Father Dave Smith is used to macho teens striding into his boxing club eager to take on a priest, but in 2000 one challenger upped the ante. “He brought his entourage to watch him beat me up,” says the Anglican parish priest. After two intense round’s though, “I came out blazing with three punches and he just dropped like a sack of potatoes. Afterwards, we were best mates.”
The priest has been reaching out to troubled kids through boxing since 1994, when he founded Father Dave’s Fight Club at Holy Trinity Church in Sydney’s inner-western Dulwich Hill. “You will break the connection between authority and abuse, because you teach the, how to be a good boxer and they think, ‘This guy could damage me but he’s nurturing me.” Says Father Dave, 50, whose Fight club was born after he advertised a free dinner for anyone who could beat him in the ring.
On April 1, he will put his body on the line again to raise funds for Trinity’s Youth Centre when he attempts to break the record for the most consecutive rounds to boxing: 120 rounds over eight hours. Broadcasters Andrew Denton and John Safran, boxer Lauryn Eagle and middle weight champ Anthony Mundine will be among his 30 opponents, but the priest is unperturbed. “I’m running 10 to 20km a day,” he says, chatting to WHO surrounded by toys and Christmas cards – “It’s decoration” – in the home he shares with his wife, Angela, 40, and their children, Francesca, 3, Soren, 9, and Imogen, 14. (He also has a daughter from his first marriage, Veronica, 22.)
His work in the community, particularly with drug-addicted youth, landed him the Centenary Medal in 2003 and nomination for Australian of the Year in 2005 and 2009. “in boxing, being a tough guy is not what it takes,” says Father Dave, who boxed professionally in 1996 to raise money for his centre, “It requires self-control, self-discipline, skills, proactivity. But the time the guy’s doing an amateur fight he’s not doing drugs, he’s not in trouble with the law, he’s doing OK at school and if he’s got a parent they ask me ‘what did you do?’ I say, ‘It’s not me, it’s the process. He’s learnt to take control of his emotions.’”
Father Dave, who grew up in nearby Newtown, knows about emotional angst. After his parents broke up when he was 12 and his mother died of breast cancer four years later, he came close to self-annihilation, “I was a complete idiot: violent, racist,” he says.
“I carried a knife and didn’t expect to live long.”
He turned his life around after a religious epiphany at age 18 led him to become an Anglican priest like his ad, Father Bruce Smith.
While studying theology and philosophy, Father Dave stopped the martial arts he had taken up as a teenager but returned to them in 1991 after his first marriage breakdown. “I was drinking myself to sleep and it was destroying me,” says the tattooed priest, who talks fast and fervently (with the odd swear word thrown in) about his many passions, from his 22, 000 Twitter followers to the anime card game Yu-gi-oh, which he plays with his son Soren. “Within a couple of years, I became a professional fighter instead of an alcoholic. It became my therapy.”
One of his protégés, Kat Biggs, 28, credits Father Dave with saving her from following her brother into a life of crime and drugs (he died of an overdose). “Dave’s very caring but no-nonsense,” says Biggs, a manager at a waste-management company and mother of two. “it you didn’t go to training, Bible study of church you knew you’d cop it from him in the ring. We were practically one big family.”
Smith’s wife, Angela, who will son graduate as a primary school teachers, says, “We encourage our kids to follow not what the world says you ought but your passions, and David’s a living example of that>”
For Father Dave, following his path meant courting controversy. “People take exception to me because I’m pro-gay marriage and pro most people and thing I’m supposed to be against. But my understanding of the gospel is there’s room for everybody,” he sums up, “I think I’m a quite conservative, Bible-toting priest.” – Annette Dasey.