There’s a boxing gym in Melbourne’s north suburb of Coburg. It’s discreet, looking like a scout hall tucked into a quiet suburban sprawl. Inside, the chipped brick walls, worn floorboards and Swiss cheese plaster ceiling are caked in twenty years of boxers’ sweat. This humble centre for fighting and training is the domain of Dave the Prez, President of the Coburg North Boxing Club. Posters, photos and frames of boxers real and fictional, famous and local, cover every available wall space. For two decades Dave and his team have trained business people, family members and boys who want to pound something. The posters are going to come down soon, because the gym is moving. No one is sure where, but The Prez says they’ve got a lot of help in high places. John Dougherty Q.C., a senior magistrate in Melbourne, has been working with his associates in the police force, combing prospective locations. Once they find a place Dave and his men like, it’ll all be taken care of. The Prez just has to move in.
As Ben, the photographer who brought me here sets up his lights, The Prez tells me his story. It’s a surface chat. We’ve only just met, and I don’t think we can dive in too deeply just yet. Dave is a fascinating man, someone from either the old world or a different world – I’m not exactly sure which. He admits to a hard life but doesn’t go into details. I think he’d hate to discuss a troubled past as an excuse for anything. His past is there to learn from, not to drive him. He moved around the state as a boy, getting into trouble, until finally settling down with his wife and his boxing. He dotes on his puppy dogs. His eldest daughter is 37. He’s at the gym every day of the week. The gym serves as a place for the willing to work out, to train for fitness, but it also builds competing fighters. The Coburg stable has seen its share of success. Zac Dunn is an Australian champ who won silver in an international contest in Russia. Koder Assi went to the Commonwealth Games.
The gym also takes kids fresh out of prison and detention. It’s ongoing reputation as a place to take on troubled youth is the reason a Q.C and the fuzz are invested enough to want to hunt down a new location. Dave says the boys that come are violent, angry, unsure where they fit. He doesn’t apologise for them, but says all of them need the discipline inherent in a good boxer’s training. At its most fundamental level, training requires you to be prepared to be punched in the face. The Prez moves in close to me, lifts up his fists and takes up a boxing stance.
When we entered the gym, Dave was topless, dragging a huge punching bag around the floor to strengthen his legs. I could see his chest, flecked with small scars and marked with tattoos. I knew straight away one punch would put me on the floor for a long nap. Now, his instruments are held up in my face, but I’m not at all intimidated. Dave explains the importance of trust, and he exudes a warm but stern fatherliness. I know he would never hit me if I weren’t prepared. Dave holds his stance and explains that when an untrained person like me punches, I’ll tend to throw my arm forward and pull my body away because I instinctively know when I punch someone, that person is going to want to punch me back. A good boxer leans in, reducing the power of a return punch. To do that, you have to accept that you’re going to get hit. That requires discipline over your own innate reactions. As a trainer, Dave teaches that discipline.
Discipline is what Dave’s gym offers young offenders. They’ve spent their life out of control and as a result wind up under control of the state. For the majority who get past their own aggressive attitudes or uninterest, the self-control the gym teaches them is a godsend. The Prez admits that some of the new kids will step out of line, but they’re quickly pulled in. He hates to give up on them, but when you enter the gym you are agreeing to abide by the rules. Drugs are out. All of the dedicated fighters don’t even drink, save the odd special occasion. No one is allowed to simply start a fight. Again, it’s about control, and reckless aggression is a big no. If any of these tenets are broken, Dave will throw you out. There are bad eggs.
I bring up the perception of boxing as a violent sport. Dave winces. He hates that. The way he explains it to me, boxing is an art. It’s like dancing. It requires such a high level of finesse, of control over your body, of psychology, that to write it off as a brutal bloodsport is dismissive to the point of negligence. Dave explains his view on boxing with such engrossing passion that I’m surprised when I ask him what his wife thinks of the sport and he says, “She hates it. She thinks it’s a brutal bloodsport.” Dave suggests that next time I see him, I’ll get in the ring and take a few hits. I’m genuinely enthused because I know Dave would never go too far, not just because it’s irresponsible and out of character, but because in these modern times, when the ancient sport of boxing is being edged ever closer to extinction. The Prez would be foolish to turn one more kid off the sport by breaking my nose for a laugh.
Ben snaps his photos, The Prez doused with bottled sweat, grimacing at the camera, laughing with me between flashes. We agree to meet up in a few weeks, once he gets back from an international fight. I plan on delving a little deeper, uncovering just what those earlier dark times held. Maybe draw out a little more on the philosophies of boxing and Dave, because The Prez had mentioned rather bashfully that he had some thoughts on all that stuff: Spartans, psychology, the opposite of fear being not confidence, but love. Ben finishes up, we help him pack down. Just before we leave, Dave tells me he thinks he’s soft. He’s met hard men, men you wouldn’t want to meet. The mixture of reproach and grudging respect for both him and these hard men is so tantalising! Why did the bastard mention it now, just as we’re leaving! Dave laughs a short bull-snort of a laugh and tells me we’ll talk about it later. We all shake hands and leave. I get home and find Ben’s first few photos in my inbox. The Prez looks tough, his gym behind him, reeking of an historical chapter that’s rapidly coming to a close. The images make me excited for my next visit, to unravel the layers of a fascinating man doing real, dirt level community work in a gym that’s either from an old world or a different one. I’m still not sure which.