The bottle never lied, but it never really told the truth either. It didn’t matter if you took a beating standing up or lying down, the question was how long you could go on taking it. In his prime, Pete Gibson could outsmart any man who stepped into the ring, or just knock him down, take your pick. He was a stick-and-move man with a wrecking ball for a right hand and a tricky left, and twenty-two when he fought Tony Madigan and turned pro. Madigan had twice taken Ali to a split-points decision, when Ali was still Cassius Clay, before the Sonny Liston fight. Sonny Liston happened the same year Pete Gibson snatched the heavyweight belt Down-Under. The gods seemed to be smiling. Pete Gibson might’ve been a world contender, if it hadn’t been for the clowns running the show. And the booze.
He won the local crown in style, taking Ron Fritzsche apart in the second round. Frisky was a blown-up Kraut version of Rocky Marciano, whose footwork consisted of moving forward in a straight line till the other bloke came within range and then beating him like a canon. Frisky wasn’t a boxer the way Ali was a boxer, he never tried to outthink anyone, just knock their brains out. Pete Gibson had a left-right shuffle that made a target the German didn’t know how to hit. Later, Jack Blom would shout at him in the gym, —
“Champs ain’t s’posed to play safe, punchin’ against the clock, jabbin’ ’n’ movin’…”
Jack Blom was a trainer of the Old School, no frills. He reckoned Joe Lewis was the greatest boxer ever lived, a one-man abattoir. Said Mohammad Ali was chicken, like when he dodged the draft. Called him The Dodger. “Dancin’? You wanna dance, go to the fuckin’ ballet.” Pete didn’t care about politics, but he reckoned Ali knew how to box. Four years later his own brother got balloted to fight in the war against communist North Vietnam. He thought of what Ali said. “Man, I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.” Didn’t even know where Vietnam was. Not their war anyway. What the hell was that poof Menzies conscripting Aussie boys for?
The call-up lottery started the year Pete Gibson knocked down Ron Fritzsche and was still going strong when his title run ended. Eddie’s turn came in ’68, all the way with LB fucking J. By the time Eddie got back, Pete was already washed-up and on his way to a long career as a had-been with a grudge. He rented a room at the Wentworth Hotel and spent his nights in the front bar willing someone, anyone, to throw the first punch. He kept out of the cop shop doing work on the side for the local fuzz. Strong-arm stuff. The odd plumbing job. If you needed something straightened with a lead pipe, Pete Gibson was your man. For the price of a beer he’d give you the commentary on all the heavyweights he’d put on the canvas. Carlo Marchini had a glass jaw, Orlando Guerini had a slow left hook, Neville Robinson always tried to rope you off but had no footwork.
A week before heading up to Kapooka for training, Eddie was with Pete in the front bar at the Wentworth lining up their eighth pair of schooners for the evening and giving a couple of wogs the evil eye. The wogs eyeballed them back. Pete speculated out-loud about whether he’d fucked either or both of their mothers. The wogs were concrete layers who looked like they were fresh from a job. When they got up off their stools to take offence, Pete threw a few shapes and the wogs retreated to the car park. Eddie and Pete went out after them and found the two wogs and half-a-dozen of their relatives armed with shovels standing around a ute, grinning.
“It was bloody carnage,” Eddie said afterwards, explaining scabbed knuckles and a residual black eye to the duty sergeant signing him in. “We laid-out four of the bastards straight off ’n’ the rest disappeared faster than a bride’s nightie. Beers were still cold on the bar when we got back.”
K.O. TITLE WIN
ADELAIDE, Monday. — With a knockout halfway through the second round, Sydney fighter Peter Gibson, 24, tonight took the Australian heavyweight boxing title which Whyalla’s Ron Fritzsche won at Whyalla, 245 miles north-west of Adelaide, three months ago.
A large crowd watched the fight, which was Fritzsche’s first title defence.
Gibson, eight years younger than the Whyalla fighter, looked fitter and faster than his opponent.
Gibson won the first round narrowly, showing a slashing left jab early.
He showed the potential of his right at the start of the second round when he crashed it on the side of Fritzsche’s head.
The end came suddenly when Gibson had Fritzsche sagging against the ropes with a welter of rights.
The fighters parted but Fritzsche did not recover and went down for the count a couple of blows later.
