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Zerafa not the first boxer to strike it big on the goldfields

Zerafa not the first boxer to strike it big on the goldfields

Alex McClintock is the author of On the Chin: A Boxing Education, available now from Text Publishing.

MICHAEL Zerafa’s knockout of Jeff Horn at Bendigo Stadium may one day be seen as a turning point in Australian boxing history.

I’m not talking about the brief gimmick of replacing the ring card girls with blokes – that topic is above my paygrade and tolerance for online abuse. No, if Horn fails to bounce back – and at this early stage who knows what effect the loss might have on him – Saturday night’s knockout will likely be regarded as a rather disappointing end to an all-too-short era.

If that turns out to be the case, it won’t be the first time boxing history has been made on Victoria’s goldfields. It makes sense that the region would have a proud pugilistic pedigree: to my knowledge, Bendigo is the only city in the world named after a boxer (indirectly: Bendigo Creek was named after a fisticly gifted local who was nicknamed after an English prizefighter).

That prizefighter was William Abednego “Bendigo” Thompson, one of the great English bareknuckle champions of the early 19th century. Born in Nottingham in 1811, he was the last of 21 children and one of triplets. Perhaps his mother should be regarded as the real champion.

After a rough childhood, he turned to fighting to earn a little money and ended up making rather a lot. Bendigo was the 1830s’ answer to Prince Naseem Hamed: famed for somersaulting into the ring, he liked to taunt his opponents with his slick moves and crude rhymes.

Tens of thousands attended his trilogy of bouts with the giant Ben Caunt, which were the biggest sporting events of the day. Bendigo won the first but lost the second after Caunt choked him nearly to death (he partially recovered after being given brandy: perhaps someone should have told Glenn Rushton about this technique). In the aftermath of what today would be described as a “controversial decision”, Caunt had to flee from the irate crowd on a stolen horse.

Like many boxers, Bendigo’s retirement was difficult. He turned to the bottle, spent all the money he’d earned and ended up living in miserable circumstances. But then he found God and began an unlikely second career as a successful revivalist preacher, undeterred by the fact that he was illiterate and unable to actually read the Bible. When he died, his funeral procession was a mile long, and he had both an Australian city and a Nottingham pub named after him (ironically, the latter was eventually closed for hosting too many brawls).

In Victoria, the boxing tradition began in earnest with the Gold Rush in the 1850s. The chance to strike it rich lured migrants of all sorts to the goldfields, including boxers. Prize fighting was the ideal entertainment for a frustrated, mostly male population. The fact that two of the colonial artist S.T. Gill’s celebrated Goldfields drawings portray boxing scenes provides a clue to just how popular the sport was.

Perhaps the area’s greatest claim to boxing fame is that it hosted the longest boxing match of all time. This took place in 1855 at Fiery Creek near Ballarat, and was contested by James Kelly, an Irishman, and Jonathan Smith, a Brit. Under the rules of bareknuckle boxing, rounds only ended when one fighter was knocked down and fights were not limited in duration. This one lasted for an impressive six hours and fifteen minutes.

A contemporary reporter had this to say after round 15: “When the reader is informed that nearly an hour was occupied in sparring, feinting, stepping back etc., he will perceive how inadequate is our ability to express the sustained interest of the spectators.”

Which is to say: they really stunk out the joint. The fight ended when Smith essentially said “no mas”, which by that stage must have been quite a relief.

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Despite the fact that bareknuckle fights were illegal, the newspapers of the time were filled with references to them, mostly conveying their disapproval (though that didn’t stop them reporting all the exciting details – has anything changed?). One report from the Bendigo Advertiser said that three or four bouts were taking place every week.

Another article describes how fighter called Joe Kitchen managed to evade the law at Ararat in 1858 by having one of his seconds dress in his clothes and lead the coppers on a merry chase. Unfortunately, without the constabulary in attendance things went south in a hurry, with everyone in the crowd pulling out shillelaghs (long Irish clubs) and starting an all-in brawl. The reporter wrote that the general rule seemed to be “hit a head wherever you could see one”.

With the end of the Gold Rush, the region’s status as a boxing hotbed gradually declined. The English bareknuckle champion Jem Mace made a visit in the 1870s, selling out an exhibition at Bendigo’s Royal Princess Theatre, and local professional shows were a regular occurrence from the introduction of the Queensberry Rules during the 1880s and 90s. Boxing tents were popular attractions at local shows, even if they were hard on the fighters: the Warrnambool boxer Billy Primmer told historian Richard Broome he once had 35 fights in three days at the Bendigo Show.

Today, even if the sport isn’t as popular as it once was, Bendigo and Ballarat still play host to fight gyms and active boxers. Now Michael Zerafa has added another sensational chapter to the area’s fighting history. Maybe seeing his unlikely victory will encourage local kids to give boxing a go.

After all, if there’s anything Australian boxing can learn from Jeff Horn’s career so far, it’s that striking it big can inspire others to try their luck.

Photo: Provided
Words: Alex McClintock/Follow Alex on Twitter

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