This week's inductee to The Cult is a fierce First Australian sporting freak who dominated not one but two of the toughest sports known to man. You can read past entries here.
Cult Grade: The Man
A sporting force unlike anything Australia has seen. Described by the BBC's Steve Bunce as "arguably the greatest cross-over athlete in boxing history," Anthony 'The Man' Mundine reached the pinnacle of not one but two of the world's most physically demanding sports - rugby league and boxing - and at 41 is still swinging and still pretty. His next bout against long-time nemesis, the all-Australian Danny Green, on February 3rd, 2017, might well be the last chapter in a career as decorated as it's been mired in controversy and scandal.
The Man's sheer athletic mastery is only rivalled by the bad taste he's left in so many Australian's mouths. He's been full of lemon for white Australia over the years, but not just us, also calling out American neo-colonial foreign policy and pretty much every other kind of white, Christian power structure you can think of. He's also hammered several of Indigenous Australia's most iconic athletes, among them Sydney Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman (who he called a "sell-out") and rugby league great, Arthur Beetson (who he called an 'Uncle Tom').
To truly understand the man they call 'The Man,' however, you must come to grips with the plight of one of the most marginalised peoples on earth, Australia's First People, of which he is one. The statistics are damning. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders suffer an infant mortality rate more than twice that of non-Indigenous children; a death rate five times that of non-Indigenous Australians; and an incarceration rate among juveniles 24 times that of non-indigenous Australians. That is without mentioning the inter-generational trauma suffered during the Stolen Generation, in which aboriginal children were stolen from their parents and placed in white Christian boarding schools (Mundine's grandparents were part of the Stolen Generation).
Born and raised in gritty inner-city Sydney during the heady 1980s, a young Mundine grew up amidst the racial violence, police persecution and political activism that defined the era and the area. If you were black and living in Redfern or Newtown you could expect to be locked up on sight if you were caught on the streets after ten pm. An investigation carried out in 1974, one year prior to Mundine's birth, found:
"Any Aboriginal who was on the streets of Redfern at a quarter past ten was simply put into the paddy wagon and taken to the station and charged with drunkenness, and that was something that was just literally applied to every Aboriginal walking along the street, irrespective any sign of drunkenness in his [sic] behaviour. This and the associated problems gave rise to very strong feelings amongst Aborigines here (Wootten, 1974, p.60).
Justice Wootten also added:
"I found, as most people do, it [the curfew] a little hard to believe when I first heard it, but when I observed It operating with my own eyes, I was left with little doubt."
Police harassment gave way to several infamous riots in the area during Mundine's youth and adulthood. The most recent of which came in 2004 following the death of local 14 year old Indigenous boy, Tj Hickey, who was thrown from his bike after an aggressive police pursuit and impaled through the chest on a fence, dying shortly after (No one was found guilty but the court case was a debacle. You can read about it here).
"No doubt about it we live in a racist society and it's been ingrained ever since the government started in this nation. That's why my people are where they at," Mundine told the ABC, in this in depth interview.)
"As an Aboriginal we respect our elders, we hold ourselves in high dignity, and we live off the land. Our culture is what holds us together, mentally and physically, and we ain't got that no more. It's been taken from us; our language, our self-esteem, all these things. It's so much harder. People don't understand unless you actually were aboriginal or brought up in this world," he says.
Mundine is the son of Bundjalung man, Tony Mundine, himself a legendary Australian boxer who took up the sport to escape a death sentence working as an asbestos worker (three of his sisters weren't as lucky. All passed away due to complications Mundine says were linked to asbestos.
Tony Mundine went onto become one of Australia's best fighters, winning Australian middleweight and heavy titles, Australian and Commonwealth light-heavyweight titles, a Commonwealth middleweight title and an Australian cruiserweight title in a career that spanned two decades and 96 fights. Son Anthony was desperate to break out of his shadow and become The Man. He was a talented basketball player, boxer and rugby league player as a teenager but went with league, cracking the Junior Kangaroos national squad as an 18 year old before signing with top flight ARL club the St George Dragons the same year.
Deadly footwork, acceleration and ball-playing skills installed him as an instant superstar. When combined with hard knuckles and a Masters in 1980s Redfern street politics, The Man didn't take stick. His first racism controversy came as 21 year old in 1996 when he took offence to veteran Manly enforcer, Barry Ward calling him a "black c**t" (Mundine went public and Ward was fined 10K). Nine years later, aged 25, by which time he had become the highest paid player in the history of the St George Dragons, he famously walked into their boardroom in a leather jacket with a lollipop in his mouth and told them he was out. The game was racist, he said, and he was over it. By this point Mundine had also converted to Islam as he continued to mirror the journey of his hero, Muhammad Ali.
"He as a man evolved and saw what was up with the government and the system. And how they wanna make you feel inferior as a coloured man, and I did too. I felt that as well and I wanna do something about it," he says, though adds, "A lot of people think I copy off Ali, I don't cos it's me. Anyone whose known me since I was four, five years old they'll tell ya," he says.