Earlier, in Sydney, Australian lightweight boxing champion, Gilberto Biondi, scored a 10th round decision over David Floyd at the Sydney Stadium.
Tuesday, 15 December, 1964
They’d been out in the bush three weeks tracking the Vietcong west of the Long Kahn-Bien Hoa border, setting up ambushes. Their job was to disrupt Charlie’s supplies. There’d been reports of increased enemy activity across the sector, between Hat Dich and Rung Sat. It all pointed to one thing: Charlie was about to launch an offensive and 4RAR would be right in the middle of it.
Eddie Gibson had flown in like a tourist on a Qantas 707 to Tan Son Nhut in November, with a slouch hat and a pack and an SLR. Most of the regiment had already arrived on the Vung Tau ferry right after the ’68 Tet Offensive. Eddie was a late transfer and joined his unit at Nui Dat, Phuoc Tuy province. Hotel Australia. They’d done their jungle training in Queensland, at Canungra. With the odd refinement, Nui Dat was pretty much like home. Charlie didn’t know what he was in for.
4RAR was a commando regiment. They lived in the bush. From late December to mid-January they harassed the VC out-of-province in Bien Hoa. Then they pulled a three week respite at Nui Dat. Being in camp could get under your skin more than Charlie did out in the jungle. Bombed on Paludrine, you’d wake in the night remembering things and try not to. Claw through hangovers to the morning reveille of “Chicken Man” on Armed Services Radio. There was always a joker who’d slip a shovel under your arse from the back of the latrine when you took a shit, to stoke the paranoia. The magic vanishing shit act. Blokes with diarrhoea’d squeeze themselves blue thinking nothing was coming out, like the whole war was in their heads.
On 6 February they received orders to redeploy. Two additional VC battalions had been sighted entering the Hat Dich area. Eddie Gibson’s unit joined some Anzacs and moved forward with tank and APC support, right into the thick of it. They had contact with the enemy from the word go, larger than their call sign, never smaller, like the whole VC army was out there. It went on that way till the pull-back before Tet, when the Big One was expected.
There was no respite before they were redeployed again to block the approaches to the huge Long Binh Army Depot near Bien Hoa, so the Americans could sleep at night. They squatted in the bush and waited. Charlie waited. Their casualties in Hat Dich had been light, Charlie’s had been heavy. Charlie didn’t like being beaten at his own game, he preferred going after softer targets. Nice big fat ones that smelled of American soap and set up shop in the bush with sticks of Mary Jane and radios blaring — the Animals, Steppenwolf, Jimi Hendrix — like it was Top of the fucking Pops.
It was June, 1967. Ohio Bobby “Bulldog” Stinitano was a ranked contender punching above his weight. He looked big inside the ring at the Auckland YMCA, but as far as Pete Gibson was concerned, the Bulldog couldn’t throw a shadow let alone a punch. He’d gone up to him in the dressing room and told it to his face. Stinitano cast dark voodoo scowls at him, said he’d bury his white arse so deep they’d have to dig him out of the undercard. The newspapers gave the bout to Stinitano on a second round cut-eye stoppage.
Pete remembered it differently. In his version he chased the half-pint Yank around the ring for seven of a scheduled ten rounds and won every one hands-down. The “cut” was a fit-up. In March, Stinitano had gone under to Eddie “Gunslinger” Cotton, the “West Coast Cassius Clay,” and the promoters needed a win to keep their boy in the rankings. Pete needed the dough. Bad. It was his third comeback fight in the space of two months. What he didn’t know then was it was also his last. He often wondered what would’ve happened if he’d leant on the guy. If he hadn’t taken the fall.
His last fight before that was an even bigger joke. But it’d been a title fight. His title. Australian Heavyweight. The belt he’d given away to Fred Casey in ’65. It stung his pride. Fred Spurling was the promoter and paid him two hundred quid and all night with one of the local sheilas to take a loss. The money could’ve been better, but the sheila was priceless. He’d had to climb over her to get to the fight on time, said she’d had more cock that night than in the previous six months. When the fight was over, he gave her some more, but not before giving Dave Cullen a few smacks around the chops. Not too many, he didn’t want the stupid bastard knocking himself out. Cullen couldn’t’ve boxed his way out of a wet paper bag. Pete walked him through seven rounds, just to wind-up the hick crowd. Burnie, Tasmania, in the arsehole of fucking nowhere. He was twelve points up when he dropped his mouthpiece and his corner threw in the towel. The ref called him a clown. The audience howled.
