David Smith, 40, is an Anglican minister at Dulwich Hill in Sydney’s inner-west, where he runs a youth centre and teaches boxing, kickboxing and wrestling. He is married and has three children. His friend, Kon “Pappy” Papaioannou, 38, is a former champion wrestler, professional boxer and personal trainer who now manages a sporting goods store. He is married with a son.
Kon: I met Dave in late 1992, at his hall at Dulwich Hill, where he was teaching a Korean martial art called hapkido. Before long, I’d joined his club and bought the uniform. We hit it oft straight away. I come from a Greek Orthodox background where the priests are aloof types. Dave was nothing like that, he was a real people person. What impressed me was that he didn’t have this superiority complex that a lot of instructors have. He was humble. He didn’t mind his students hitting him or putting holds on him. He taught by example.
We had a lot of things in common: the fighting, for one thing. And Dave had a dream, to establish a youth centre to keep the local kids off the street. I’d worked with kids before, so I was keen to help him by teaching wrestling a couple of afternoons a week.
When Dave wasn’t teaching me hapkido, I was helping him with his boxing and kickboxing. It was funny when we first started sparring together: I’d never hit a priest before. It took me a while to feel comfortable whacking him, but I soon realised he could pay it back…with interest.
I was Dave’s boxing coach, and worked his corner. His main weakness is he’s just too merciful for a fighter: if he hurts you he steps back, rather than finishing you off. When he had his professional boxing match in 1996, he was fighting competently, but the other guy was more aggressive – he didn’t care that Dave was a priest, he just wanted to knock his block off. Dave was too nice on him. At the end of round one I said, ‘Mate, you’ve really got to hurt this guy and pray for his soul later; you’re in a fight now, you’re not in church. God’s not here to help us – if you don’t pick up, I’m gonna throw in the towel.’ He picked up the tempo in the later rounds and scored a draw. I think he should have won because he really hammered the guy in the last round.
I went along to Dave’s church for a while. It didn’t matter that I was a Greek Orthodox; the way I see it, there’s only one boss and everything else is a franchise. His sermons always include weight training, martial arts, fighting the good fight. It’s the best entertainment you’re gonna get for the five or 10 bucks you put in the collection plate. And there’s truth in what he says, you’re not gonna get any pop psychology.
I can talk to Dave about anything, from sex to drugs to martial arts and music. I’ve brought up the fact that he’s got an Elle Macpherson screen saver on his computer. I couldn’t believe it. If I did that I’d be sleeping on the couch or a bench in the park. He told me that his wife is understanding…which is great, because mine wouldn’t be.
As a young man I experienced a lot of violence, most of it racially driven. I carried a lot of aggression as a result of that. But having Dave as a friend has taught me patience and a little bit of mercy. Instead of breaking someone in half and asking questions later, he’s taught me to step back a bit. If I need a man’s advice, Dave is the man I’ll talk to. He’s a human being before he’s a priest.
Since I got married we don’t see each other as much as we used to. I’ll still go along to the shows when he wants to raise money for his youth centre. Most friends meet and have a coffee or a beer; we meet and beat each other up. I worked his corner in a recent charity match he had against Mundine. I held the towel, gave him advice, wiped the blood from his nose… he’d do the same for me.
David: We started throwing punches at each other on the first day we met. I thought to myself, ‘This guy really knows his stuff.’ We began working out on a semi-regular basis. I couldn’t help but like him. He’s so effervescent and has so much enthusiasm. He goes nonstop and never shuts up. Some people can’t stand him, maybe because they want to say something too.
Later, Kon became our first paid youth worker. It caused a few conflicts between us because we had some pretty rough kids here and his approach with the ones who got out of line was to belt them back into line. I found myself having to talk to the kids about the way Kon had dealt with them. But he’s an excellent teacher, he knows his technique very well and teaches it safely.
The great thing about Kon as a fighter is that he’ll hit you two or three times and you’ll go to hit him back and he’ll be on the other side of the ring. He’s not going to stand where people are gonna hit him, he’s clever. Kon’s taught me that boxing isn’t about belting someone, it’s about outsmarting and outscoring them.
People who take themselves too seriously won’t get on with him. With him there’s no bullshit. If you want to know what Kon thinks of you, you’ll get it straight away, that’s what I love about him. I’d trust Kon with my life: I would have within a week of knowing him. He’s never going to say anything behind your back that he doesn’t say to your face. I feel like Kon is the person who keeps me real, he’s like a point of reference for honesty.
Kon‘s traditionally chivalrous. We were at a boxing match where there was a stripper. I was quite enjoying it, but Kon took enormous offence. He said, ‘This is wrong, seeing women degrading themselves.’ He’s no prude, but he doesn’t like that kind of thing. He’s a real gentleman. If he saw a big guy pushing a little guy, or a man pushing a woman, he’d just snap. He has a lot of traditional values like that.
It frustrates me that things I find very important aren’t always on his priority list. He’s totally unreliable. The thing that hurt me the most was when he didn’t show up to my birthday dinner last year. He said, ‘I’ll be there, don’t you worry, I’ll drop everything.’ But my birthday came around and I waited and waited; eventually I phoned Kon and asked him where he was. ‘Oh, I’m busy, shopping with my wife,’ he says. I hung up and thought, ‘F… you.’ I didn’t speak to him for about a year after that. Dear old Kon, he doesn’t even know he hurt my feelings. But it’s like dealing with a big kid, you can’t stay angry at him for long.
We fight about religion. I think he’s a better man than me in just about every way, but at a spiritual level he’s cut himself off from a lot of stuff. I feel like a failure as a priest and a friend that I can’t get through to him. Kon’s one of the people I love and respect the most in this world and yet I don’t seem to be able to communicate the gospel as I understand it to him at all. I think Kon has so much to give God, and God has so much to give Kon. I wish I could get them together.
Kon is so youthful and full of life I can’t imagine him getting old. I picture him going out in a blaze of glory. That’s how I imagine myself: dying in the ring. Maybe we can both go out together in a fight to the death, that’d be fun.