Brad Pace recounts the night the Opera House played host to a boxing match that turned into an all-in brawl.
For all the talk of the current day Streets of Fear, it can sometimes be forgotten that spivs and gangsters are not exactly new to Sydney town. Our harbour city has always been a good place for a beer and a fight, generally offered in equal measure at many famous and infamous drinking holes.
But despite past incarnations of sly grog runners in the 30′s, pissed servicemen in the 40′s, nightclub czars in the 70′s and the present day bikie shoot up merchants, it’s the early to mid 80′s that’s remembered by many as the period that really sorted out those who could throw one and those who just spruiked it.
It was at this time that an afternoon beer in Chippendale could unfortunately coincide with a rampaging Neddy Smith or strutting Roger Rogerson, both blokes you’d be best to keep out of the way of after a middy or 20. And it was this time that served as the backdrop to the very first and very last boxing match to be held at the Sydney Opera House – an occasion that marked its 30th anniversary last month.
Big time boxing is notoriously a magnet to bad dudes, with the criminal hierarchy of the times often replicated by the hierarchy of the ringside seating. It’s big time gangsters up the front (statuesque blonde by their side), with their pimply underlings in the seats behind them – running bets, buying beers and trying for all their life to look threatening. There’s often more action out of the ring than in it, but on this night everything worth looking at seemingly happened between the ropes.
In the first and last fight at the Opera House, Kenny Salisbury took on Alex Temelkov for the Australian Light Middleweight Title. Salisbury was a much loved Sydney boxer at the time, keeping fans happy by knocking blokes out every month or so on cards held at Souths Juniors, and on this night finally getting his crack at a Title. Temelkov, the Champ, was a tough Macedonian immigrant with his own strong following and the same ability to back up regularly for a stoush.
The referee for the fight was perhaps a more famous boxer than both actual combatants – Charkey Ramon (aka David Ballard) was a twice crowned Commonwealth Champion, renowned as one of the great punchers of his time and later notable for some unflattering mentions in NSW Parliament and the Gyles Royal Commission. A noted associate of the likes of George Freeman, Ramon was hard.
It also took a hard man to take on the task of promoting such an affair, not just at such a glittering venue, but with the stench of violence a common smell across town at the time. Tommy Raudonikis was the man up to the task – at the time playing out the twilight of his career at Newtown Jets, and with a terrier like smell for an earn. Joining him as promoter was John Singleton (yep, Singo) who was, and still is, richer than God despite six marriages and a deep-seated love of the punt
By all accounts the undercard that night went along smoothly, as did the first seven rounds of the Salisbury – Temelkov battle. Every colourful character in Sydney was front and centre, and bets were flying around like an Anzac Day two up game, but things were still OK. Salisbury jabbed, Temelkov hooked, Ramon occasionally broke them up.
Then in Round 8 – the whole place went berserk.
Salisbury firstly landed a couple of nice jabs that stung Temelkov in to action. In reply the Macedonian threw a whopping left hook that allowed him to clinch Salisbury on the ropes, wrap him around the neck, and unfathomably start punching Salisbury in the back of the head.
It was silly at best, and unsportsmanlike at worst, but stupidest of all was that Temelkov had selected to pull such a move whilst engaging in Salisbury’s corner. Standing directly in front of them there was the challenger’s volatile manager, another Sydney legend named Bernie “Silver Fox” Hall. Hall had owned a gym on Goulburn St for many years, was a regular at Harold Park trots and most probably taught 80% of those in the crowd how to first pound the bag.
Upon seeing the rabbit punches, Hall grabbed Temlkov by the hair, pulled it back forcefully and undoubtedly would’ve scalped him given a decent grip. Temelkov’s corner man responded by running across the ring and launching a flying kick type move not seen in these serene surrounds since the last tour of the Russian Ballet.
And then it was really on.
Ramon quickly seemed to forget his official role of referee of the fight and started pounding in to Temelkov’s corner man with ferocity not shown previously by either actual competing boxer. Hall also got in a couple more and soon there were a dozen people in the ring, some of whom were in the background taking off their belts, all of who were dressed in shirts too tight for them, and one of which was eventual moderator Tommy Raudonikis.
Tommy pranced around the ring like a schoolteacher, telling all and sundry to calm down, no doubt upset by the spectacle before him, but perhaps also thinking of the clean up bill if things really got out of hand. It has since been suggested he may have been better worrying about an amount of cash he was holding under his chair, but of course that is mere speculation.
Eventually some semblance of calm was restored and Kenny Salisbury was crowned the new champion. He is still a much loved Bondi resident to this day.
But high on the sniff of violence in an era where it was celebrated, and spurred on by sponsor KB Lager’s tasty and refreshing product, the hundreds of Sydney’s tough men in attendance punched on in to the night. Based on some of the shit that went down in the following years, they were only getting warmed up.
And to this day, the Opera House has not hosted another boxing match.
Douglas Grant served Australia in the First World War. His remarkable and often tragic life – told through newspaper excerpts below – reiterates the sorrows inflicted upon Aboriginal Australians through colonisation, lest we forget.