Ropes, it is streaming now at SBS On Demand:
Of course, Amirah does what she’s been training Jess to do. She keeps hitting, first trying to buy new gym equipment, only for her card to be declined; then, after her brother Tariq (Claude Jabbour) tells her that her allowance has been cut off, she sneaks into the family gym at night to borrow gloves, shields, pads and dumbbells. On the Ropes contrasts Amirah’s repeated jabs with the immediate repercussions at home, where her mother Layla (Neveen Hanna) pleads with Sami to patch things up — “we don’t know if she is alright, or where she is sleeping,” she tells him.
Fresh from her nighttime shopping spree at her dad’s gym, Amirah thinks she’s alright. She’s so happy that she’s singing along to Omar Musa’s ‘Assimilate’ in her car — until the radiator light comes on, and she’s forced to pull over and call Jess for help. The series offers viewers another metaphor to describe Amirah’s situation, while Jess offers Amirah a place to stay. And, when Jess’ landlord Gloria (Wendy Strehlow) sees Amirah sleeping on the couch the next morning, a new way forward starts to emerge.
Over at the gym, Sami is keeping a brave face, but struggling. His life is in disarray, like his daughter’s, yet where Amirah has left her comfort zone to fight for what she wants, Sami is clinging to his as he awaits his fate. Unable to train after his outburst at Jess’ bout at the end of the first episode, he’s chatting with potential replacements. One, Dogger (Yure Covich), says what everyone is thinking, especially when it comes to Sami’s son and top boxing contender Hayder (Tyler De Nawi): “we all know you’re not going to let go of him”.
Haydar is anxious to keep training, and Layla is smoking out of stress. When news arrives that the visas they’ve been working so hard for — for her sister and nephew — are under review due to the change in Sami’s work status, her worries only grow. As the bulk of the Al-Amirs are weighing up the situation over dinner, Jess, her son Iggy (Otis Dhanji), Ranya (Setareh Naghoni), Gloria and Amirah are also eating, but their mood is happier. And when Gloria tells Amirah she’s going to take her somewhere the next morning, it’s doubly so.
Thanks to a bad investment by her now-deceased husband Frank, Gloria is the owner of an unused pool shop that could just become a boxing gym with some work. Amirah jumps at the chance, and starts putting another plan into action as well. She convinces promoter Strick (Jack Thompson) to give Jess another fight. In return, she’ll serve up Haydar as the main attraction, with a new trainer and with Sami calling to say it was his idea. The next step: get Haydar to talk the licensed Tariq (Claude Jabbour) about taking over from Sami, and then get Tariq to propose the notion to their father. Unsurprisingly, it all works just as Amirah expects it will.
And so, a new status quo emerges. In a sequence that nods to the boxing genre’s love of montages, Amirah sets up her gym and Jess starts getting ready for her next bout. Like any great montage, it ends with a triumphant moment, displaying a pink sign emblazoned with “Amirah’s gym — women only”. Alas, like every boxing match, the calm doesn’t last for long.
Amirah’s passion and perseverance continue to defy the expectations of her Iraqi culture, and On the Ropes continues to delve deep into the cultural ramifications of her chosen career. Meeting with Layla, Amirah discovers her mother’s cover story for her absence from home — that she’s helping a sick friend — but that’s just one instance of her choices being downplayed or dismissed. When told that their wedding might have financial constraints, Tariq’s zealous bride-to-be Amal (Priscilla Doueihy) instantly blames Amirah. More than that, she arranges for her parents to meet with Sami and Layla, and suggest that they help the Al-Amirs pay for Amal’s dream ceremony. Sami does not take the suggestion well.
At every turn, Amirah is still battling to find her footing in the boxing realm. She keeps punching, the world keeps pushing her aside, but her blows keep leaving an imprint. That’s made plain by the look on Sami’s face when he discovers that Amirah is behind Haydar’s fight, and pulls him from it. He hits back at Tariq as well, hopping into the ring, picking up pads and making his son send blows his way. And, ultimately, physically striking him.
Two episodes in, audiences now know how the show’s main players act and react. We know what drives them, and what makes them tick. Amirah will keep fighting on, no matter what gets in her way. Sami will keep resisting, and resisting change in general. Serving up a showcase for Castle-Hughes, this episode also shows how hard Jess is wiling to fight, too. After the latest Al-Amir drama, she goes to Strick and organises her own match against a woman two weight classes above. “So you’re going to fight your way out of your shitty life. Is that your plan?“ he asks her.
The answer is obvious: that’s everyone’s plan. That’s what the boxing genre, and boxing in general, is all about. It’s what helped Sami get to where he is, nearly two decades after opening his gym. It’s what motivates Amirah, who isn’t running from an awful life, but doesn’t want her future dictated by her culture or her gender. It’s also what inspires Jess, who doesn’t just want glory — as a single mother, she also wants to provide for Iggy. Everyone in On the Ropes is fighting for a better life in their own way, whether with their own fists, by helping guide others or by navigating the fallout.
When a letter arrives Australian Association of Combat Sports, advising Sami of his tribunal date, Sami keeps his fight going by trying to make peace with Amirah. She sees through his seemingly kindly gesture, though, especially given that she’s been called to make a statement about the incident. So, she keeps her own fight going (and Jess’ too) by trying to enlist assistance from an unlikely source.
In the opening scenes of On the Ropes’ first episode, Amirah was quick to dismiss mixed martial arts contender Lachy O’Leary (Louis Hunter), instantly deflecting his arrogant flirtation attempts. In this episode, they cross paths at a local takeaway shop — and while Amirah makes a show of getting his autograph for Iggy, shutting down Lachy’s efforts to ask her out again in the process, the boy is quick to tell everyone that she has been watching Lachy’s Instagram videos.
Now, with her career in the balance before it has even really started, Amirah propositions Lachy, although it’s all strictly business. He’s really a boxer, she tells him. And he could be a great one, too. If he’ll make the switch, she’ll slot him into Haydar’s now-vacant high-profile spot, and she’ll also train him to be a champion. Lachy initially says he isn’t interested, but shows up at Amirah’s gym the next day.
Jess has been keeping her own fight going as well — literally. She still takes the bout that she’s set up with Strick, without telling Amirah. She thinks its just another match, but as On the Ropes keeps making clear, there’s no such thing. When Amirah finds out and sees the injuries that Jess has suffered in the ring, she accuses Strick of paying her to lose. She also tells Jess that she doesn’t train journeymen, and so she won’t train her any more. It’s another big finish to another big episode, and one that does what the best bouts do: keeps inflicting damage, but also keeps throwing up surprises.
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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