I picked up at the House of Stoush once. It was a Crowded House concert in about 1987, I was 16 years old, the girl’s name was Cath, and for most of our relationship (which lasted six songs), she didn’t know that the proper name for Festival Hall was the House of Stoush.
Eventually though, she found out, because as awkward adolescent gaps began to appear in our conversation, I asked her whether she thought we were the first people in history to find romance in the House of Stoush.
‘House of Stoush? Why House of Stoush?’ she asked.
For a moment I was silent. So far we’d confirmed that we both liked the song ‘Six Months in a Leaky Boat,’ but there was nothing in her appearance to suggested she was an enormous Lester Ellis fan. Was now the time to talk about Johnny Famechon and Lionel Rose and TV Ringside? Was it tactically sound to share everything my father had taught me about Chief Littlewolf and the Indian Death Lock and how Mark Lewin’s sleeper hold redefined professional wrestling?
Mid monologue, I discovered that the answer to these questions was ‘no’ and ‘no’. Cath, it seemed, was not into blood sports. Not even a last ditch attempt to list the Beatles concert in 1964 and the golden years of ‘The New Price is Right’ in the credits for Festival Hall was enough to rekindle her interest.
‘I better go meet up with my friends,’ she said with a laugh and a smile. I laughed and smiled too and gave her a peck on the cheek. But deep down, I wouldn’t have minded engaging in the great House of Stoush tradition of expressing displeasure through the throwing of seats.
Thirteen years after suffering the pain of rejection at Festival Hall, I decided to return to watch other people suffer the pain of a fist in the face at close range. Yes, on Monday night, boxing returned to its spiritual home, the theatre lights smiling across the stadium’s worn blue and black exterior as thousands flocked to see it. The main bout was between former rugby league star Anthony Mundine, (who calls himself ‘The Man’) and Heath Stenton from Geelong, (who calls himself ‘Heath’). We queued in the shadow of the Dudley Street bridge, and waited for our passage out of the West Melbourne rains and into the house that John Wren built in 1915.
‘A retractable roof doesn’t give a stadium character,’ said Lorna, an elderly fan looking affectionately at the mortar spattered walls and old wooden gates. ‘I’ve been coming here nearly 50 years and I just love it. It’s the best fight stadium in the world.’
‘I was here the night before it burned down in 1955,’ said Harry Ivory, a legendary boxing trainer at the Brunswick baths. ‘Same blokes that fought on the night it burned down were first up on the card the night it reopened. Nothing much changed.’
Certainly the fire risk is still there. The ‘no smoking’ signs at Festival Hall have an urgency you don’t get in newer stadiums. ‘Smoking is strictly prohibited’ they pronounce, and the ‘strictly’ is double underlined to show that they mean it. I wondered whether the fire risk would pour water on some of the pre-fight extravaganza, as during Mundine’s first fight in Sydney, ‘the Man’ burst out of the dressing rooms through a sea of sparklers. The double underliners would surely have something to say about that.
The seat I was shown to was red and plastic and would have been perfect had it not belonged to former IBF world champion Barry Michael. ‘Mate. Would you mind just moving over one?’ he asked when he arrived back from the bar.
It seemed a pretty unreasonable request to me, so I said, ‘Mate, you move over one.’ Then I threw a quick left-right-left combination and stood over the crumpled heap Michael had become. Actually that’s not exactly how it happened. What I did was shift seats instantaneously, gawk at the former champ for a while, and then suck up to his son, Zac, by offering him a few of my chips. Still, I’m sure if I’d been called upon to handle myself, I would have done okay.
When Mundine appeared, he was wearing a dazzling silver-black dressing gown and matching trunks. With all the spotlights and dry ice he looked like either a cowl-less Batman or a half-dressed Bruce Wayne. The music blared and Mundine negotiated a drop knee pirouette. Statistics on razzmatazz per minute of ring-time have not been kept for long in this country, but this was surely going to break all previous records
Mind you, the man can fight. He won convincingly against the brave but moderately talented Stenton, and when I was eavesdropping on Barry Michael’s conversation with his son, heard him say that Mundine’s boxing potential is simply phenomenal. For 8 rounds, Festival Hall pulsed to the chants of 4000 boxing fans in a way that it hasn’t done for a decade. ‘I’m going to the top, and I can’t be stopped by you, or you, or you, or you,’ Mundine said, pointing indiscriminately around the stadium on obtaining the decision. If only Neil Finn had shouted that after his second encore in 1987.
On the way out, I finally plucked up the courage to speak directly to Barry Michael and asked whether he thought there would be more boxing now at Festival Hall. He looked at the elevated ring the old scratched floorboards and the crowd mobbing Mundine.
‘I hope so. It’s the house of stoush you know.’