By Arnold ZableNon-fictionText Publishing

The Fighter: A True Story

Henry Nissen was a champion boxer, the boy from Amess Street in working-class Carlton who fought his way up to beat some of the world’s best in the 1970s. Now, he works on the Melbourne docks, loading and unloading, taking shifts as they come up. But his real work is on the streets. He’s in and out of police stations and courts giving character statements and providing support, working to give the disaffected another chance.

And all the while, in the background is the memory of another fighter, his mother – and her devastating decline into madness.

The Fighter is a moving and poetic portrait of a compassionate man, but also a window onto the unnoticed recesses of Melbourne.

Portrait of Arnold Zable

Arnold Zable

Arnold Zable is a highly acclaimed novelist, storyteller, educator and human rights advocate. His books include Jewels and AshesThe Fig TreeCafé ScheherazadeScraps of HeavenSea of Many ReturnsViolin Lessons and The FighterHe is the author of numerous stories, essays, columns and works for theatre. 

Formerly a lecturer in the Arts Faculty of the University of Melbourne, Zable has worked in the USA, Papua New Guinea, China and many parts of Europe and Asia. He is a patron of Sanctuary, an ambassador of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, and a former President of International PEN Melbourne. He has conducted writing workshops throughout Australia, and worked with refugees, the homeless, the profoundly deaf, bushfire survivors, problem gamblers and other groups, using writing as a means of self-understanding. He has a doctorate in creative arts and lives in Melbourne. 

Judges’ report

This isn’t just the story of Henry Nissen, that Jewish-Australian boxer who fought his way out of obscurity. It is also the story of Henry Nissen the dockworker, and Henry Nissen the youth social worker. More than that, it’s the story of Sonia – Henry’s mother – the girl who started in Ukraine and fought her way to Australia. It’s also the story of Melbourne’s Carlton suburb in the ’60s and ’70s, with all the grim working-class pride that paved its streets. Arnold Zable tells all these stories with poetic lyricism, finding the emotional truth behind lives of hardship and redemption.

Extract

Henry’s shift has ended. The sun is rising; the river is a ribbon of gold. He makes his way to the Hyundai and opens the boot. He strips off his fluoro jacket and throws it in beside the kit. The sun reflects off city high-rises in sharp jabs as he drives from the dock. It lights the rims of the broken-down ferris wheel, a phantom presence over the port. 

He turns right into Footscray Road and left into the parking lot. He pulls up by the grass verge well clear of the trucks. The air is thick with dust and windswept exhaust. He heads to the Port Diner, ducking under the railing by the door. He orders a milkshake and joins me as we had arranged. 

Workers are hunched over hot breakfasts, and Henry is talking of the Reads’ backyard gym, and his well-worn route from the side-lane entrance, up the stone steps, past the scissor- sharpening workshop, out into the backyard. The walls of the garage are brick, lined with fibreboard and corrugated iron. Two timber gates back onto a lane. 

The ring occupies the entire space except for a toilet cubicle and shower, and a one-metre-wide strip around the edge, between the rope and wall – room enough for trainers issuing instructions, and for punching bags; and an improvised target made from a tyre supported by an iron pipe and a second tyre to steady its base. 

The twins train seven days a week, all year round. Each day the same routine: a warm-up in the pocket-size backyard pre- dawn, before starting out on a 10-kilometre run. The streets are empty bar early morning workers trudging to the Rathdowne Street bus and the Lygon Street tram. 

The boys jog across Lygon Street and along the grass verge beside the cemetery fence. They veer right into Princes Park and set out on the three-kilometre gravel track. They run under eucalypts and oaks, round Bowen Crescent and then straighten up on Royal Parade, an elegant boulevard lined with elms. They turn from Royal Parade into Cemetery Road along the wrought-iron fence. They pick up pace past the sandstone colleges flanking the university grounds back to Lygon Street, the home straight. 

After school it’s back to the gym. There is no need to stop off at home; their gear is packed in their bags. They are bursting to get to work, shadow boxing with Peter and Mick, then pounding medicine balls and a vest strapped to Peter’s midriff, an innovation of old Mick’s – and his most fearsome improvisation, a punching bag so heavy it requires body and soul to move it an inch. 

Boxing is the art of the immediate, of shifting tempos and manic energies tempered by discipline and craft. Boxing book- ends the boys’ days, at daybreak and dusk, for months on end. They are finding their feet in the rhythms of the ring. Growing in fitness and strength. 

There are times on their morning runs when they are exhilarated. Tram commuters are met by the sight of identical twins rounding the cemetery bend under a rising sun, accelerating on the downward slope. Taking flight. 

There were differences, apparent early on. Leon was the boxer, Henry the fighter; Leon the thinker, his twin reliant on steely resolve. Leon boxed his opponents round the ring, and waited patiently until he wore them out. He was more cautious than Henry, light on his feet, more adept at slipping a punch, and he had greater ring sense. He listened intently to his trainer’s instructions and learnt to hold back that second longer to create an extra sliver of space. He weighed up his options, calculated on his feet. When on song, he was sharp, evenly poised between evasion and attack. 

Henry was a hustler and brawler out to beat his opponent into submission, brawn over thought. He charged out at the bell, imposing his physical presence, carving out his space. He was not a crisp puncher, but he nullified his opponent’s skill with relentless attacks. He rarely took a backward step. He had the mongrel in him. But no hard feelings, he claims. There were no grudges in it, he says. No need to psych himself up. 

His motivation was uncomplicated. Simple, he says. He did not want to be defeated, to lose face. He’d been a loser long enough. In boxing he’d found his métier, a whiff of a chance. He would train to exhaustion and fight till he dropped, if that’s what it took to make his mark. 

His philosophy was basic: hit and don’t allow yourself to be hit, but don’t inflict unnecessary pain. In the ring it’s one or the other – you or your opponent – and no way out. He was in it to win, but once on top, he tended to pull his punches, allowing his opponent to hold on. His passion was spent. 

He once drove his trainer to distraction at his reluctance to come in for the kill. 

‘Hit him! Don’t feel sorry for the poor bastard. Just hit him!’ Peter yelled. ‘I don’t give a shit what you do, just hit him. Damn it. Hit him!’

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