Content Warning: self-harm
[Image credit: The Boss Boxing]
Where are you now?
I imagine that you’re sitting down to read this interview. Perhaps a cup of tea, sunlight on the table. The neighbour’s cat slouches along the porch. The kitchen smells of rosemary. Maybe you’ve just been to work or university. Maybe you’ve just eaten a meal. Maybe you’re starting to pay off your own house. Look around at it all. The cat, the tea, the house, the pot of food on the stove. The people you love. How would your life change if you didn’t have a place to live? Or the support of your friends? Where are you now, and what did it take for you to be here?
When I rang up Sammy Leone, he was also sitting down. To be precise, he was in the car, hauling ass to his charity boxing gym on the north side. Sammy is the operator of The Boss Boxing, a training centre that provides disadvantaged youth with fitness, community, and a space to be themselves. Sammy and his staff work with some of Brisbane’s most vulnerable citizens, including individuals with poor mental health and addiction issues. A proud Aboriginal man, Sammy prides himself on creating a culturally safe environment for First Nations young people. I sat down with Sammy to have a chat about boxing, sharing community and culture, and some of his proudest moments as a mentor.
Hannah: Alright, let’s get into it. Can you tell me a little bit about your journey with boxing? How did you end up getting involved with the sport?
Sammy: So, I started boxing at a late age, when I was 22 years of age. I had my first boxing match after a few months of training, roughly eight months, I think. And I had my first boxing match at the age of 22. I got into it because it was a pivotal moment in my life, where my now wife gave birth to my daughter, and I made a conscious decision to make some positive changes in my life. And boxing was one of those decisions that I made. So, I started 2002. I was 22 when I had my first boxing match. And then I had my last boxing match in 2015 as a professional boxer.
Hannah: Oh, sweet. What were some of the highlights of your career, do you reckon?
Sammy: Ok. There’s two major milestones. One was winning the Australian Indigenous Titles. We represented our tribal groups and tribal nations, and we competed over in Fiji. That was one highlight for me. And we competed against the national Fijian squad. And we took a team of athletes over there. So, fighting in a tournament, it was First Nations people against each other. So, I boxed in a tournament called ‘Murris Vs Kooris’ and that tournament was kind of like a state vs state, ‘Queensland Vs New South Wales’ type boxing tournament. And then they chose out of that a National Indigenous team based on the results of that. So that was a highlight. And also getting a scholarship at the Australian Institute of Sports down in Canberra as an amateur. That was good. And then as a professional athlete, winning the Queensland welterweight title in 2010. That was a standout in my professional career before I retired.
Hannah: Sweet. Tell me a bit about your life growing up. Did you or your loved ones have any experiences that prompted you to go into outreach and mentoring work?
Sammy: Yeah, I suppose. So, as I mentioned earlier, I had some ups and downs in life, and I found boxing a little later in life. When I went into boxing…in boxing, that was a place where I got a lot of guidance and mentoring, and was able to have different discussions with different groups of people. People that were doing different things, quite positive things. Prior to boxing, I probably wasn’t around those types of people, those cohorts of people. They probably weren’t in my sphere of influence. So probably those different discussions with those people groups, and people who were doing a lot of positive things. I was able to get some positive mentoring from some older people, and some people in my life who were positive role models. That’s what really gave me a bit of passion to be able to pass that on and mentor and support and assist other people.
Hannah: Sweet. I know that there are a variety of youth outreach programs across the country, encouraging kids to get involved in activities that range from skateboarding to painting. What do you think that boxing, specifically, has to offer young people?
Sammy: One of the things that I say is that it’s the best pre-employment program that you could ask for. For you to compete competitively, or even just as a hobby, to get fit, when you enter a boxing gym it gives you discipline, self-control. It gives you routine and structure if you don’t have that. You’re accountable by your peers, and also your coaches, so it gives you all of the things that can assist you in giving you that resilience, stability and direction in life. A lot of that discipline side of things. And one of the key foundations within any boxing gym or martial arts gym is the fundamental of respect.
Hannah: Nice. One of the stated aims of The Boss Boxing is to promote the sharing of culture and to help young First Nations people get in touch with their cultures. Can you give us an insight into how boxing promotes learning and a cultural exchange?
Sammy: Yeah. So, it’s specifically within our boxing gym. It goes back to our frameworks, and the systems that we put in place around our specific boxing programs. We intertwine culture throughout the program. We do this by using cultural processes and sharing cultural knowledge, and how we do that is by several different ways: one way we do it is by using the yarning circle. In the yarning circle, we discuss cultural matters. We celebrate culture. We bring in Elders, we bring in community. It’s a place where people can come, and they can meet and sit and yarn in the yarning circle. And when we have our yarning circle, it’s a celebration of our culture. But we also share our culture with others, and I mean others as in, different cultural groups and diverse people groups that come into our gym.
Hannah: Sounds pretty special. What does a typical day at the boxing gym look like?
