The End Of A Golden Era: Ringside For Green vs Mundine II In The City Of Churches
A golden era of Australian boxing came to an end last night, as two of the game's great characters touched gloves and went hell for leather. Jake Dean went along for the spectacle.
All images by the author: Jake Dean
It's still balmy at 6:30pm – swimming weather – as I'm walking down King William Road towards Adelaide Oval to watch a self-described "white fella with Irish roots" and an Indigenous Bundjalung man try to knock the shit out of each other.
It's clearly not black jeans weather and I'm also suffering after one of the most poorly executed burritos I've ever had from nearby Hindley Street.
Dripping salsa fingers aside, it's hard not to get swept up with this absolute corker of an evening and the anticipation for what's been billed – by salacious newspapers at least – "the biggest showdown in Australian boxing history".
The night's even more historic because 700 clicks away, crowds are filling into Princes Park, Victoria, to watch the first ever women's AFL match. It does lead me to question what I'm doing here, waiting to watch two 40+ year-olds well past their primes bash each other and line their pockets to sail off into retirement, instead of watching the footy on TV. Why does this fight matter? What does it all mean?
Eleven years ago these two men went 10 rounds at Sydney Football Stadium and it was the outspoken Indigenous man, Anthony Mundine – once called "the most polarising athlete in Australian sports history" due to his comments on race, religion and homosexuality, among other things – who took the points against crowd favourite Danny Green, the white fella. The fight attracted 30,000 fans and broke pay-per-view records, but an ugly undercurrent of racism was reported in the crowd. Indeed, I saw the sentiment first hand when I, and seemingly the entire suburb, packed into a testosterone-filled beachfront pub to watch that fight on telly. If the papers are to be believed, Green has been simmering with revenge ever since. Mundine – who has jumped four weight divisions for tonight's fight (weighing in at 79.6kg to Green's 82.9) – earlier this week vowed to win one last time for his culture and heritage.
It doesn't take long to encounter the mind-fuck involved with trying to decipher the meaning of this fight. I get talking to an Indigenous family after the father asks me what kind of camera I'm using, and I ask his teenage daughter who she thinks will win. Danny Green, she says, and then, an explanation: "Even though I'm Indigenous, it's because he [Mundine] talks so much shit and won't stand for the national anthem". Her old man looks a bit perturbed and chimes in. "You see what he's saying though, right? If Hitler asked you to stand for the national anthem would you do it?" It's a weird analogy, but it's clear there's a lot to unpack. They're still discussing Mundine's plan not to stand due to the song's racist past – which has even drawn criticism from the Prime Minister – when I bid them adieu to take some photos.
At the press table I'm surrounded by sportswriters – real ones who know the sport well. Me? I've watched two fights since the '06 bout. What this says about the sport's popularity in Australia, particularly in the face of a surging UFC, you tell me. Mayweather v Pacquiao was the most recent and there are parallels with tonight's fight. Two guys past their best finally agreeing on the fight everyone's been waiting for, and then walking away with extravagant riches, despite a lacklustre fight. Can we expect a similar result tonight? The bookies have Green as outright favourite – the result of recent form (he's coming off a unanimous decision win over Kane Watts in August, while Mundine lost his last fight in November 2015 to American Charles Hatley by TKO) and Mundine's jump from 69.5kg in his last fight to Green's 83kg today, which Mundine told the press was "some David and Goliath stuff". I overhear one of the journos talking, with just the right amount of hyperbole, to another about pre-match interviews the Perth brawler has given. "He wants to win it too much," he says. "Mate, if he loses he'll be known as a joke for the rest of his life. How would that feel?" Stakes are high when it comes to legacies.
The time passed since the '06 is evident on the jumbotron, when it shows Mundine backstage being checked by the docs, warming up, etc. It might be because his head now looks 20 feet tall so I can see every imperfection, but he looks weathered, tired almost. These backstage snippets are spliced with slow-mo highlights from the first fight, showing a much younger Mundine ducking and weaving, seemingly impervious to the punches of Green, who now – warming up at least – looks somehow like the more youthful fighter.
The crowd's a mixed bag. There are, as expected, a lot of heavy-looking characters that could snap me in seven; families (a lot more kids than I'd expected); corporate bros; heavily made-up women; couples on a strange-choice for date night; a healthy Indigenous turnout; and celebrities spanning the grades from D through to B+. I bump into a mate of mine who says he's scored seats within earshot of underworld figures Mick Gatto, of Melbourne, and Perth's John Kizon. He speaks in hushed tones.
The undercard's a dog's breakfast. Aussie boxing great Kostya Tszyu's son Tim absolutely belts a local battler from the rough-and-tumble suburb of Salisbury, while Wallabies fly-half Quade Cooper touches up a similarly hopeless fella with an impressive rat's tail (this fight's so comical that Cooper attempts to catch his portly opponent after dropping him to the canvas to end the fight). These fights threaten to put the crowd to sleep, but 10:15pm rolls around quickly thanks to the flowing amber liquids and the atmosphere becomes charged, strangely, once Indigenous pop star Jessica Mauboy takes the stage.
