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.
Rev. David B. Smith (the 'Fighting Father') Parish priest, community worker,martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of three. Get a free preview of Dave's book,Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist when you subscribe to his newsletter at www.fatherdave.org