Why More Priests Need To Train As Fighters (And Why We Dont See Many Boxers In Church)
"Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize." -- (1cCorinthiansc9:26-27)
St Paul was a fighter. I don't think he ever competed in the ring, but that wasn't because he lacked the discipline or was afraid of the pain.
I always say that to be a fighter you need to have two things going for you. Firstly you need to have a lot of energy inside that needs release. Secondly, you need to be not too concerned about your own health. This fits the profile of most of our young men perfectly - on the edge of the drug culture, full of testosterone, and with no thought for the future. It also fits perfectly the profile of another group - single fathers, struggling to gain access to their children.
That was how I got into the fight game. I hadn't taken it up as a teenager, and I certainly hadn't been born into it. My dad was a priest for God's sake, and an academic. Fighting had not been my birthright. I came in through the back door of pain and loneliness and bitter struggle.
Separated, and struggling for the right to see my daughter, I had made one half-hearted attempt at suicide already by that stage. And I had met with my bishop the following day and he had told me not to 'trade off' my situation (in other words, not to get too comfortable). I appeared to be losing my family, my vocation, and most of my friends at the same time. Full of emotional energy, obsessed with thoughts of self-destruction, and drinking way too much, I managed to find my way to the Mundine gym. It was my decision not to go under, but to fight back.
Mundine's is situated in the middle of Everleigh Street, Redfern - the roughest street in one of the roughest neighborhoods in our city. Redfern is a largely Aboriginal suburb on the outskirts of central Sydney. In recent years the government has come through and 'cleaned it up' somewhat, which meant pushing a lot of the local residents further out west. Even so, it is still a rough area.
I had grown up in the vicinity of Everleigh Street. My dad had been a lecturer at the Anglican seminary located only a few blocks from this dark heart of Aboriginal Sydney. It was always an odd location for the seminary. The ecclesiastical community never had anything to do with the adjoining aboriginal enclave. On the contrary, most persons associated with the religious community dealt with their black neighbours by practising the same sort of avoidance strategy that I'd learnt as a kid - scurrying quickly past the end of Everleigh Street and its environs whenever circumstances put us unavoidably within its reach.
Ironically this strategy had to be invoked every time you got off a train from Redfern station. The platforms seemed to be designed to feed directly into Everleigh Street! Of course I never made the mistake of straying down that way myself, and as a youngster, I had heard many a nasty story about the price paid by some of the less wary.
None of this is to suggest that the reputation of Everleigh was based on hearsay. I had seen plenty with my own eyes.
Countless times I had seen young toddlers and their slightly older siblings wandering the streets at night while their parents got drunk at the local. One night I watched as a stupid woman stopped her car after these kids had thrown rocks at it. She got out and tried to confront the kids about what they had done. The result of course was that they found some bigger rocks and a couple of bricks. They made quite a mess of that car.
My brother told me that he had witnessed a roll take place from the top of the street in broad daylight. Some boys had pulled a knife on a university student who had handed them his wallet. The student had then located a nearby policeman and had pointed out the boys to him, but the copper did nothing about it. He said he didn't want to start a riot!
I had seen the bonfires that would be lit when the new phone books or Yellow Pages directories were delivered. I had seen the shells of burnt out cars in the street. I had seen plenty, and had plenty of good reasons to never deliberately venture down that street, which is why my first walk to the Mundine gym was like wading through water - every step being a slow and deliberate effort. But I was determined to become a fighter, and I'd just as soon lose my life in Everleigh Street than give up on my dream to have my day in the ring.
The exterior of Mundine's Gym is not designed to draw attention to itself. You'd walk right past it if you didn't know it was there. It's missing entirely that glittering windowed street frontage with the sleek bodies of well-groomed athletes on display for passers-by - the type that we associate with the sorts of gyms where you pay a costly membership fee. Mundine's has no membership fee. I don't remember there even being a sign out the front. Mundine's looks like just another housing-commission block, with its inglorious entrance at the bottom of a stairwell. But you pick up that it's a gym long before you reach the top of those stairs. The smell of liniment hits you half way up - that manly smell that mingles so harmoniously with the melodic whir of the skipping rope tap, tap, tapping its way through another round.
This is what makes a real gym - the smell of liniment, the sound of the rope, the less rhythmical thwacking of glove to bag, and of course the fighting. When you step inside Mundine's, you know you're in a real gym. No pretty boys. No glamour workouts. No white-collar boxercise sessions for indulgent professionals. Just bodies, sweat, testosterone and blood.
They play hard at Mundine's. That's governed by the sort of guys that show up there of course, but it's also embedded in the architecture of the gym to some extent. The ring stands in the centre of the building and it's a small ring, made for brawlers. There is a small assortment of bags strung around the sides, but no fancy speedballs or floor-to-ceiling bags, such that you could justify turning up just to have a workout on the bags. There are a few pieces of weights equipment too, but again not enough to allow them to become a serious point of focus. No. The whole structure is designed to channel you into the ring. Everything else is just padding. That's the way it should be in a real gym.
