Ladies and gentlemen,” cries a man standing in the middle of a boxing pit inside a big-top tent somewhere in outback Queensland. “I am going to show you something you have never seen before and will never see again, something you will talk about for years to come.”
The crowd swells and roars as Fred Brophy, the man in the red shirt, introduces his scrappy mob of semi-pro fighters to the sound of beating drums: Chopsticks (yes he’s Asian), Glynn ‘Friendly Mailer’ Johnston of the much-feared Johnston boxing family of Mount Isa, Blair ‘Cowboy’ Wilson, undefeated in more than 500 fights, Tiny Tim, who’s anything but tiny, plus The Bitch and The Beaver, two female fighters who don’t give a fuck about political correctness.
A couple of local toughs make their way ringside. Steeled by drink and the cheers of their mates, they’re going to test their mettle by boxing one of Fred’s fighters in three one-minute rounds.
The rules are simple. “If they win, they get $30 a minute,” Fred says. “If they lose, they get the experience. If they fall down three times, they’re out.” Judges are chosen from the crowd — one from each side of the tent.
If it sounds like something from an old movie, it is. Tent-boxing troupes date back to the early 19th century, to roughneck Gold Rush settlements such as Ballarat and Bendigo. “There were no sports, there were barely any women, so on Saturdays one of the guys would bring their boxing gloves and everyone would drink beer,” says Fred. “It was one of the first forms of entertainment in Australia.”
Today, though, tent boxing is nearly extinct. When Fred got into the business in the 1970s, there were about a dozen tent-boxing troupes in outback Queensland alone. Now Fred Brophy’s Boxing Troupe is the last of its kind in Australia.
Fred was born in Fremantle in 1951 to a long line of entertainers. His grandfather Frederick Milo got rich during WWII running a circus out of an old woolshed on Fremantle Harbour — a nightly extravaganza featuring trapeze artists, performing horses, a bit of boxing, lots of beer and dancing that proved a smash with pretty local girls and American GIs. “Milo used to tell the taxi drivers, ‘For every car of Yanks you bring, I’ll give you a pound’,” Fred says.
It was the boxing troupe rather than the troops that piqued young Fred’s interest. “Boxing tents have always fascinated me, watching the fighters enter a room, with all the colour, walking in with their big boots and gowns.”
Another contender steps up to test his mettle.
Watching wasn’t enough for Fred. “I started boxing when I was five years old,” he says casually. “I’d crawl into the ring with another kid before the main fight, wearing big 12-ounce boxing gloves. We could hardly lift them but we’d have a scrap and the crowd would go wild and throw pennies and sixpences at us. After the fight we’d go out the back and split the money, buy show bags and lollies, and the other fighters would teach me how to play poker with the rest of it. They’d rip it straight off me and I’d go back for another fight with tears in my eyes.”
Fred worked as a shit-kicker and boxer for his parents at the Brophy Bros Circus until he was 16. At 17, he went out on his own, got mixed up with the wrong crowd and copped a four-year jail sentence. Before he turned 30, Fred had a boxing troupe of his own. Fred Brophy’s Boxing Troupe debuted at the Mount Isa Show of 1979 and quickly became an icon of the outback, attracting legendary fighters such as the Hairy Man, the Maori Cannibal, Skip the Tattoo Man and The Hungarian wrestler, the ugliest man alive. Fred says the Hungarian set his beard on fire while lighting a cigarette in the Sahara, where he was stationed with the French Foreign Legion. But it wasn’t the fire that scarred the Hungarian – it was the shovel his mates used to put the fire out. Or so goes the story Fred has told thousands of spectators over the past 40-odd years.
“I look at the crowd, I need to make them happy,” he says. “This has always been my dream job. Not to be a millionaire, just to entertain.”
Fred is a busy man. He owns and manages a pub on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and a second pub in the outback. And as a recipient of the Order of Australia (OAM) and bestselling author of The Last Showman (R.M. Williams’ Outback magazine rated it as “one of the wildest, funniest, most extraordinary autobiographies you could squeeze into 300 pages”), he is constantly in demand for interviews and events.
When I spoke to Fred in 2011 he said, “I’m throwing in the towel after this year.”
But he’s still around — and his boxing tent is more popular than ever. In August his show pulled in a record 7,000-strong crowd at the 135th Birdsville Races, including none other than Senator Pauline Hanson, who made a cameo appearance as a ring-card girl. “We love you in the outback. You are a fair dinkum Australian,” Fred said on his mic.
For all his achievements, Fred has failed to groom a protégé. He has five adult children, all of whom reckon he’s the best dad in the world, but none of whom want to become fourth-generation ringmasters. Which means when Fred goes, so too does a nearly 200-year-old tradition in this country. But the old man in the big red shirt in the middle of the fight pit still hopes that someone will step up and into his shoes. “I will keep on doing this as long as I can,” he says, “because everyone in Australia owns it. I’m just running it for them.”