The debate over Mundine's anthem plans has the crowd on tenterhooks, but the event organisers avoid a fiasco and have Mauboy sing it before the boxers enter the ring. It's sung with gusto from the crowd – with way more gusto and finger pointing than normal – and while my view of the stands are obscured I do spot one pocket where a group of Indigenous folks sit solemnly alongside another group of largely Caucasian fellas singing proudly, upright with hand over heart. One guy walks past our table with a couple of beers and yells proudly, "We are young and freeee! Fuck you, Mundine!"
Mundine enters the oval first to the sounds of Cypress Hill's "(Rock) Superstar" and Roy Jones Jr.'s "Can't Be Touched", as well an Indigenous song I can't make out. The strength of the boos echoing around the oval make conversation at our table difficult. Green, on the other hand, enters to the quintessential Aussie pub anthem, Men At Work's "Down Under" to the thunderous cheers of the crowd, which one of the nearby sportswriters has guesstimated at 20,000 people. Again, it's hard to hear the man next to you. It's clear whose side the majority is on.
Before we know it, the man with the golden tonsils, Michael Buffer (the legendary US ring announcer of "Let's get ready to ruuuuuumble!" fame), is belting out his catchphrase with an audible ka-ching in the man's bank balance, and the fight's called on.
But it's almost all over before it started. Mundine catches Green with a sketchy hit dished out while the pair is tangled up and the ref appears to have broken things up. The crowd's livid – Mundine playing the villain role they've assigned him to a tee – and Green's wobbly on his feet. The doc gives him the all-clear though and when the bell tolls to end round one, the slow-mo replay of the questionable punch spurs some in the crowd to start chanting the national anthem with palpable venom.
Chant's of "Danny" go up in the second and now it's hard to get a read on who's got the upper hand. Mundine lands the more significant blows early, but Green' clocks him a good one in the fourth and continues to press in the fifth and sixth. In the seventh it's Green's turn to dish out a sketchy blow with an illegal elbow, cancelling out Mundine's earlier foul. I'm trying to take the pulse of the sportswriters around the table, but no one seems to know who's currently taking the chocolates.
To my uneducated eyes Mundine looks the victor in the eighth and ninth, despite Green sending globs of sweat flying from Mundine's face with one vicious jab. There's still nothing but conjecture around our table. Gasps echo around the ground, and in the tenth both fighters seem to play it safe, perhaps confident they've done enough.
After the bell 20,000 people wait with baited breath as both Mundine and Green do a lap of the ring, flexing their biceps, convinced (or pleading for?) victory. The real journos and I are still bamboozled. One fella says we should check the Twitter of Grantlee Kieza, who he reckons is the country's most astute boxing commentator. But the bloke hasn't tweeted a damn thing, which tells me no one's got a fucking clue who won this fight. My money's on Mundine. He just looked like he connected a lot more decent hits that had Green rattled at times.
But, of course, a Mundine win just didn't fit the script. The scores are read out and one judge has it tied 94-94, another has Green up 96-94 and the third, who must've been on acid, submits the baffling score of 98-90 in Green's favour. The crowd's going wild, but there's a sense of bewilderment at the score line. It's a sour end to a fight that, if anything, was too close to call.
Green grabs the mic and pays tribute to his old foe. "I want to pay special tribute. I want everyone here to raise their hands... I don't care what you think, but for putting on a show for all you guys and for being one of the best athletes in the country – a hand clap for Anthony Mundine now please." I head for the exits once he starts to thank his wife.
At the pisser – where you'll find the most accurate barometer of public opinion – the two guys next to me also reckon Mundine won. A third guy with an orange beard overhears us as he's walking out. "You cunts are tripping! Didn't ya hear the crowd out there?" He walks off shaking his head.
Penning these words from a 24-hour bakery in North Adelaide, I'm still grappling with the question of what it all means. I'm reminded of a Hunter S. Thompson quote from his 1978 Rolling Stone piece on Muhammad Ali's loss to Leon Spinks. "The decision was anticlimactic. Leon Spinks, a twenty-four-year-old brawler from St. Louis with only seven professional fights on his record, was the new Heavyweight Boxing Champion of the World. And the roar of the pro-Spinks crowd was the clearest message of all: that uppity nigger from Louisville had finally got what was coming to him. For 15 long years he had mocked everything they all thought they stood for: changing his name, dodging the draft, beating the best they could hurl at him.... But now, thank God, they were seeing him finally go down."
Clearly it's ridiculous to compare Mundine to Ali in terms of his boxing and activism legacy (and, yes, Mundine's delivery of his opinions can be a train wreck), but there are similarities between the two – in their conversion to Islam and in their "controversial" statements regarding race. Millions hated Muhammad Ali when he was making statements about the Vietnam War, for example, but – as this Al Jazeera clip points out – today he's lauded across the political spectrum and by the same types of people who slammed him in the 60s and 70s. Perhaps Mundine only need a few decades, or his obituaries, for the tide to turn on public opinion of him and what he stands for? What's undeniable is that the former NRL star and three-time world boxing champ is one of the greatest crossover athlete's in boxing history. It's a shame that gets lost in things like the debate about whether he should sit or stand during a national anthem.
And what about Green's legacy? He can now add a win over his brash nemesis to his four world titles, Olympic Games representation and his work to demonise the "coward punch" in this country.
But if you want to really strip it right back, two blokes have fought each other twice and won one apiece. Perhaps the only way to settle the score is with a decider (and, let's be honest, it'll be on the table now). For me I'm done caring. I'm off to watch the women play some footy.