The great Pete Gibson comeback had kicked off only two weeks before that, in a place called Armidale, in the northern tablelands. It was billed as a New South Wales title fight. His opponent on that occasion was Drago Barisic, a Croat from Melbourne, which didn’t unduly bother the boys from the NSW Boxing Association. The fight went the full ten rounds and got decided on points, if only because Pete never found a convincing enough opportunity to lie down. Barisic barely managed to throw a punch. You could see the desperation in the poor bastard’s eyes, just wanting the whole thing to be over so he could call it a day. Pete led every time with a right, pulling it short at the last moment just to see how confused the other man could get. The ref yawned. Barisic tried to crouch out of range like a chicken pecking the ground.
They were the top card in a virtually empty house, only the janitor and a couple of local newspaper hacks to boo them on, two had-beens no-one could remember already. Pete’d been “retired” for two years. For the comeback he spent a month on the bottle getting himself into shape. Barisic was five years older and creaky in the knees. It was his last hoorah, all he had to do was not punch himself in the head and let the ref raise his arm at the end. As soon as the judges handed him the title, the Croat hung up the gloves — which spelt vacancy and a new state title fight. It was like a revolving door. As long as they behaved, everyone got their fifteen minutes, and everyone got paid.
It was muggy and hot at the best of times, but when it rained the air was so wet you could’ve strained it through a towel. Half the unit was on R&R at the leisure resort in Vungers. The rest of them, the ones who weren’t on drill or filling sandbags, killed time spine-bashing waiting for the mail bag or sinking tinnies of “Black Duck” over at the “pub.” A glass down your throat ’n’ your guts down the sink. In a few days they’d be back out in the sticks, doing it all over again, walking the weeds, eating away at the enemy supply lines, playing shoot-and-scoot, sticking to Charlie’s arse like flies.
Gunner Eddie Gibson, service number 2788024, counted the days left in the tour. They were due to be relieved by 6RAR on the 1st of May. May Day. The kids in Martin Place’d be waving their Moratorium flags ready to spit in your eye ’n’ call you a child-killer ’cause the government sent you to fight someone else’s shitty war. Welcome Home Sucker! Eddie sat back on a crate with his thongs propped up out of the mud on a pile of sandbags knifing the tinea from between his toes. Above the tent rows, the hills outside Nui Dat shimmered in the wet. A couple of Chinooks drifted over the Long Greens with artillery pieces slung from undercarriages like storks delivering babies.
Smithy, one of the Maoris from Whiskey Company, had a BBQ set up outside the adjacent tent with half-a-dozen yellow and black cigarette snakes slowly roasting over a cut-away diesel drum. It reminded Eddie of back home at shearing time, when the men lounged around the fire not saying much, just waiting for the season to end and thinking of some place else. The cut-away belched a stink of charred snakeskin. “Kentucky Chuck” was Smithy’s speciality, “eleven secret herbs ’n’ spices” and all that. Reckoned the Yanks couldn’t tell the difference between a chook and the scaly end of a viper’s arsehole anyway. They were called cigarette snakes “’cause ya had fifteen minutes to live if one of ’em bitcha,” as Stretch used to say. Meaning “coffin nails.” Only Stretch wasn’t there any more because he bought it stepping on a mine in Hat Dich.
“Wot’s got ten letters ’n’ means parrot in aboriginal?” said Bobby Ross. “Starts with B.”
“Fucked if I know,” said Trev Bartlett, digging a beer out of an ammo case he’d converted into an esky.
“Get us one, too, will ya mate,” Bobby Ross said.
“That’s three ya owe me and a bucket of king prawns.”
“Yeah,” Bobby Ross said, flicking the flies off his crossword, “no worries.”
Everyone in the Company called Bobby Ross “Poncho,” because that’s what he slept under. No sheet, no pillow, just a mozzie net reeking of DDT and his nylon poncho. Each morning he’d fold the poncho up and stow it under the bunk so it looked like no-one’d slept there. Since there weren’t any roll-calls, this meant he usually avoided the regular tent inspection. It was a running joke. “Hey, anyone seen Poncho?” If there were duties going around, he could make himself invisible in the blink of an eye. He was like someone’s idea of a secret weapon. For his sins he pulled Forward Scout every time they went out bush. The poncho trick must’ve worked, though, because Charlie never seemed to see him either.
