Williamstown—a ring-side view

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1989
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Boxing hero Barry Michael on growing up in this Melbourne burb, and watching it slowly transform from ‘drug capital’ to vacay hot spot

My parents migrated to Australia when I was two and we moved to Williamstown in 1963 when I was seven or eight. I have lots of memories of Williamstown—there were no traffic lights, no parking meters, it was like a ghost town, with few people. That’s all changed and now it’s chock a block, especially in the warmer months with people coming for the beach, restaurants, cafes and the like. Before the West Gate Bridge, no one wanted to go to Williamstown because it was rough. It used to be a “drug capital” and growing up in Williamstown was a challenge.

Now of course, it has changed dramatically and is a very expensive suburb. I was brought up in the commission flats, which have now been demolished, making way for new development. Back in 1962 mum and dad bought their first house for I think $7,000 and sold it for $56,000, some 15 year later. Last year that same little house sold for just under a million dollars—a tiny block lucky to be on 250 m2. It’s still standing, not far from the water. These days you’d get even more for it.

Growing up in Williamstown I was a mad fisherman, we could get access to every pier and there was unlimited fish to catch. I could catch anything I wanted. We’d get down there on the pier and throw in a line. The fish were abundant and I spent much of my spare time hanging around the water.

People always ask me—“Barry, you’ve had a great career as a boxer—how did you go from being a fisherman to a boxer?”

To be honest with you, moving into Williamstown and going through the school system at that time was a test. I mean me being a short-arse, and the area being a rough area at that time, I had to stand up for myself. My dad, who had about 20 fights in the British Air force, taught me how to stand up for myself and punch straight and I consequently fought lots of guys bigger than me, and never really came off second best. They usually gave up, except one guy, who beat the crap out of me. I learned to fight growing up at the commission flats really. By the time I was 15 I had a reputation I could handle myself.

My elder brother Alan came home one night and said he’d been to the local gym and they thought he was the “ants pants”, and I went down with him the next night and sparred their best guy. I held my own with him, and three weeks later I had my first fight. I only trained six times. I won five straight fights, and then I lost five straight. I had seven more amateur fights with some success with Lionel Rose and Jonny Famechon my two idols, and by the time I was 16 or 17 I had this firm dream I wanted to become a professional boxer and fight on TV ringside.

And one day I’d hear the words—“15 x 3 minute rounds for the championship of the world”. It took me about 13 years to get that opportunity. I got the chance to fight against Lester Ellis. He fought for the World Title and I won that title from him in 1985.

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Photo caption: Barry and his son

Boxing has gone through periods of popularity, depending on who’s in the game. We had Lionel Rose and Johnny Famechon and then it went dead. As I entered into boxing it went through a really flat period. We had had a couple of deaths in boxing and it went out of favour. For years I would travel anywhere just to get a fight. I travelled the world fighting, always looking for the opportunity of the “big” fight.

I won the Australian title in 1978 and never lost it, defended it 9 or 10 times. I finally got a shot at the Commonwealth title and won it and lost it and won it back.

Back then the money wasn’t what it is today in boxing—the big money came in with Jeff Fenech, Kostya Tszyu and Anthony Mundine. It was just starting to happen when my career finished.

I’ve moved away from Williamstown quite a few times, but always ended up coming back. It feels like home to me. Everyone in Williamstown knows me.

Williamstown has re-invented itself and my goal now is to buy a place on the Strand. At 61 I think Williamstown is where I’ll finish my days.

There’s more history in Williamstown than any other place in Melbourne, it’s a beautiful place, has great people, an excellent beach, overall it’s a top spot to live and a top spot to visit.

Barry promotes and manages up and coming boxers. He is seen here in this photo with his son, Zac Swettentham. When asked if we can expect to see a statue of Barry someday in Williamstown, the boxer replied, “Ha, who’s to say? Maybe one day I’ll be on Nelson Place, just near the water fountain.”

And as for the ghosts in Williamstown, well, “I can’t actually say I’ve seen one, but I’ve had some eerie experiences. Williamstown certainly has the potential to have ghosts, with all that history,” said Barry.

— Story as told to Kathie Baker, by Barry Michael
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