The air is still as my friend and I drive across Mullet Creek, turn left at Bong Bong Road and enter the car park of the Dapto Leagues Club. Up the stairs, just past the bouncers, elegant carved wooden lions guard the entrance to the Chinese restaurant. Beyond them lies the realm of blokes and chicks. Stocky men in jeans and sports shirts. Stilettoed girls, young, all cleavage and lip gloss, hunting the stain-resistant carpeted savannah in packs.
In here, it’s OK to walk around with your drink, which is served in a plastic cup. We line up and enter the venue, which has a sunken floor surrounding a raised stage edged with flags of all nations. Above hang chandeliers and a lone mirrorball. The ceiling is pressed with a pattern reminiscent of copper coloured mozzie coils.
I sit at the back of three rows of kickboxing students on a platform raised level with the boxing ring. First on the bill are dancers, a local version of WCW’s Nitro Girls. Four pretty things in silver tops, sparkly purple hot pants and black thigh-high boots performing moves best described as electric cowboy slut fusion. When they’re done, Captain Charisma leaps onstage in a silken robe accompanied by his own theme music: Bad boys bad boys, whatchagonna do? He dances, punches the air as one of the pretty girls holds up a card announcing round one, presenting the information to all four sides of the arena with a pose and a smile.
The colours of combat are red and blue. The fight begins. There are hand signs from the ref. Spittle flies under the low-slung fluoro light fixtures.
“Luke improves his moves by doing ballroom dancing,” my friend informs me.
“Go Lukey!” screams someone else. The Lake Illawarra blue guy is bleeding. Back in their corners, trainers spray water on their fighters’ faces, then it’s Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap at full boar. This is regular boxing. The kickboxing will come later. When women fight, it’s not allowed to be called kickboxing. It has to be called Muay Thai because that’s a martial art.
Back in the ring, Red has beaten Blue and the pretty girls are presenting trophies.
We are treated to an ear piercing Acca Dacca interlude as the next set of boxers prepare to fight. I note that the fighters get bigger each bout. Last minute secrets are whispered across the ropes. Sweaty handshakes, followed by the soft thud of flesh on vinyl. The rounds last two minutes each. The bell sounds just like it does in the movies.
“It’s like in a strip club,” someone explains. “One comes on, the other goes off and they turn the music up.”
The fighters’ faces are obscured by head gear, each man identifiable by his colours and tattoos. Whenever a boxer from Wollongong is announced, everybody shrieks in approval.
“Carn Slap. Go Slap Go!”
Slap? Slack? Slat? I can’t quite catch the diction. Below in the dining pit, the audience is getting frisky.
My eardrums are bursting from their high-pitched screams. A lone moth flutters warily beneath the fluros to a hip hop rendition of Stayin Alive, all drum and bass.
Another bout: these guys have shoulders like gorillas. A few solid smacks to his head and everybody goes “Oooh!”
“Go red go!”
Every third song seems to be Acca Dacca. These guys are really thumping the Jesus out of each other. Suddenly I notice that the ref is wearing latex gloves to protect himself from blood splatters. You can’t be sure who’s won until the ref holds up the winner’s glove. The boxers look really out of it by the end.
“Go red go!”
And now, weighing in at 67.7 kilos we have Rhion from Reflex Gym, a local boy. He’s seventeen, a black belt with arms of hammered wire. He has the blue guy on the ground in seconds. I’m hearing a swooshing sound as they fight. Is it a swift exaltation of breath or the chafing of vinyl?
The pretty girls throw t-shirts into the crowd
You gotta fight for your right to party!
Bloodied wads of cotton are discarded into a plastic bag hooked over a disused corner of the ring.
Is the blue guy hampered by the fact that no one is calling out his name?
And now a pause while an older man in a blue shirt leans over the ropes and shines a penlight into Rhion’s face. He nods OK and the fight resumes. Rhion is on the blue guy like a pit bull. Rhion’s blood is all over the blue guys’s gloves.
Wild thing blares from the sound system. The fighters look drunk as they wait for the ref to call it. Blue wins, which surprises me. I thought it was gonna be Rhion for sure.
Next up is Bulldog Gym from Manly in fancy satin shorts, red stars on yellow stripes and black knee support bandages. He looks like Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago from Rocky IV and does the dance. His opponent is a fat guy in a blue wharfies singlet and ill fitting grandpa-style tracky pants that leave little to the imagination. Fat guy is from Dapto!
“Come on bluey!”
Bluey’s name is Max. I know this because the large blonde woman seated to my left is his wife. “Go Max! she shrieks. It’s his fifth fight, she tells us. Max is bashing his gloves together in anticipation
“Mash him! Get ‘Im Max, Go!”
The wife and her friend stand and shriek some more as Bulldog Gym fancy pants in the red and gold pummels Max into the ropes. Max is beginning to look woozy. The doc has a look at him. The crowd yells booo. The wife’s friend has another screech, then fancy pants gets his photo taken and Killing in the Name of… reverberates through the sound system, signalling the end of the round.