He left Rugby League having won a Super League Grand Final with and played in the game's show piece, State of Origin, where he played all three games off the bench in the dramatic drawn series of 1999. He took club team the St George Dragons to the grand final that same year though many fans have never forgiven him for dropping the ball over the line in the dying stages of the match, likely costing his team victory.
Mundine was famously anti-booze and drugs, something he said was rife in rugby league. He also claimed his non-selection in the Australian team was due to racism, though it was just as likely due to Penrith and Roosters great Brad Fittler, who played in the same position. Mundine's first professional fight came in July of 2000. A year, ten fights and ten wins later he was remarkably fighting for his first world title against against German IBF Super middleweight champ, Sven Ottke. It was surely too early but The Man, who was never short on self-belief, managed to find himself ahead on points in the tenth before being knocked out by a short right to the temple. Not to be denied, Mundine claimed the vacant WBA super middleweight title in 2003 with a unanimous points decision over American Antwon Echols. Legendary boxing commentator, Barry Michaels, says Mundine single handedly "resurrected" boxing in Australia. He has held the WBA super middleweight title twice, the IBO middleweight title, and the interim super-welterweight title.
Point of Entry: Deeply Controversial
If only Mundine's fight record was as good as his public speaking one. The Man's mouth has undoubtedly been his biggest downfall, drawing condemnation from every corner of society, including Aboriginal Australia. For all his sporting brilliance and good intentions for his people, he has had some shockers.
His repeated assertion that Rugby League was racist, while true at times, was severely undermined by the reason he gave: his non-selection in the national team. Not only was all-time great Brad Fittler standing his way but so too Canberra legend, Laurie Daley, who is Indigenous.
Shortly after his conversion to Islam, Mundine watched on with the rest of the world as the 9/11 terror attacks went down. Then someone had the bright idea of getting him on breakfast television to ask him what he thought. He replied with this:
"They call it an act of terrorism, but if you can understand religion, and our way of life, it's not about terrorism. It's about fighting for God's law, and America's brought it upon themselves."
Although many journalists agree that America's invasive neo-colonial foreign policy is to blame for much of the world's war and poverty, Mundine didn't really say that. And in any case it was way too raw for the time. He got panned and would later be forced to apologise in order to take his career to America. Speaking recently Mundine clarified: "You just gotta look at their (America's) foreign policies, and what they do to other countries, and what they do now."
"Everything I said it was true but at the time it was very raw, a very touchy subject… I'm talking about the government. They put their own people in danger," he said.
At other times Mundine has said women are unfit to lead, homosexuality is incompatible with Aboriginal beliefs, and claimed one of his boxing opponents, Indigenous man Daniel Geale, was not indigenous because he had light skin. This was particularly hurtful in the black community due to the fact most Aboriginal families have at least some members that are lighter skinned (he later apologised).
The Man also called for a boycott of the Australian national anthem, burned the Union Jack and a picture of the Prime Minister in a rap single he released, and claimed Australia "is one of the most racist nations in the world."
Like Ali before him, Mundine is well aware of the cameras and has cultivated a persona to fit them. Many within the rugby league and boxing fraternities attest to the fact he is a different and much more likeable person away from the spotlight but he will always be The Man.
"Anyone that meets me and greets me and gets to know me knows that I'm a cool guy, but when it comes to the cameras and the lights and the action I change to a Man whose confident, is cocky, is brash, is full of himself basically. But you know that's all part of it. I've always been like that since I started to compete, whether it was at marbles or at handball as a child. That's the way I beat. I've always wanted to whip somebody's behind in something. It's never changed," he says.
The Moment: Mundine vs Green I, 2006
Mundine might be a world champion but his biggest fight as far as Australia goes was his local grudge match with West Australian Danny Green. It took six years of haggling and verbal barbs to get them to sign on, during which time the racial undertones were barely concealed. In one corner you had the all-Australian straight-punching Olympian, Danny Green, with a haircut you could set your watch by. In the other a flag-burning Islamic convert from one of the most marginalised races on earth. In the lead up to their first bout the pair fought on the same card in Green's hometown of Perth, leading to remarkable scenes when at Green's urging the crowd pelted Mundine with bottles as he exited the ring - some of them raining out of the VIP corporate boxes.
But Mundine had the last laugh, however, peppering Green's head with lightning fast hands in front of 30 000 screaming fans at the Sydney Football Stadium. Green held on for the distance but Mundine got it in a unanimous points decision. Ten years later, on February 3rd, 2017, they will step into the ring in what could be curtains for either of their careers.
"I thought, man, this is our chance to shine. I'm not fighting for me. I'm fighting for my fans, I'm fighting for my people, I'm fighting for the minority, I'm fighting the system, I'm fighting against injustice, this is the night all eyes are gonna be glued to that TV and I was born to entertain," - The Man, on fighting Danny Green for the first time.