The Sport of Giving- 16 years of boxing in the Mallee

‘The service you do for others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth.’ These were the inspiring words of the great boxer Muhammad Ali who tragically passed away recently, leaving a hole in the hearts of many people from around the world. And unsurprisingly, these unspoken words form part of the underlying core values and belief system that Swan Hill Boxing Club and its trainers have adopted within our community.

Since living in Swan Hill I have always wondered what happens in the ‘chook shed?’ Sure, it’s a Boxing Club of 16 years, now in a shed that has housed chooks in past Swan Hill Ag Show days (very original, but I love the anonymity of it), however, the gripping name has always had me – a foreigner to Swan Hill – yearning to know more about this intriguing world of weeknight warriors that lies behind those tin walls.

As luck would have it, a fortnight ago I finally got a peek inside the chicken coop at feeding time and let me tell you – this close knit brood are definitely chicken less. From the moment I set foot in this mystical shed I was greeted with a genuine openness and character that portrayed more than just a club. It may not be extravagant in appearance, but after a quick scan of the proud pictures and writing that span almost two decades of boxing in Swan Hill, it was obvious that this charitable club has been the heart and soul of many residents in our community over the years. Some even claim that if it wasn’t for the Boxing Club while growing up, their life may have taken a more treacherous path.

So while everyone else was engrossed in typical Thursday night netball and footy training, I was treated to a spectacle of boxing training as trainer and club founder Daniel Uebergang took his fellow trainer Tom Mitchell through one of his rigorous training sessions in preparation for his first upcoming fight on the 17th July in Melbourne. Muhammad Ali’s words, ‘When I feel pain, that’s when I start counting, because that’s when it really counts,’ rang true in my ear. It certainly did appear painful. Knowing only too well what it is like in the ring, Daniel explained that it can be a tough, cruel sport. ‘You can’t take shortcuts or you will get hurt.’

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Daniel and Tom training for Tom’s upcoming fight in Melbourne.

Two decades ago Daniel had the opportunity to train in a reputable Boxing Club in Melbourne for several years where he was blessed with some great coaching and a diverse range of sparring partners, helping him develop as an accomplished boxer. As a grateful recipient of the support and guidance that was so generously offered to him in his amateur fighting days, he wanted to give back to the sport that had given him so much. So when he returned to Swan Hill in 2001, the Swan Hill Boxing Club was born.

However, Daniel is quick to ascertain that he could not have established such a grounded club without the support of the community, his incredibly patient wife and many of the trainers that have also sacrificed hours of their time over the years to bring Swan Hill this alternative sport.

Young trainers Matt Phelan and Tom Mitchell, who currently take boxing classes at the club, were once regular participants in the classes themselves, stepping up to leadership in recent years as a way of generously giving back to their beloved sport. Current President Junior Kelly has been in it for the long haul – joining them in 2003 – and has been a devoted trainer with the club ever since. After discovering his dad had a heart condition, Junior brought his father – an old-time boxer – up to Swan Hill, bringing another distinct element to the Boxing Club. ‘He was old school in his approach. He would watch the kids and tell it exactly how it was,’ said Daniel. ‘They all respected him immensely.’

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Trainers Tom Mitchell, Matt Phelan, Daniel Uebergang and Junior Kelly

However, that’s not where the generosity stopped. Over the years the Boxing Club (now with  four trainers and a loyal members base) has based its ethos around helping others, and it is unfathomable to think of how much money they would have raised for local charities and those less fortunate within our community. Now at only $5 a class, this money is either put towards maintaining the equipment on a needs basis or to cover the trainer’s travelling costs, but any surplus funds are mostly injected back into the community or other local charities. The trainers say, ‘it’s a great feeling giving rather than receiving.’ Something we should all try.

Daniel knows only too well what sacrifices have to be made as a boxer. ‘You have to sacrifice so much to get anywhere. I missed out on a lot when I was younger, but the sacrifices paid off ten-fold. It made me such a better person.’ One of the most valuable lessons that he learnt in his boxing days was during his second fight. ‘I thought I was good. The competition was overweight. He had long hair. But he beat me. I underestimated him. That day I learnt that you can never underestimate anyone.’

And that he didn’t. One of the special things about the Boxing Club is that when people walk through that door they are treated as equals regardless of their background. ‘It doesn’t matter what end of town you are from. Everyone has a heart, blood- it is what you make of yourself,’ says Daniel. And it is this equal playing field that makes this sport – wrongly accused as being a selfish, individual pursuit – one of the fastest growing sports in Australia (according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2012).  ‘If one person is not doing the right thing, it affects everyone. When you come through that door, trainer or boxer, you’re part of a team,’ says Daniel. There is no such thing as individual accomplishments at the club; it’s a team effort; end of story.

