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Celebrity Fitness:

Nov 14, 2019

  • Celebrity Fitness:

    Sam BruceESPN Associate Editor

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      Sam was brought up on long drives and the dusty fields of north-west New South Wales, where he developed his love of rugby from an early age. He joined ESPNscrum after a five-year stint heading up Fox Sports Australia’s digital rugby coverage.

It’s a professional fight being fought over two-minute rounds. By two former footballers. In a 7,500-seat arena across town from Marvel Stadium where, only a month ago, the UFC packed in 57,000 people for one of the biggest fights of the year.

This is the current state of Australian boxing.

On Friday night in Melbourne, former Australian Rules hardman Barry Hall [0-0] and veteran rugby league enforcer Paul Gallen [9-0, 5 KOs] will throw down on the Code War card in a bout that has pitted Australia’s two leading winter sports against each other. Sort of, anyway.

Both Hall and Gallen have boxing pedigree, something they both showed in their respective footballing careers, largely infamously, but at 42 and 38 years of age respectively, they are hardly in their athletic prime.

And neither is Australian boxing.

It’s a fact not lost on veteran Australian boxing journalist Paul Upham who understands why the wider Australian sporting community might thumb its nose at the Code War showdown — and those outside Australia might well ask ‘WTF?’ — but one he tempers with the belief that this bout will actually offer some decent “entertainment”.

“The initial public reaction is that they’re not real boxers and I appreciate that,” Upham told ESPN. “I think Paul Gallen is a little bit different in that he really has dedicated himself to improving his boxing skills and I have seen a noticeable difference and improvement over the last two years with Paul. His dedication to fitness was one of his trademarks in the NRL and, along with his fitness in boxing, I think his improvement in his skills shows that he really wants to be the best football convert into professional boxer.

“For Barry Hall, there’s always been this legendary reputation that he [was a] great boxer as a younger man before he became an AFL star, and I know [legendary Australian boxing trainer] Johnny Lewis, when he was the Sydney Swans’ boxing and conditioning coach, raved about the skills that Barry Hall had. So I think it’s actually a very interesting matchup, I think it should provide a lot of entertainment for the boxing fan.”

Hall, for starters, is eight years retired from Australia’s premier Aussie Rules competition, the Australian Football League [AFL] where he played 289 games for the St Kilda, Sydney Swans and Western Bulldogs clubs.

As well as lifting the 2005 AFL premiership with the Swans, Hall is best remembered for an off-the-ball punch that knocked West Coast Eagles defender Brent Staker unconscious and earned the then Swans forward a seven-game ban.

Gallen, meanwhile, finished up his final season in the NRL only recently. He was regarded as one of the toughest players in the game across his 19 seasons and is also largely responsible for ending “the biff” in rugby league’s greatest arena, State of Origin.

Serving as New South Wales skipper during the 2013 series, Gallen and Queensland rival Nate Myles went toe-to-toe in the middle of ANZ Stadium in Sydney. The National Rugby League moved to outlaw punching and fighting as a result, much to the displeasure of the game’s old-school fanbase.

It’s clear why these two combatants might generate at least some passing interest inside the ring given their exploits in their respective sports. Both men have certainly done their best to pump up the contest and, in doing so, boost their own pay-per-view cut from local broadcaster Main Event.

“I think the primary focus of this fight between Gallen and Hall is to make money,” Upham said. “They’re professional fighters, obviously they’re there to make a living.

“There’s also a lot of pride for these two guys; Paul Gallen likes to be seen as the best cross-over [boxer] of the football codes and Barry Hall has a lot of respect for the traditions and history of boxing. And I know he mulled a long time whether he should make a [switch] to professional boxing to be offered this sort of money.

“These guys are elite sportsmen, they know what it’s like to be out there in the thrill of battle and what it means to win, to win at anything. So I think that it makes for a very entertaining contest.”

What then does it say about the world title fight that is actually the headline act, but one that is relegated to second fiddle behind the Code War?

Yes, there is actually a world title on the line on Friday night.

One half of the brightest duo in Australian boxing, Andrew Moloney [20-0, 13 KOs] will face Elton Dharry [24-5-1, 14 KOs] for the WBA interim super flyweight world title in Melbourne. Moloney’s twin brother, Jason [19-1, 16 KOs] is also in action in a bantamweight showdown with Nicaraguan and world No. 10 Dixon Flores [16-6-3, 5 KOs].

But only those deeply entrenched in the Australian boxing scene would know the world title was on offer, such has been the promotion of the Code War over Moloney’s chance to really hit the big time.

“Na it doesn’t hurt at all, I’m actually going to be the main event on the night,” Andrew Moloney told ESPN when asked whether he was frustrated his bout with Dharry was largely being outshone.

“Obviously the Hall and Gallen fight is the one that’s getting all the exposure and a lot of the advertising has been around that fight. I understand that those guys are huge names in Australia and they’re the ones that are making it possible for us to fill a stadium like this and put on such a huge event in Australia.

“At this stage no-one really knows who myself and Jason are just yet, but Friday night we’ll have a chance to show everyone what we can do and hopefully everyone will start to pay attention and start to follow our careers. Without guys like Barry Hall and Paul Gallen fighting, there’s no way I’d be able to have the opportunity to fight for a world title here in Australia. So I’m grateful to them for making this possible for me to do this.”

Australian boxing is — and has been — in a holding pattern of sorts for some time. The lofty years of the Kostya Tszyu era are over, so too the Danny Green-Anthony Mundine years while Jeff Horn’s dramatic victory over the great Manny Pacquaio seems like a whole other lifetime ago after the Queenslander’s most recent effort in Bendigo.

And that flat atmosphere is serving as a chief motivator for the Moloney boys, who have already graced the screens of ESPN+ in the United States and understand how valuable the exposure is both for their own careers and Australian boxing on the whole.

“Absolutely that is one of our goals, to put Australian boxing back on the map,” Moloney told ESPN. “It’s had a bit of a rough trot lately, a lot of guys are getting the opportunity to fight for world titles and just falling short and we want to change that. As I said, there are no world champions in Australia at the moment. We’re hoping we can both get hold of world titles in the next few months and put Australian boxing back on the map.

“I’ve had a couple of fights now on ESPN+, my last fight was a bit of a letdown due to my opponent not being at the [right] level; we had a last-minute change of opponent and it was a bit frustrating that I didn’t get the chance to show the American audience what I can do and what I’m all about.

“So Friday night’s another chance to show everyone in America what level me and Jason are at and I’m sure these fights will be a lot better and give us the opportunity to do that.”

Upham agrees.

“The Moloney brothers are probably the unsung heroes of Australian boxing as rising stars,” he told ESPN. “They probably haven’t had the opportunities that they deserve for world title fights, and obviously Andrew is trying to get that interim world title fight, he’s had that one loss, that was a very credible loss, for a world title.

“They’re certainly challenging for titles at the highest level in boxing and hopefully, fingers crossed, more wins will open the door for more fights for fully-fledged world titles and great title runs because we need the next lot of Australian world champions to come through.

“We’re passed the Mundine-Green era now, we’re long passed that,