Ron Smith has been an amateur boxing champion and, for the past 17 years, an inspirational personal trainer. He's also been an ultramarathon runner, senior manager in high-rise construction, and sometimes a flawed husband and father. In The Boxer, Ron shares his challenging journey towards lifelong health and fitness, with the belief that we all only have one life, and one chance to make it count.
When I was in my twenties and thirties, I used to say that if I ever went to jail I would write my memoir. Thankfully, I never went to jail and I’m very grateful to have lived such an amazing life. There have been lots of highs but also many lows and at times I’ve been ashamed of the choices I’ve made. I hope that I’ve learned lessons, and helped others to bring out the best in themselves. My journey has been a wild ride and I’m so proud to be able to take you, the reader, along with me in this book. I have had to reflect on many aspects of my life that I’m not proud of and it has had quite a cathartic effect on me. The writing process hasn’t been easy for me, having left school at age 13 and not being very good with English. But feel very proud and blessed that I got to ‘go ride a horse’ and in a roundabout way found a life. You’ll have to read on to understand exactly what I mean. In, 1956 I began my secondary education at Sunshine Technical School. I was still obsessed with playing football and any other opportunity to be involved in sport. I look back now and can’t believe how luck would have it that our maths teacher, a weightlifter, had been selected in the upcoming 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. His name was Vern Barbaras and he put on a weightlifting exhibition at school. Through Mr Barbaras I was able to get tickets to attend a few days of the athletics at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I was inspired by Betty Cuthbert winning a gold medal in the 100 metres, Vladimir Kuts in the distance races, and all of the competitors on the arena. My new goal was to be an Olympic athlete.
By the end of 1957 I talked my parents into letting me leave school. I was 13 years and six months old. Poe had contacts in the racing industry and got me a job in a horseracing stable near the racetrack in Caulfield. The stable was owned by Charlie Sanderson, a leading horse trainer in Melbourne. Charlie’s son was also called Charlie and was a leading jumps jockey; he also rode in England during the jumping season. It was a thrill for me to mix with some of the best jockeys in the land. I watched the champion horse Tulloch, ridden by George Moore, working out. Tulloch’s muscles were magnificent, shining with sweat, as steam rose off this amazing animal at the end of the workout.
I enjoyed race days, when we’d load the horses into a large transport truck. The strappers would travel in the truck with the horses to the various racetracks. My plan was to become an apprentice jockey so I began studies at the apprentice school at Caulfield Racecourse, although over time it was obvious to me and others that I was going to be too heavy to be a jockey.
By this time my parents had obtained a war service loan and were able to buy a new two-bedroom weatherboard house at 55 Adam Crescent, Montmorency. This was to be their last home, after all the years of moving from house to house. I left the stables and moved back with my parents.
My dad got me a job as an apprentice fitter and turner, which was a five-year commitment at a company called Mindrill, a general engineering firm that made mining exploration drilling equipment and machinery, converting ex-war service army trucks into mobile drilling rigs. It was a good job and I attended school one day a week, initially at Preston Technical College and for the last two years at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. As luck would have it, one of the tradesmen that worked for the company was a part-time trainer. His name was Jack Smith (no relation), we soon hit it off and I began to ride track work for him.
Eventually, despite worries about my size, I did qualify as an amateur jockey and was able to ride in what were then referred to as picnic races. These had a minimum riding weight of nine stone seven pounds or 60 kilograms and I was able to ride at this weight quite comfortably. Picnic race meets were held in country towns around Victoria like Healesville, Yarra Glen, Yea and Wesburn. I loved the country races and learned a lot about life from people in the racing industry over these years.
Away from work and horseracing, I started to hang around the streets of Eltham with older boys and make some poor choices about life in general. I thought hanging out with this group was the cool thing to do, even when we broke into several shops in Eltham’s Main Street and also a small lock-up at the Eltham Football Club. I was silly enough to make a small jemmy bar at work, to enable us to remove some boards from the shop at the club rooms. Two of the other boys had stolen cars before this, and probably done other and worse things of which I was unaware. Well, as a result, the police arrived at my parents’ house and took my dad and me to the Eltham Police Station, where I made a statement about the series of events in which I was involved and went home with my dad, after being told that I would have to appear at Eltham Court on a certain date. This was a terrible shock to my mum and dad as they had no idea what I’d been up to. I’d always been a good hardworking kid. I’m sure at the time it broke their hearts.
My dad and I went to court on the appointed day. I was under 16 so this was the Children’s Court. Fortunately, I was placed on a good behaviour bond. Two of the older boys went to prison. Another, who was interviewed first by the police and had given details of what had been going on, was later killed in a car crash.
My probation officer was a man called George Newton, an unarmed combat instructor with the Australian Army. Part of the probation guidelines were that I regularly attend the local police Youth Boys Club. This was a turning point in my life and possibly the best thing that ever happened to me. George Newton was an instructor at the local Youth Boys Club. He taught boxing, wrestling and judo. He appeared to me to be the fittest, toughest person I had ever met. Although I was initially quite scared of him, I had enormous respect for the work that he did for young people and the community. He took me under his wing and I seemed to pick up the skills of boxing quickly. In hindsight, possibly my years of riding racehorses helped, as I was strong and lean, with a high power-to-weight ratio.
I had my first novice boxing match just three weeks after starting at the boys club, at the football club rooms in nearby Diamond Creek. A group of boys from the club competed and I was lucky enough to win my bout against another novice boy. I was on my way again, now with a new obsession to learn all I could about boxing. I was very lucky, as some of the older volunteers at the club had a lot of experience. I think I was smart enough to listen to all they could tell and demonstrate. They were terrific people, who had grown up in very tough times. This, together with George and his positive attitude, taught me that if you work harder than everybody else almost anything is possible. I trained every day, running of a morning before work usually three miles (5 km) and then to the club each weeknight, where training included skipping, sparring, boxing skill sessions, medicine ball, dumbbells, grappling, wrestling and anything else that George could make up. George would drive me one night a week to a boxing gym in Preston, run by a well-known professional boxing trainer, Sid “Snowy” Thompson. I was able to spar in a boxing ring with a variety of opponents, including some experienced, professional boxers. Of a weekend, my training continued with a variety of activities like running through local bush tracks, chopping wood for George at his property, and a skipping routine in the kitchen at home where my sister would time me with a stop watch. I’d skip 15 three-minute rounds with a minute break between rounds.
At 16 years of age, in 1960, I competed in the Victorian Boxing Championships run by the Victorian Amateur Boxing Association, winning all of my bouts to become the junior amateur flyweight champion of Victoria. These tournaments were run every year as a knockout competition. Entrants in each weight division would compete against each other until the last two fought for the title. The boy that I boxed in the final was Arthur Thomas, an aboriginal boy from Gippsland, who later became a very successful professional boxer. In later years he boxed in the main event on the first episode of TV Ringside on Channel 7 in Melbourne.
Over the next few years I continued to play under-age football with Eltham, and still rode the occasional horserace for Jack Smith – but I was obsessed with becoming the best boxer that I could be.