Sammy: So, a typical day would look like…people turn up, they have a bit of a chat before we start the sessions, and then we run through a yarning circle. And then we’ll run through some anaerobic warmups, and then we’ll try to build up their cardio. And then you do some things like push-ups and different things. Static stretches and things. And then after they’ve done the warmup, then they’ll go into technical drills, and they’ll learn and practice the basic fundamentals of boxing, technique, stance, balance. You might have an agility, balance and co-ordination drill. So, a lot of these things, you do them right at the start. And the intent behind that is that anything that engages your cognitive processes, you’re best to do that right at the start of the session, and then you work your way into the hard stuff at the end. Because if you do all that stuff where you’re trying to practice and learn technique right at the end of a really, really hard session, you’re not going to retain too much. So, we try to do that stuff right at the start. Then we build into the strength, conditioning, cardio, and everything else throughout the session. Then we finish on abs and core strength, and we might have a yarn at the end. The yarning process is a cultural one, but it’s also an information sharing process, because we always share information about what’s out there in the community, or what’s going on in our local community (i.e., The Boss Boxing), what we’re doing and what’s coming up in the future.
Hannah: Nice. I understand that you work with young people who may have been criminalised, or who may be struggling with homelessness, poor mental health, or addiction. What sort of outcomes are you looking for when you start working with a young person?
Sammy: Some of the outcomes…it’s more about meeting them where they’re at. And finding out what their passion is. But just…seeing what it is that they want to do and where they want to go. It’s more of a strengths-based type of process where you meet them where they’re at and find out what they want to achieve. And we’re just on the journey with them. We just walk alongside them. And when I say walk alongside them, that could mean pushing them harder when they don’t want to go the extra mile, or it could mean, if they’re having a bad day, encouraging them, and talking to them about resilience and mental toughness and strength. We could put that into a session so it might become a mentoring session. Or a session where we’re like ‘okay, they’re having a hard day,’ so we need to identify some of the things that are causing you to have a bad day. And then we identify that, or identify barriers. And we might not even identify any solutions, we might just have a yarn. Sometimes they might not have insight into some of the things. And then if we can identify it and highlight it, then it just creates awareness for them. It doesn’t mean we’re going to save the world or make a solution for them, or change them right then and there. It’s just, you know, identifying that something’s an issue. We’re just there as vessels to help them. That’s why I say, ‘meet them where they’re at.’ We’re just there to have that yarn with them.
Hannah: Are you able to share some of the proudest moments you’ve experienced as an operator of The Boss Boxing?
Sammy: Yep. There’s been many, many different moments. The key ones are the ones where we change people’s lives, or breaking generational cycles. It could be something where it comes to breaking addiction. That’s a big thing in someone’s life. Or assisting them to achieve goals that they’ve never dreamed of achieving. Look, even just having a kid come in (and I say ‘kid,’ but it could be anyone). We have young adults compete. The oldest one was close to forty, and he was competing, you know. Just that. Helping them to reach a goal or milestone in their life. And some of them maybe won’t even compete. But, you know, reaching a milestone for them could be like, ‘I couldn’t do sit-ups for two minutes, but now I’ve built enough strength to do sit-ups for two minutes, continuously.’ Like that. So, helping people to achieve their goals, and assisting them to identify patterns or behaviours in their lives that they weren’t aware of. That’s the stuff I love. And assisting them to achieve, through employment and breaking intergenerational cycles, and cycles of addiction and stuff… and just helping them to try the sport of boxing and try something different.
Hannah: Cool. On your website, it says that The Boss Boxing provides a culturally safe environment for First Nations people. What does a culturally safe environment look like in your business?
Sammy: (sighs) ‘Culturally safe’ means a place where people can be authentic and true to their own identity and who they are, and also be respectful of First Nations communities and how diverse those communities are. And knowing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples are separate groups of people within the First Nations Peoples of Australia. But knowing that you can be who you are and come into a space where it’s culturally safe as in, you can bring your culture or have your own identity but be welcomed in to celebrate First Nations people’s culture, which is at the forefront of the gym. That’s why we use our cultural processes within how we operate, but we also make it clear that it’s a First Nations boxing gym first and foremost. An Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boxing gym. Secondly, we can share our culture and our processes with others. That’s what makes it culturally safe. People can be who they are, but also learn and show respect for the First Nations people. Historically, in Australia, First Nations people, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, were not respected. They were actually frowned upon, and systemically, there was a lot of injustice and, based on the history of Australia, a lot of racial, or racist, policies and processes that have been embedded into the nation. And that’s through the system. And what this helps to do is to break some of those systemic moulds or systemic barriers in place. We do that by celebrating and sharing the culture.
Hannah: That’s great, yeah. It appears that some of the young people you work with may come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and that some of them may have experienced a lot of trauma. When you’ve experienced trauma, trusting other people and building relationships can be difficult. How do you go about building relationships with these young people?