Boxing may have gained a reputation as a blood sport over its lifespan, but with all sport there is an element of risk or bloodshed. And with all sport, there are competitors who bring the sport under disrepute. However, when these sports are offered in a safe and supported environment such as the Swan Hill Boxing Club, where members are encouraged to display good sportsmanship, develop their fitness, commitment and teamwork, the mental and physical benefits far outweigh any minor risk involved.

Over the years Swan Hill Boxing Club has had a lot of success training seven fighters- an Australian champion and four in title fights. The biggest challenge is finding sparring partners up here in the Mallee, but their fitness in the ring is testament to their training. ‘As boxers in the country we need our fitness. We don’t have the sparring partners of those in the city, but in the last round we come home strong,’ says Daniel. ‘We have never had anyone stopped in the ring.’

Things are progressing in the sport though and one of the notable changes implemented in the Amateur Boxing ring in recent years to protect boxers is a ‘heads up’ rule. As a result, the referee can momentarily stop the fight at any instant if the boxer’s head is down. This is a huge step in safeguarding the competitors from serious injury in the future of the sport.

However, the Boxing Club is not only for fighters. The dynamic movements in boxing provide many fitness benefits and are now being enjoyed by the general population; Swan Hill Boxing Club being no exception. Catering for those who are simply looking to gain some general fitness, refine their boxing skills in a safe and supported environment or those seeking to gain a fitness edge in their chosen sports, there is something for all abilities. The club offers several classes a week for kids, women and mixed, taken by one of their four knowledgeable trainers.

The club also offer women’s self-defence classes a couple of times each year with money going to the White Ribbon Foundation, and regularly take local sporting teams (looking for an alternative fitness session) through their paces on special request. Additionally, they run a popular outdoor style bootcamp at the Uebergang’s farm during the warmer months for larger groups such as sporting clubs.

Most of the club’s amateur boxers started their journey in these classes, and after a consistent period of hard training they were given the opportunity to fight. Tom, one of the club’s trainers, was one of those people. ‘You aspire to get that time (one-on-one) and be that guy coming in and doing that little bit more,’ says Tom. Doing his fair share of sparring for others 5 or 6 times a week in the past, those dutiful boxers are now returning the favour and supporting him.

However, becoming a boxer – not to mention all those dedicated hours training one – is no easy feat according to Daniel. ‘You’ve got to earn it. I would give up forever and a day as long as they respect it.’ There are many gruelling training sessions and they are constantly being pushed to their upmost limits. ‘If they fought shit, I will tell them. But I will always finish off with a positive. They become my boys and I want to protect them.’

When questioned about why they generously put in so many hours for the club with little financial gain, there is no doubt in their mind. ‘We do it because we love it. And if we don’t do it, there would be no club.’ Something we would all have to agree would be disastrous for our community. But Daniel says, ‘it’s all about growth. There’s so much to learn. As soon as I know the sport, I’II shut the doors and walk away.’

So what are the ingredients to a successful community club spanning 16 years (and still going strong)? It appears that it comes back to generosity. The attitude, ‘I want to give back to the sport and the people that have given me so much,’ is like the common cold in the chook shed. The chook shed may not be much to look at, but it oozes personality and packs a strong punch of unique character that must be experienced face-to-face to be truly appreciated. You instantly catch the ‘giving’ bug.

Without those passionate predecessors and indebted students to carry on the life cycle of boxing in Swan Hill, there would be no club. And most importantly, when you are doing something out of pure love and passion with the absence of monetary gains, it comes from the innermost core of your heart. There isn’t a thing in this world as raw and contagious as that.

However, there are two humble women who have truly been the backbone of the Boxing Club over the years –  Daniel and Junior’s wives Sam and Bonnie. Without their unwavering support – bringing up the kids, helping out where needed and simply keeping home life running smoothly while Daniel and Junior dedicated many hours to the club – there would be no Boxing Club. ‘They never once asked us to give up what we do.’

This week, as people from all corners of the globe mourn the death of a great boxer and hero, I’II finish with an appropriate quote from the great man. His legacy will continue to live on within the hearts of boxing communities from around the world for many years to come. ‘To be able to give away riches is mandatory if you wish to possess them. This is the only way that you will be truly rich.’ RIP Muhammad Ali.

Check out Swan Hill Boxing Club’s Facebook page for more details Swan Hill Boxing Club Facebook page

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