Whenever they had a patrol scheduled Bobby Ross slept with his boots on. The morning before they got dropped into Hat Dich a couple of blokes tied his bootlaces together, then screamed in his ear that a Sergeant Major from D Company was coming and Bobby Ross jumped out of bed with his poncho flapping and went head over tits into the mud. Ha-ha-fucking-ha.
“How about another word for salve, eight letters, starts with E?”
“Garn, ya silly coot,” said Trev Bartlett.
“Didn’t know they had words that long in Aussie,” Smithy grinned, licking his bayonet, a pair of dark tattoos curling out from his mouth like blue-black tusks.
“Yeah?” Trev Bartlett drawled. “Like cannibal, ya mean?”
The Maori flashed an evil grin, —
“Mmm. Maybe chuck a couple a whitefellas on the barby later, eh?”
“I hear the local variety tastes like stir-fry,” Trev said, tossing Bobby Ross a tinny. “You should give that a try.”
The post bag was late as usual. Eddie Gibson had a letter from Pete and one from his mum. All his mates must’ve been illiterate, or else the commies had hijacked the mail as well as everything else. His mum said she hoped he was looking after himself and that she’d moved back to Manly. She’d be waiting for him, she said, when he got back. Pete sent a picture of himself propped in a hospital bed with plaster up to his balls and a bandage round his head. A brunette in a nurse’s uniform two sizes too small was perched on a chair beside him, smiling wisely at the camera. Nurse Leslie Thomson, Eddie’s brother wrote, was taking extra special care of his immediate needs.
Eddie tossed the letters onto his bunk and dug a movie magazine out of the crate he was sitting on, the one with the Barbarella centrefold. Hanoi Jane. You didn’t want to imagine what every GI on tour dreamt of doing to her. Frankly, though, he didn’t give a stuff about the politics, it was the stupidity that got up his nose. If the war was a shit-fest, it wasn’t them that was to blame. No-one in “4R” was fighting Charlie because they wanted to. He half-wished the smartarses going-on about peace and love in Martin Place’d all get loaded onto choppers and dumped out in the bush, see what they thought of being shot at with ammo paid for by their bleeding-heart commie charities. Shit. He ogled Jane Fonda’s tits and tried to forget about it.
“Hey,” Trev Bartlett said, ripping the tab off a can of beer, “why d’ya reckon they call this stuff Four-X?”
“’Cause in Queensland,” Smithy shouted, turning a charred snake with his bayonet, “they can’t fucking spell Dingo’s Piss.”
RIOTS IN SYDNEY
Sydney police arrested 128 people among 1,200 demonstrators who marched on the Commonwealth Centre in Chiffley Square and converged on the Wentworth Hotel yesterday in on-going protests against conscription and the Vietnam War.
Police said charges would include resisting arrest, assaulting police and offensive behaviour.
The demonstrators, who sang protest songs and exploded smoke bombs, were involved with police in brawling, fists and boots flying.
Saturday, 12 April, 1969
The hardest opponent Pete Gibson ever faced was Young Stanko. First title defence, fifteen rounds in the February heat, out at Whyalla, a steelworks on the Eyre Peninsula. It went the full distance, the bastard never seemed to tire-out. One of the last bouts to go fifteen three-minute rounds before they changed the rules. Pete won on a points decision. Then two months later they fought a rematch. Only ten rounds this time, but Stanko made every one of them count.
Whyalla was built on iron ore, the whole place was owned by BHP. There was a shipyard and a smelter and it was the third largest city in the state of South Australia. The company figured it was better for the locals to blow off steam over some beer watching a fight than beating each others brains out in the main street. Bums on seats meant big money opportunities, too. And that brought the promoters, who brought the title fights and national attention. The whole thing went live on network TV.
The first marathon had the crowd roaring for more. They wanted the brawl of the century. Gladiators wading in each other’s blood. Life or death. The re-match was billed “The Battle of the Titans.” Gibson vs Stanko, head-to-head. While Operation Rolling Thunder was blitzing North Vietnam, the crowd at the Whyalla Institute bayed for apocalypse. The place was stacked to the rafters. Bikini girls and TV personalities flashing the pearly whites for the cameras in an atmosphere thick with beer and sweat.