Sammy: Yeah, we do that by creating a safe space for them. When you say that…it’s just a place where we can push them. There are respectful boundaries that we operate under, and we make sure that people are aware of that. But we do encourage within that that people can be open and free to be themselves. And we also, within our place, because we have that process where we can have the yarning circle, we can have check-ins from time to time. We check in to see where people are at. We might have a brief discussion with someone, or we might see someone not looking too well. So then if I or another coach sees it, we go ‘hey, look, someone here doesn’t look too well,’ then we check in on them. And because people are…because a lot of them come in feeling like it’s a place where they can just be who they are…a lot of times we have kids or young people who’ll come in and they will just cry. Many different kids will come in and just cry. They might have a tough day at home, but because it’s like a family unit, it’s just a safe space where they can express themselves. They’ll come in and say, ‘oh, look, I’m just having a tough day. Things are not going good at home,’ or whatever, whatever it is. That’s what I find. I hope that answers your question there.
Hannah: Of course! You’ve been answering all my questions in so much detail. It’s been great. What do you think it is about The Boss Boxing that makes it stand out from other youth programs around the country?
Sammy: I think it’s the localised cultural knowledge, the inclusion of First Nations Elders, the connection to community, and the three Es, that are the fundamentals and foundations of The Boss Boxing: Enable, Empower and Equip. Everything that we do is sort of working towards those three Es, because we want to enable them. How do we enable them? Not through an enabling mentality, as in, being enablers in a negative way. It means enabling them by giving them access to health and to a healthy lifestyle, healthy diets, eating, mentoring, all of that stuff. So we’re enabling them in that way. And we’re empowering them in the same way. By access to training, mentors, Elders, by connection to community and to cultural knowledge systems. And we equip them by giving them all these different skills. And we do a lot of different programs. We have the ‘Solid Warriors’ program currently, that’s on Fridays. So this is talking about connection to community, because we link in with Koobara Kindy, which is a local First Nations kindergarten. They do pickups of young people. They bring them to the gym and then we train them, and then they have a meal and then they go home. So that’s giving them access to community, outside of our little centre. And then it’s giving them that cultural connection, through services and through the culture that they get here. And then it’s also giving them access to meals and stuff like that. Also, when we equip them, we give them information. So, we have other service providers that rock up from time to time. So, we have the police liaison officers with their connection to the QPF. They’re not sworn officers, just civilians that work for the Queensland Police. They’re of cultural backgrounds, so they’re Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander or from multicultural or Culturally and Linguistically Diverse communities. So, they attend, and we’ll have different people who will attend, like mental health providers. We’ve had youth justice people…Act For Kids have come in the past. We have so many different services that have come. The army as well…just all different kinds of people rock up. And they come in and share about what they do. And that’s equipping them [the young people] in different ways, because we give them access to information.
Hannah: What plans do you have for the future of the business?
Sammy: The future is growth. We want to see the Boss Boxing as the hub on the North Side for First Nations people. And the development of First Nations athletes at a high level. We’re talking about development for the future, leading up to the 2032 games. We want to look at developing professional athletes eventually, but also expanding our programs to meet the social obligations of the local community, and especially our First Nations community. The social and emotional wellbeing and health and everything of the community.
Hannah: Beautiful. Is there anything else that you especially want to say to our readers that I haven’t brought up?
Sammy: I’d just like to encourage everyone to support us, and how they can do that is financially. I want them to know that we’re a fully volunteer-run organisation, and what we rely on is the support from our volunteers in the community and our local businesses. You know, we can apply for government grants, which we do from time to time, but we’re very minimal in that because there’s a lot of, you know, red tape around a lot of our stuff. We value ourselves on self-determination because historically, a lot of the issues with First Nations people and the government…especially with a lot of the policies that were in Australia, especially the White Australia policy and the foundations of all these policies that impacted on First Nations people…we’re not too much drawn to being reliant on government funding. I’ve seen services that have been defunded based on state or federal government decisions. Another government will come in and then the funding’s wiped. The program is stripped, and then the people who suffer are the people on the ground, because they don’t have the program any more that was there last month. So we want to be self-sufficient and self-operated, and we want to do that by local business and people supporting us. And that’s what we need. So if anyone who’s out there has a business, and they want to buy into what we’re doing and assist us, please speak with us. We want to hear from any corporations that have Reconciliation Action Plans, we want to hear from them. If they want to meet their social obligations, you know, we’re an organisation that can assist any corporations that may have these things written into their documents to say what they’re about. We want to hear from them.
Hannah: Thank you so much for talking with me. You’ve been great. And I think what you’re doing is really, really beautiful, and it’s been such an experience talking to you. I really appreciate it.
Hannah Vesey is a thrift-store clothed coffee addict with a passion for eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations. Her fiction focusses on mythology, scientific discoveries and moral dilemmas related from neurodiverse/ autistic perspectives. Her work has been featured in Scratch That Magazine, Urinal Mag and in the QUT Literary Salon 2021 Collection. She was the winner of the 2022 Allen and Unwin Undergraduate Writers Prize.