Out come the biggest guys yet – the Super Heaveyweight division. Red sports a Southern Cross tattoo on his bicep. The audience chants his name and there are both cheers and boos as the blue guy gets on stage. Blue is Harry from Wollongong. Red tumbles backwards. This fight doesn’t look so rough. Looks to me like they’re just slapping each other round a bit, but what do I know about technique? Blue is bleeding all over his face. There is much shouting and clapping from the red camp, who are offering advice to their fighter.
“Down the middle”
“Keep the pressure on!”
This is such a stupid thing, guys thumping each other about the head until they bleed and fall over. You can practically see their IQs leeching outta their skulls as they go.
There is an intermission in which a framed Costa Tzu boxing glove is auctioned. The dining pit crowd have long since finished their rump steaks and chicken schnitzels. The white tablecloths are cluttered with empty bottles. Two fat girls in high heels dance drunkenly around the table at the foot of the stage.
And now for part two: the kickboxing. These fighters are lithe rather than chunky. First up is Full Force from Blacktown: Yellow flame detailing on red satin shorts.
The local boy is Dominic from Reflex Gym. Every muscle on their bodies is acutely defined.
“There’s more going on in kickboxing,” says the guy standing next to me. He’s been doing the sport for seven months. The kickboxers fight rounds the same as the regular boxers. As the next round of kicking and punching begins, attendants mop spilled water from the floor and roll the plastic corner stools away in a swift sequence of motion. Trainers yell instructions from the sidelines, thumping the floor for emphasis. When it’s over, the kickboxers get Acca Dacca too. The pretty girls have new outfits on.
“He’s only in year nine at school, that young fella,” says the guy beside me.
Next up is Double Dragon vs a guy in serious-looking Muay Thai pants. They’re kicking the shit out of each other, slamming and bouncing off the ropes. I note that they wear shin guards but not head gear. Why no head gear? They’re kicking each other in the head! By now the audience is drinking, dancing, chanting and yelling. The fat girls are getting amorous with anyone who crosses their path.
Bout three. The blue dude looks serious. The lettering on his shorts is not in English. Red corner has red bull elephants emblazoned across his pants. High kicks, three point turns, more Acca Dacca and ice on the back of their necks in the time out corners.
“Hit him, Darren, hit him!”
Yeah, I get the shin guards now. Those legs are deadly weapons. I’m surprised no bones are getting snapped. Water spray in the face. Gangsta rap. Hand signals from the coach. Deep breaths. Kick and spin. The audience thumps wildly on the floor. Pink patches form on shiny white skin.
Another costume change for the pretty trophy girls. Blokes hover, chicks shake their booty. A big guy vomits suddenly into a full glass of beer on the table below where I’m standing. The smell of spew wafts upwards as his mate, one of the boxers, takes photos on his mobile phone. Up close to the stage I hear the audience yelling directions to the fighters
And now its time for the women. Rose from Reflex Gym, Wollongong, a small dark-skinned woman with six pack abs and hair braided tightly in rows along her scalp. Rose is coiled like a wire, bouncing and feinting punches in the ring. Her opponent is 51 kilos of blonde and small. The girls get a James Brown soundtrack. Rose wins her fight and my kickboxing companions go apeshit.
In the crowd below I spy a fascinating new kind of mullet navigating between tables at the back of the dinner pit. A bald head with a tail flap of tight black curls clinging to his neck.
Britney’s Toxic blares, bringing my attention back to the stage as the second chick fight begins. Blue is another small blonde with tight braids. Lara. She’s from a gym in Manly and she wears colourful garlands and an unusual rope head decoration. She bows to the four sides of the ring before the fight begins. Her opponent is a redhead called Christine. Both girls are the size of twelve-year-olds, with limbs as solid as cement. Poor little Lara puts up a good fight but she’s getting hammered.
“I can’t. I can’t do it,” she mouths to her coach.
Readhead wins the Muay Thai belt. A woman from the audience hugs her across the ropes, passing across a bunch of red roses. Lara seems to have recomposed herself. The women hug. Hugs have been plentiful all night. Christine gives a speech thanking her two boys for their support. This woman has two children? She is obviously older than she looks.
And now we come to the main event. The NSW Super Middleweight Championship. Blue dances into the pit surrounded by a blue-clad entourage. The blue fighter is bigger than the red fighter. Red does a warm up dance.
By round two I’m yelling along with the rest of them. I want the little red guy to whup the big blue guy. But blue has him on the ground more than once. And on the ropes. At the bell the pit crews spray mist onto their fighters’ faces. Then they’re at it again, feinting and grappling through four rounds. Suddenly it’s all over. Big blue won. Wolf whistles, strobe lights, pumping dance music. Blue grips the mike between his gloves, tries to make a speech but he’s still wearing his mouthguard so only muffled sounds emerge.
Lights up. It’s quarter to midnight and everybody’s going home. I wait for my friend. Reflex gym are fawning over Rose who still looks dazed from her winning fight. The house lights are way too bright and I’m exhausted, a fish out of water, utterly invisible in this broad shouldered crowd. My friend has been trying to talk me into joining her kickboxing class, but I know now I’m not gonna. Too much Acca Dacca. Too much blood on the ropes.
Photos by Lourdes Ndaira & me here