Melbourne gym inspiring next generation of Indigenous boxers

Offering free boxing lessons for Indigenous children every week, the program has attracted descendants of Aboriginal boxing legends such as Lionel Rose and Lawrence Austin to the ring.

As she punches the bag in a small boxing gym in Melbourne's north, Kiewa Austin-Rioli has the force and intensity of a seasoned fighter.

She's just 16 years old, but she has champion bloodlines.

"Having my uncle Lionel Rose, you know family, it helps. So that relation, it helps. I feel like it's a natural sport for me," she said.

Kiewa Austin-Rioli
Kiewa Austin-Rioli

She's one of a dozen local Indigenous youths that train at the Brizzi Brothers gym every week, with dreams of making it big in the ring.

Just like Russell Walker. 

At 12 years of age he towers above his peers, training hard every week with the aim of following in the footsteps of his grandfather, former Commonwealth champion Lawrence Austin. 

Walker, now a dedicated boxer, said initially his motivation for pulling on the gloves was to overcome the nerves.

"I'm way more confident now actually. I had low self esteem, that's been boosted up. I used to be shy when I first came in here and now I'm not," he said.

Russell Walker in the ring
Russell Walker in the ring

The Melbourne Aboriginal Youth Sport and Recreation opened the boxing sessions to keep Indigenous youths away from crime and drugs.

The program began in 1982, started by local Indigenous man Jock Austin.

Now 35 years later, it's been reinvigorated by his son, Troy, but with the same aims - to engage and inspire.

"The justice system is full of young Aboriginal kids and kids in general, so we see it as a way to change people's lives and set them on the right course," he said.

And that's just what they're doing.

Brizzi Brothers trainers team up with amateur champion Elias Awad to teach the next generation of Indigenous boxers lessons in fighting and lessons in life.

"Boxing being such a good sport, not many people know about it. But it can teach them a lot about life and about themselves too," Awad said.

Jock Austin (left)
Jock Austin (left) and Troy Austin (right)

And while the gym supports all aspirations of their participants, victories are counted in terms of enjoyment and engagement, not world titles.

Kiewa says it's just great to have an opportunity to get together with other Indigenous kids every week.

"I know how amazing the sport is, and then having more Aboriginal kids come in it's just amazing to share that experience with other people," she said.

Troy Austin says the gym is a safe place, where kids can learn about their culture and support each other as athletes and Indigenous youths.

He said while the focus is on developing skill, a side effect is also learning how to block the punches outside of the ring.

"Because they do get challenged about being Aboriginal and the stereotypes that go with that and also the thought that Aboriginal people get things on a platter, and people say that to the kids and you can imagine how they feel," he said.

"So it's about making them feel proud of their history and the culture."

Something Russell Walker has already taken on board.

"Both my pops are fighters, so I'm thinking of becoming a professional fighter," he said. "I want to keep the spirit going."