“John” Wayne Parr is one of Australia’s greatest fighters: 109 fights, 77 wins, eight world titles, he is pound-for-pound the best Muay Thai kickboxer in this country and has gone toe-to-toe with the best in the world. But last week, Parr’s eight-year-old daughter Jasmine was receiving more national press than he typically gets in a single year.
The attention surrounded her Muay Thai fight debut on a charity show at the Broadbeach PCYC on the Gold Coast on June 18, where she took on seven-year-old Georgina Barton. The show was organised by her father, and hers was one of about 15 on the night. The tabloid sharks were already circling beforehand, with the Gold Coast Bulletin and The Daily Telegraph on the prowl, then went into full-blown attack mode once the bell had rung and images and footage of the fight were released.
The usual parade of doctors warning of brain damage gave their obligatory soundbites, while Queensland Minister for Child Safety and Sport Phil Reeves released a statement saying:
“I have three daughters aged under 10 and like many mums and dads across Queensland I was absolutely appalled at the image of children of this age being put in a boxing ring. I have instructed the Director-General of the Department of Communities to immediately investigate the circumstances of this event. I also want the Director-General to provide recommendations on actions the government should consider to ensure the best interests of children are first and foremost when these types of events are being conducted.”
I wasn’t surprised. I spent several years covering martial arts and fight sports as a journalist, and several years competing as an amateur fighter, and “won’t somebody think of the children” is almost always the default position on this subject for politicians and the mainstream media alike.
But I was surprised to see this particular state government suddenly calling for regulation.
Fight sports in Australia are controlled differently in every state. In most, there is a boxing or combat commission that regulates Muay Thai. For instance, in Victoria, all registered Thai boxers must complete medical and physical examinations at regular intervals. The commission approves each and every bout, sets the rules, oversees the weigh-ins and the judging, and so forth. The rules are enshrined in legislation.
In Queensland, no such body exists. It is the only state in the country without one. It does not require fighters to undergo medical, blood or drug tests. It has no rules about the maximum or minimum age of fighters. It does not vet show promoters, judges or referees. Incidentally, the Brisbane Times wrote an article about just this only a month ago, after an amateur boxer died in the ring. Here is what Reeves had to say at the time:
“We have previously investigated three times whether there is a need to regulate boxing and combat sports but found limited community and industry support for this.
“Our public consultation found that most organised combat sports already implement and enforce rules and practices to ensure the safety of their participants.”
Kids have been fighting Muay Thai in Queensland for years. It’s no secret — plenty of times the young tykes are on the show posters. Whether it’s wrong or right is immaterial — the government has been allowing it to happen. The only reason this particular bout was in the media is because it was between girls, and because the father of one of the girls is a well-known sportsperson.
For the state government to now express outrage is a joke. If they didn’t know kids were fighting, it’s only because they didn’t bother to find out.
Should eight-year-olds be fighting? I don’t think I’m qualified to say — I’m neither a doctor nor a parent. I can tell you that I was competing in taekwondo at about that age, wearing similar protective gear and getting kicked in the head by other little girls and apart from a few questionable years working as a Crikey journalist, I turned out fine. I can tell you from experience that little girls can’t really kick or punch very hard. I can tell you that little girls do know the difference between a combat sport and real violence.
But more importantly, I can tell you that the far greater danger to the lack of regulation, other than a couple of kids getting bruised, is adult fighters taking performance-enhancing drugs, hiding who knows what under their gloves, or getting into the ring with Hep C or other blood-borne diseases.
For the amateur show on which Jasmine Parr fought, Wayne Parr hired a World Boxing Commission referee, judges, had 20 police officers overseeing proceedings, and required inexperienced fighters to wear shin guards, big 16-ounce gloves, mouthguards and groin guards.
That’s more than the Queensland government has ever done. If it truly wants to start ensuring safety in combat sports, it should be encouraged. But if it wants to point fingers about people neglecting the “best interests of children”, it should look a little closer to home.