I wore my clerical shirt and collar the first time I went there. Even now I don't think it was an entirely stupid thing to have done. I wanted to be up-front about who I was and where I was coming from. Even so, I hadn't really thought through the effect that this was going to have on the other boys at the gym, most of whom were, initially, very reluctant to hit me. They got over it though, particularly after they realised that I had no qualms about hitting them. Within a couple of weeks I was coming home each night bruised and bleeding from head to toe, and I knew I was one of the lads.
Is it just me, or does every man need to go through something like this at some time in his life - to know the joy of falling into your bed aching with the wounds that your sparring partner has inflicted on you that evening, and sleeping soundly in the knowledge that your ring brother is likewise doing his best to sleep off the impression that you made on him? I had many a glorious sparring session during those first weeks and months at Mundine's. They weren't pretty to watch I suppose, but they were epic struggles of the human spirit so far as I was concerned.
There are few things in life more deeply satisfying than a good fight. A hard night in the ring is an enormous catharsis for a man who is struggling with life, but it's more than that too. When you step into a ring you're making a decision to take control of your own destiny. The forces that oppose you are no longer vague powers that threaten to overwhelm you from a distance - the law, the courts, the system. No. Your opposition takes on a clear material form in the shape of the other man advancing on you from the other corner. To get into that ring and to stay in that ring is to make a decision to give it a go - to put your body on the line and to stand up to the punishment like a man. Fighting is more than a sport. It's a way of life. It is the defiant decision to confront your pain directly and not to be overcome by it. Mundine's gym taught me that, or at least it played a significant role.
There was another vital lesson I learnt at Mundine's - perhaps even more important than what I learned about fighting. I learnt to respect the fight community.
The fight community is a culture all of its own, and was certainly spawned on an entirely different planet to the church community. I'm sure that some Anglican church-goers must have wondered why there are so many doctors and accountants in their congregations and so few fighters. The truth is that most church people just don't speak the same language as fighters.
The converse is also true. The fight community, as far as I can see, has very little idea of what the church is on about. I don't mean that fighters aren't spiritual guys. On the contrary, some of the most godly and inspirational men I have met have been fighters. And yet they have no point of contact with the established church. The two groups just don't understand each other at all. Never was this made clearer to me than on my fourth visit to Mundine's gym.
I had turned up quietly in my tracksuit and was wandering over to the bench at the side of the ring where we tended to leave our gear while we were training. A group of guys were huddled there talking, and there was nothing particularly private about the volume of their conversation. I think they were discussing relationship problems, though I didn't overhear everything. What I couldn't help hearing was one guy say very clearly 'So I grabbed her, and I punched her in the fuckin' head'. He said it loudly and enacted a downwards punching motion as he said it.
Then he noticed me standing nearby and suddenly felt very self-conscious. 'Oh, sorry Father' he said. And then he corrected himself. 'I punched her ... (and he said it very slowly and deliberately) ... in the head'.
If I'd had my wits about me that night I would have said something clever like 'I don't think the Lord really gives a fuck about your language brother, but I think He does care about your wife.' As it was, I didn't say anything. I think I responded with a feeble smile. At the time, I just couldn't work out how this guy had ever got it into his head that, as a priest, I would be more concerned about the fact that he swore than I would be about the fact that he beat his wife? Nowadays I take that sort of perception for granted.
I think it's the church that has to bear the responsibility for the communication breakdown. So much of the church nowadays reeks of a sort of insipid middle-class moralism that really does care more about smoking and swearing than it does about domestic violence or world hunger. I don't think the Lord Jesus or St Paul ever intended to spawn any of these Christianized golf clubs that call themselves churches. Personally, I suspect that Jesus and the apostles would feel more at home in the average boxing gym today than they would in the average church. Of course they wouldn't like the threats and the violence, but they would love the honesty. Fighters are very honest people.
One guy, again from the Mundine gym, summed it up for me. 'Around here nobody stabs anybody in the back', he said to me. Then he pointed to his heart and added emphatically: 'You stab here!' That's why I have so much respect for the fight culture. I know I can trust fighters. I know they won't stuff me round - smiling to my face but stabbing me in the back when I turn around. I wish the same could be said for all church people.
St Paul was a fighter. 'I do not fight like a man beating the air' he says. They had the ancient Pankration fighting in his day - a vicious form of no rules combat that was concluding event in the original Olympics. Those guys certainly didn't 'beat the air'. When Ulysses came home from the Trojan War, legend has it that his own mother didn't recognise him. According to my friend and former trainer Kon, legend has it that when the Pankration champion came home from the Olympic Games, his own dog couldn't recognise him! Those guys knew what real fighting is about.
St Paul would have made one tough bugger as a fighter. What I wouldn't give to be able to jump into the old Pankration ring with him to go a couple of rounds! You'd never knock him down though. I suspect most of the apostles would have been like that - warm big-hearted men, but as hard as nails in the ring.
I have a secret hope that when I get to heaven I'll be able to take on some of those boys and try my luck. I guess it's not everyone's idea of heaven, but it is mine.
You have just read an excerpt from 'Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist', a book by 'Fighting' Father Dave Smith - Parish Priest, community worker, professional fighter, father of three.
Dave is the only Australian in Holy Orders to turn pro boxer to help fund his work. He is Parish Priest in Dulwich Hill, has a sixth-degree martial arts black belt, and has received numerous awards for his work with young people.
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