Anthony Mundine's fight for real credibility officially over


Anthony Mundine’s pummelling by Joshua Clottey on Wednesday night is unlikely to be his last fight, but it is surely the end of his career as a credible force. Boxing careers seldom end, but fade away in increasing intervals between comebacks and final pay days. Mundine will now enter the John Farnham phase of his career.

Many would claim Mundine has been in that grey twilight, between sport and showbiz, since about 2005. You don’t have to agree or disagree with that to acknowledge that in any assessment of Mundine’s legacy as a sportsman and as a spokesman for indigenous Australians, this is the rub: the question of authenticity.

After his many controversial public statements, from explaining the September 11 attacks as ''fighting for God’s law'' to questioning Daniel Geale’s Aboriginality and criticising Cathy Freeman, Mundine has routinely fallen back on the defence that he is ‘real’. "She sold out, toeing the line," he said of Freeman in 2007. "And that ain’t me. I’m not a fake." Of Geale, he said in 2012, "He’s got a white woman, he’s got white kids. I keep it real, all day, every day." Somewhat ironically, Mundine has always been dogged by questions over how "real" he is. Rarely can anyone have striven so hard to be "real" while creating the exact opposite impression.

As a rugby league player, Mundine was unquestionably a star, and the game was poorer when he quit in 2000. But his departure always seemed to have an air of pique. Did he ever get over the embarrassment of dropping the ball over the line during St George Illawarra’s grand final against Melbourne in 1999, turning the tide back from a near-inevitable Dragons win? When he was not selected for the Kangaroos, Mundine was widely, and justifiably, considered unlucky. But by accusing coach Chris Anderson and the selectors of racism, he was offering a whingeing-victim mentality that, first, had no evidentiary basis, and second, opened a space for a waiting pack of right-wing critics. Greg Inglis has not only done more than Mundine could have dreamed of as an Aboriginal leader in rugby league, but he, along with David Peachey, Preston Campbell and many others, undid the damage that Mundine’s tantrum left behind. 

Anthony Mundine is knocked to the ground by Joshua Clottery. Picture: MARINA NEIL

Anthony Mundine is knocked to the ground by Joshua Clottery. Picture: MARINA NEIL

Moving into boxing was a natural step. Mundine was an individual, and in a solo sport he could achieve the profile and leadership that made him one of the most significant young Aboriginal people of his generation. Boxing gave him the platform to inspire that might have been constricted in a team sport.

But then he began to undo himself by creating a bizarre and confusing cultural persona. It wasn’t just that he attacked Arthur Beetson as an "Uncle Tom". It was the use of an American phrase, embedded in American race relations, that was in keeping with Mundine’s adoption of African-American linguistic and personal style and put him out of sync with his own people’s struggle. He seemed unaware of his self-invention as a (very) poor man’s Muhammad Ali. No doubt Mundine meant well, but what was he trying to say, by appropriating an African-American guise? That the struggles of black people against racism are more or less equivalent everywhere? By converting to Islam, like Ali, was Mundine lumping Aboriginal Australians in with the global underdog? It was hard to tell whether he was honouring his people or, unwittingly, insulting their history. When young people look up to Inglis, Freeman or Adam Goodes, what they are seeing is not a generic black athlete but distinct and proud Aboriginal Australians. Mundine’s incoherent pan-"Man" sometimes made it hard for them to work out what they were seeing.

Then there was the authenticity question, or smell, hanging around boxing. In a way that Lionel Rose’s or Jeff Fenech’s careers never will be, Mundine’s will be debated. More than half of his 52 opponents belonged in Vaudeville, not the ring. When tested against the best in his size, such as Sven Ottke and Mikel Kessler, he came up short. He won two vacant WBA world titles and one IBO world title, but in boxing’s alphabet soup of titles there lingered questions over whether Mundine was as "real" a world champion as Fenech. Which is not to dispute that Mundine was one of the best boxers Australia has produced, but he fought at a time when the sport was fragmented and lacking credibility, undermined by corrupt and cynical promotion.

When you hear from people who know Mundine personally, you have to pay credit to the consistent testimonials to his loyalty, sincerity and other qualities. Privately, there is undoubtedly a "real" Mundine who is worth all the admiration his friends have for him. His attempts to help troubled fellow sportsmen have been well-intentioned, and if they tend to follow the same template (Islam, boxing, a mercenary approach to team), Mundine can honestly say it has worked for him. In direct contrast to a lot of the sporting world around him, Mundine has a reputation as a good fellow in private who manages to say all the wrong things in public.

It’s apposite that Mundine’s heavy defeat came on the day that several sports signed an anti-homophobia framework. Five months ago, Mundine made stupid homophobic comments about the television drama Redfern Now, suggesting homosexuality was incompatible with Aboriginal culture. Rugby league, in this as in so many other ways, has moved forward without Mundine. Was he keeping it "real", or just parroting more from the African-American-Muslim homophobic fringe? As ever with Mundine, what’s "real" is what’s most elusive.


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