Pete’s mum only heard the result the morning after when she was shopping at the Flint Street butchers. A reporter from the Advocate was waiting on her doorstep when she got home. He quoted her in the afternoon edition: “I knew Peter was fighting on Monday night, but it’s impossible to pick up the South Australian radio stations on our set,” she said. “One of the butchers told me he’d heard about the fight and Peter’s win on the news from Sydney.” She thought her son might come home to Bedgerebong for the weekend. The paper said the town expected great things of the local champ. The reporter made a special note of the fact that the beaten copper around the Post Office clock was a younger Pete Gibson’s handiwork, done while he was apprenticed to Keith Press, a local plumber. The Champ’s grandfather had served with distinction in WWI.
Operation “Overlander” commenced on the 8th of April. They were choppered from the airfield at Nui Dhat first thing in the morning in RAAF Iroquois. The drop zone was out-of-province, Bien Hoa. By now it was like being airlifted into their own backyard. Perhaps it was testament to the regard in which Charlie held the Anzac troops, that ever since Long Tan in ’66, VC activity in Phuoc Tuy province had virtually dropped off to zero. So now to get their thrills the brass called in the Hueys to ferry them upriver from the Yank depots where there was action guaranteed.
They set up a fire-support base and waded out through bamboo in bush-hats and war-paint with 90 pounds on their back, hunting the enemy. Some Kiwis from Whiskey Company patrolled on their left flank. It was slow work, cutting through the bush, creeping up on Charlie where he didn’t expect it. From time to time they’d come into a clearing and sweep it for mines and booby-traps. Sometimes a rubber plantation, where every time you moved your eyes the ground seemed to stand up.
Eddie Gibson was shouldering an M60, following up the rear with McGreavey and Trev Bartlett, when his boot struck something hollow through the leaves. They kept down while McGreavey cleared the leaves with his bayonet. There was a wire loop set in a wood slab. They lifted the slab and found a tunnel going down. Trev Bartlett passed the message forward and the coordinates were radioed in.
“They build ’em like the bloody London Underground. Tiers of ’em, one on top a th’other. Bet there’s tunnels all round ’ere. Prob’ly got a whole village down there,” McGreavey said, waving his bayonet at the bush.
“I wouldn’t know, mate,” Eddie said.
They pushed the slab back in place and withdrew into the bush to set up a position around the tunnel entrance and wait. Bobby Ross popped his ration pack and chewed a piece of cheese. The others, Flynn, McGreavey, Longford, spread out to form a perimeter. The Kiwis would be sweeping around ahead of them. If the tunnel was part of a network, Charlie could pop up anywhere. The radio crackled. The jungle had gone quiet. Eddie levelled his machine-gun at the clearing and played-out the ammo belt. High overhead, the rumble of B52s. A fine dust sifted down through the leaves.
“FEARLESS FRED” LIFTS HEAVY CROWN
By ROY LATHAM
QUEENSLAND domiciled light-heavy, Fred Casey (12.13½), took only ten minutes to win the heavyweight championship of Australia. He battered Peter Gibson (13.1½) into submission in his third professional contest. Casey not only won the fight and the title, but he also established himself as one of the best drawcards to be seen in the Brisbane ring for many years.
The Queenslander bounded out of his corner as the opening bell rang; hard rights, left hooks and body punches drove the defending champion around the ring. Gibson’s nose oozed blood. Fred switched to southpaw and back, to add confusion to his attack. Gibson was in trouble at the bell.
Casey ran out at the start of the second canto and hit his rival with hard lefts and rights. Gibson countered with a good right to the heart but he was fighting a losing battle. Fred continued to punch aggressively in the third. A left hook hurt Gibson; a solid right to the body followed by a snappy left swing set Gibson up for a hard right which put him on the deck.
The fourth was a sizzler; hard punching duels early in the round had the fans on their feet. Gibson’s right eye was severely damaged and his face was a mass of blood. Les Parker wisely moved in and stopped the bout as Casey battered his defenceless opponent against the ropes.
