THE boxing tent legend Jimmy Sharman jnr died this year at the age of 94, but the boxing tent drum still bangs away in the outback. It is a summons to come see Fred Brophy's Famous Boxing Troupe - the last of its kind in Australia. In the south-west Queensland town of Birdsville - where Fred Brophy and his boys are annual visitors — the bang of the drum is dubbed the "Birdsville National Anthem".
It drags the crowd out of the Birdsville Hotel, across the street and into the tent, where blokes who fancy their fighting skills can match it with Brophy's The Cowboy, Pretty Boy, Burketown Mauler, Barramundi Kid or Little White Lightning.
The canvas is adorned with gaudy murals of well-known boxers who have had a go in the Brophy tent, such as Jeff Fenech and Lester Ellis.
As he stands in his trademark shiny red shirt, banging the drum, Brophy tells the crowd that "this is where champions are discovered".
But how much longer will it be so? There was a rumour in the crowd in Birdsville this week that this would be Brophy's last visit. Brophy, 54, is a fourth-generation showman who declares: "I'm going to have to come back. That many people have heard the rumours and been asking me. People want me to keep coming back. I do this for these people. I do it for Australia. It's part of Australia's heritage. When it goes, part of Australia goes."
Jimmy Sharman's tent was forced to close down in 1971, when NSW brought in regulations stopping anyone from boxing more than once a week.
And Brophy says NSW people come to Birdsville in droves, not just to see its famous race meeting this week, but so they can experience the magic of the tent.
"They come into my tent and they can't believe it."
The fact that he cannot operate in NSW annoys Brophy.
"Is there anyone here from NSW?" he asks the crowd.
"Welcome to Australia.
"I'm not going to change my tent show for the politicians and bureaucrats down there in their air-conditioned offices."
As fighters in the crowd slowly volunteer for three rounds in the ring, Brophy asks them their names, where they are from and whether they have done much boxing. Nobody owns up to being a pugilist, but Brophy doesn't believe them all.
"How did you get that nose?" he asks. "You never got it from picking tomatoes."
The Cowboy accounts for Crash, a mechanic from Victoria, pretty easily in the first bout, but Pretty Boy gets a touch-up from his burly Queensland opponent.
Matt the Kiwi is the first to hit the canvas and not want to get up, courtesy of the Barramundi Kid.
The Cowboy is judged to have beaten Big Graham from Brisbane, but this is greeted with jeers and the chant of "bullshit". When Brophy does eventually give it away, there might not be a fifth generation to take on the tent.
His son, 20-year-old Fred Brophy junior, boxes in the tent, but his dad isn't expecting him to keep the troupe going. "I don't really want him to," Brophy said. "There's easier ways to make a living."
Daniel Lewis Regional Reporter