The spirit of Marrickville: Johnny Lewis

Marrickville legend, trainer Johnny Lewis. Photo: Nick Cubbin/blackboxphotos (used with permission)

 

BY DANIEL CLYDE-SMITH

For generations, Marrickville locals have proven they know how to fight. Boxing has been one of the most popular sports in the area since the 1930s and has produced some of the sports best fighters and trainers. And a man who needs no introduction in the boxing world is training legend Johnny Lewis. Having trained six world champions, including three time world champion “Marrickville Mauler” Jeff Fenech, world champion Kostya Tszyu and Jeff Harding, Lewis is regarded as one of Australia’s and the sport’s greatest ever trainers.

But does Marrickville still deserve this title? Is the sport that gave so much identity to a close community still as prevalent?

Lewis’s house overlooks Victoria Park in Marrickville’s east. Nothing about it speaks of the home of a world renowned legend of boxing. The humble three bedroom home, with Lewis’ wife contently watching soap operas in the early afternoon, says much about his character and the working class roots of boxing in Marrickville.

 Marrickville has been known for its hard way of life. From the 1880s to the 1920s migration to Marrickville flourished and the suburb grew from a sparsely settled area to a densely populated industrial region. Migration peaked in the 1950s to the late 1970s, when very large numbers of migrants arrived from Southern Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It now has one of the highest percentages of overseas-born residents of any local government area in New South Wales. Industry attracted migration and gave Marrickville the status of the working class suburb – and alongside, the increasing popularity of boxing.  Factory workers were looking for extra money and quickly Marrickville was known for its gyms and fighters.

Lewis fondly reminisces about celebrating Australia day as a boy among crowds of `new’ Australians within the Marrickville community.

“It was such an important day for the community…everyone would get together and celebrate this great day,” he says.

Times were tough, and the Aussie fighting spirit within Marrickville embraced boxing, both as a way of putting food on the table, but also for the glory of being the toughest fighter in the inner west – the toughest fighter in Australia.

“The hunger back in my day was unrivalled,” Lewis reflects. “Gymnasiums were everywhere and most of the kids would head down just to watch the sparring matches after school.”

Fights were always organised locally, with some of the best promoters and venues Sydney offered. Lewis talks about the old fights “when the stadiums ran the fight”. Places like the Marrickville RSL club run by Roy Carrol, who Lewis rates as one of the best promoters of his time.

“He just knew the fight game.”

Lewis says Carrol’s fights, along with those organised by Barry Raff, who ran what was known as Addison Square Garden on Addison Road, were the best fights he has ever seen.

But the times are changing. Boxing globally and locally within the Marrickville community is declining, and with it, the social landscape and identity of the Marrickville community is changing. 

Like much of the inner west, Marrickville has become a desirable market for young professionals and white collar families.  Gymnasiums, previously geared towards boxing are now focused on the new variety of body-builders and fitness enthusiasts. Having lived in the inner west his whole life, Lewis has witnessed first-hand the development of Newtown, Erskineville, and now Marrickville. Boxing is now a “cross- training” technique, Lewis admits, with most people using the sport’s harsh training for fitness, not boxing as a sport.

Along with the change of culture and increase in the cost of living in Marrickville, more and more young fighters now leave to try their hand abroad. Lewis admits that once you get to a certain level you have to go and test the waters and admits “if had a good young bloke today with the potential to be something great” he would be considering overseas options.

This in itself reflects the changing social structure within Marrickville.  It no longer means much to be the toughest in Marrickville. The prestige in being dubbed “Marrickville’s best” is now glory that can only be achieved overseas.  The tight-knit immigrant community in which local boxing was spawned has evolved as Marrickville’s community has merged with the larger Sydney community and the values of the community have changed.

Lewis puts it bluntly: “The hunger’s gone.” The hunger to prove yourself, the desire to make a new life work, and the desire to put food on the table, all of which contributed to the foundations of inner west boxing, are no longer relevant.  The working class title the suburb once held has been replaced, with some referring to it as “the new Newtown”.

On a global scale, Lewis admits sadly that the sport of boxing is on the ropes as the Ultimate Fighting Championship ( UFC ) continues to grow and grow. The UFC is a relatively new sport, a version of mixed martial arts ( MMA ), and is one of the fastest growing sports in the world.

But as Lewis talks of the recent rise of Australian boxer Garth Wood, it’s obvious that some out there still recognise the magic that boxing can provide. The fairy tale of Garth Wood is the stuff of boxing legend.  A father who played for Newtown, a brother who played for the Roosters and Garth who played for South’s, made his way up through the boxing ranks in the TV show The Contender; a reality TV show where 15 fighters do battle for a professional boxing contract. Woods won the show and set up a mouthwatering showdown with big-talking former rugby league legend and inner west local, Anthony Mundine. Woods won the fight in a KO decision. Lewis can’t remember when boxing was such a hot topic. “You have to go back a long way to find people talking about boxing like that,” he says.

With such a rich and proud history of inner west boxing, it’s with a sad tone that Lewis admits there is no stopping change. Marrickville is now a target for hungry property developers rather than talent scouts. While boxing globally is in decline through the rise of other popular sports, Marrickville’s decline can be attributed to the changing socio-economic structure of the suburb. With the fading “working class” name in the inner west, boxing talent and gyms are heading further west, where training is affordable. In Marrickville, gyms which featured only a single ring surrounded by speedballs are now fitted with the latest bodybuilding machines.

Lewis typifies what it meant to be part of the boxing culture in Marrickville. And while fighters are rarer, you can’t but believe that Lewis’s eye for talent will guarantee that at least some of Marrickville’s former fighting reputation will be preserved. 

“There’ll always be one (up-and-coming inner west boxer),” he says.

2 thoughts on “The spirit of Marrickville: Johnny Lewis”

  1. I grew up in the outer suburbs and my first real foray into the inner west came about by virtue of my work.

    My area covered the area from La Perouse to Enmore. That’s where my fire truck went. That’s where I went.

    During that time we saw the rise of young Australian fighters under the tutelage of the master that is Lewis. All of the firefighters met him because his gym was in our area. Not because it was a fire risk that needed our attention but because we were fascinated with this new rise in Australian boxing. So we made more than sure it was ‘safe’.

    Yeah, we were skiving to our personal interests.

    Lewis received us patiently but without distraction. Hardly impressed with the truck or the uniforms and not at all by the interest we had. The quietly spoken man had a job to do. A job he did so well.

    The passage of time confirms Lewis’ quiet passion and the results that follow his inability to be distracted by……. anything at all, really.

    Perfectly captured in this article is his approach. Equally, is his passion for kids that needed an outlet.

    This article represents the memory of someone who was there and watched a bit way back in the early 80s.

    For mine, you could have done no better. Congrats and a nod in your direction.

  2. I came to this story thinking: “Oh dear, not another Johnny Lewis profile”.
    Thankfully this is not another Johnny Lewis profile – it’s much better than that.
    The interview with Lewis – old Marrickville observing new Marrickville – gives us a different perspective on the change that’s occuring in the suburb.
    The gentrification of Marrickville is not news. But this piece offers its own insights: the observation that the area’s boxing gyms are being transformed into fitness centres; the glimpse inside Lewis’s home where his wife is “contently watching soap operas in the early afternoon”.
    Deliberately or not, Daniel’s no-nonsense writing voice perfectly complements the subject. A nice read.

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