Third Quarter, 1965
Pete Gibson never met a journo who wasn’t a hack or a lush or both. By the time the under-card played out, they were usually sauced up to the eyeballs. For the Brisbane title fight, Roy Latham wasn’t even ringside for the last three rounds, but out the back in the parking lot having a dry hump against a new model Holden Kingswood. Pete Gibson kept the clipping anyhow. His crowning glory, the start of the long downhill run. It gave him something to laugh about when things really turned to shit.
The set-up for the Casey fight was too cute. He’d busted his hands pretty bad on a plumbing job, but his trainer had a quack look him over and said it’d be fine on the night. In those days, you didn’t let busted hands get in the way of a title bout. Besides, Pete and Fred were mates, they’d worked jobs together, trained at the same gym. Jack Blom managed both of them. It’d be just like a friendly punch-up at a weekend BBQ. And to balance the odds, it was only Casey’s third professional appearance. Pete knew he could take him with his eyes shut, he’d done it often enough.
Brisbane that time of year was a pretty sight. They did the rounds, toured the highlights, weighed-in for the cameras, spritzed it at the League’s Club VIP bar, champagne and go-go girls complementary. The promoters poured on the class, jazzing the fixture as the biggest thing since the Ali-Liston return fight. The bookies weren’t buying it, the papers screamed mismatch. Gibson was on the cards as 12-1 favourite. But there was still the problem with his hands. The Doc told him to take it easy and make it count, bluff Casey with the left jab and take him down with a leading right.
In the changing room before the start, Jack Blom gave him a pill “to lift him along.” The Champ jogged out into the arena with The Stones blasting on the PA. The crowd psyched. Frank Casey came out low key, the crowd barely noticed. An Engelbert Humperdinck look-alike in a tux with fat bow-tie talked the talk. Pete “the Unbeat” Gibson in the red corner at 184lbs. “Snaky” Casey in the blue at 182. Bikini girls paraded the champion’s belt. Referee Les Parker called the fighters to the middle, told them to keep it clean. Cameras flashed, threw halos. The lights danced.
When the opening bell rang, Pete had to squint to see the far side of the ring. Casey looked miles away. The Champ lurched out of his corner, sweat dripping from his face. His mouth was numb. He could taste the pill Blom had slipped him, all the way down inside his guts. Steel wool and fairy floss. Then suddenly Casey was right up in his face, fists coming out of nowhere. The Champ roared. Casey made music on his mouthguard. The overhead lights did dervish dances. The Champ staggered against the ropes, feathered a left jab, swung a roundhouse to narrow the odds but collected only air. Phantom foes weaved left and right, laughing, taunting, spiralling punches out of the mist.
The Champ poured out combinations, pounded vapour trails, mirages. Unseen forces swayed him like a bozo bag. Bells were ringing. By the third round The Champ could hardly keep his gloves up. The crowd catcalled. The next four rounds were a sick dream. At the end of the seventh, Pete Gibson didn’t bother heading back to his corner, just turned away and climbed through the ropes. No-one tried to stop him. The crowd booed. Beer cans somersaulted through the air. Les Parker made a show of raising Casey’s hand before bolting for cover. Manhandled bikini girls shrieked as a drunken mob descended ringside, hungry for blood.
Pete fingered Blom for the fix. Frank swore he knew nothing about it, reckoned if Pete hadn’t walked off first there was no way he himself was coming out for the next round. Latham’s write-up in The Ring stank. Pete reckoned Blom typed the story himself to put the Commission off the scent. The bastard made a packet betting against the odds, but he still came down to the dressing room after the fight for his twenty-five percent. Pete told him to go root himself in no uncertain terms.
“Yeah? Well let me tell you something,” Blom grinned. “You’re finished. You’ve got no more career, you fucking lame sack of shit.”
Pete remembered the room swaying, his fists all out of shape. He would’ve killed the bastard, but he couldn’t feel his hands anymore, couldn’t feel anything.
Louis Armand lives in Prague. He is the author of six novels including BREAKFAST AT MIDNIGHT (described by 3AM magazine as "a perfect modern noir") and CAIRO (shortlisted for the Guardian newspaper's 2014 Not-the-Booker Prize). He co-edits VLAK magazine. OLD SCHOOL recounts a series of episodes in the lives of two brothers, Pete and Eddie Gibson, one a heavyweight boxer, the other a soldier fighting in Vietnam. It is an excerpt from a novel entitled ABACUS.