A door to Athens

I wouldn't like to be standing in his way. I predict pain. Jamie Withers, 24, a soft-spoken, cheerful young man, the Australian amateur light heavyweight champion after 26 fights, is almost the toughest character in his family - apart from his mum Chris, who has the best cuff across the earhole, and his 19-year-old sister Jodie.

The law bars Jodie from boxing but she trains so hard Jimmy reckons she can sort out the lot of them.

The Withers mob are lifetime "Larpa legends". And that is a worthy distinction in this town. Jimmy, now 54, was jumping a bus to the Paddington police club at 16 because he was "sick of being bashed by surfies and bikers".

He had 13 amateur fights but his orphan dad Fred forbade him fighting for money. So Jimmy changed his name to Jimmy Brown and jumped the back fence with his bag.

He was 8-0 as a pro when TV Ringside exposed him. So he and his dad made a pact - Jimmy could fight, but never only for the money. Only if his heart was truly in it. He won the NSW middleweight title and was 19-0 and a contender for Tony Mundine's Australian title.

"I didn't drink or smoke and I ran the sandhills in big boots and I reckon I invented the triathlon just for training," he said.

In 1970 he also got the garbo job, which he still has, so he could get paid for running 20 miles a day. And he married Chris - a fellow alumnus of La Perouse P.S. - who went back to the school and was a teachers aide for troubled kids for 18 years.

And they raised Jodie and two boys, Danny and Jamie, who were made to punch a bag for four rounds a day for their pocket money. Jimmy was afraid of rugby league - he wanted to strengthen their necks.

One night Jimmy won a decision over clever Aboriginal fighter Dick Blair. But he knew in his heart he had been "flogged". He beat Blair in a rematch but quit unbeaten, true to his dad's code, in 1973, and took up another honourable profession, working some of the toughest club and casino doors in Sydney for 18 years.

"I was a spastic in the ring, my boys are 100 times better," he said, with Jamie rolling his eyes. "Doors was where I really learned to fight - to turn my hands over and make my body, not my arms, do the work."

He had a code on the doors, too. Rule 1: Never embarrass a man in front of his woman. Rule 2: Talk first, fight second. Rule 3: If the first two don't work there are no rules. It's the "Coogee Bay car park".

He started his own fitness business and got handed WBC light heavyweight champion Jeff "Hitman" Harding - the toughest man and best athlete he ever met - for his last pro fight.

Harding, with cut problems, had been idle for 19 months, and imbibing more than water, and the WBC wanted him out.

In North Dakota in July 1994 Harding smashed shifty American Mike McCallum in the sixth round - his real chance - but McCallum spat out his mouthguard and, against the rules, they gave him 30 seconds to recover. Harding lost on points, never fought again, and fell into a tragic personal trough.

Then Jimmy got unbeaten Aboriginal Mt Isa lightweight Cliff Sarmardin, the prettiest puncher anybody could recall, who had built up a 26-0 record, including a win over classy Lovemore Ndou.

Jimmy took him to Chicago, where he beat a rated fighter. Back home Cliff returned to Mt Isa and Jimmy never saw him again.

Training fighters hadn't been a runaway success. But the boys and Jodie were always hammering bags, or each other, in the garage.

Danny, now 27, turned pro. Jamie lost his early fights as Jimmy trained him more "classical English professional" style - a lot like Troy and Guy Waters, who fought for world titles.

He had to modify it for amateur rules, where one punch counts as much as a combination. Keep the distance with the jab. Don't get square. Don't get hit. Turn your body into the punches. But when behind "go to the Coogee Bay parking lot".

After a blazing spar with pro world title hope Danny Green some aficionados thought they had seen Harding, Green and Anthony Mundine rolled into one. The generous Green sent over some expensive gear to help the Olympic cause.

Now Jamie is on his way to Tonga for the Oceania titles and, barring bent politics, odds-on to win that Olympic tracksuit.

"It's been my dream all my life," said Jamie. Souths Juniors have chipped in $4000 and Danny's Seafood $1000 because if he wins in Tonga Jamie won't be plumbing again before August.

Jimmy is priced out of hotels in Athens but he'll sell his car to get there and "sleep in bus stops". If he can stay on his feet when Jamie is pounding the body pad he'll survive anything Greece can throw at him. Strictly "doors rules" though.


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