21/02/2024

Even though he won a mountain of tournaments during his career, Justann Crawford (centre) is still left to wonder what could have been - Photo: CHAMP by Justann Crawford on Facebook

Tasmanian Justann Crawford boxed for Australia at two Olympic games, but circumstances beyond his control stopped him from going to a third.

Mount Street is a defining stretch of steep, uphill road in the city of Burnie on Tasmania’s North-West Coast.

It is the means of connection between the green fields that surround the streetscapes and a golden shoreline.

Each day, Justann Crawford would go running on Mount Street. More accurately, he would go chasing.

The aforementioned colours that defined the place of his youth foreshadowing his future as he strived towards fame and sporting glory.

Green for the iconic Olympic flag, appropriately adorned with a boxing kangaroo. Gold, the substance of a number of career goals that conclude with him standing atop a podium wearing a medal that so few can call their own.

Crawford’s journey is a case of boxing finding a young man. What followed was a lifelong partnership between the two, spawning accolade upon accolade.

National titles. International rankings. Australian selection.

Dreams were also born. In them, he sees himself fighting beneath the five rings on the hallowed canvas. The space that will decide whether he gets to sing the anthem whilst being adorned with Olympic gold.

In 1992 and 1996 he would go close to realising those dreams, representing Australia in boxing at the Olympics in a field filled with future World champions.

When his aspirations were dashed by forces beyond his control, a green and gold heart was broken too.

The colours continued to consume him, now serving as a daily reminder of what could have been.

In fact, they still do.

Ultimately, it is a story of triumph and tragedy – but it is more than that. It is the tale of the obsession required to even dare to be great. Of the commitment to the Olympic dream that any athlete needs to compete at the level.

Boxing in Burnie

Tasmania is a rugged State. A place defined by a toughness brought on by decades of geographic and economic isolation. People are forced to find a way.

The city of Burnie on the island’s North-West Coast is not exempt from these rules. In fact, the conditions are probably exacerbated in the area.

This was the mentality that Justann Crawford was born into, his youth being defined by one’s ability to adapt and fit in. None of this is to say that his personal circumstances made fitting in easy, though.

Rather, it was quite the opposite.

“My mum moved around a lot. I went to five different primary schools, all that kind of stuff. I was always picked on, I had red hair and freckles,” Crawford told The Inner Sanctum.

“My mum was quite opposite, dark hair, dark skin. She always had to put sunscreen on me.

“Freckles, blisters. The perfect kid to be picked on, I think.”

At this point, the magical meeting happened as Crawford was introduced to boxing. Though it could be more or less described as the recognition of destiny from a young age.

Boxing found Crawford.

“From a real young age I remember, about 7 or 8, mum told me I’m going to start boxing,” he said.

“My grandfather on my mum’s side, he boxed professionally. I didn’t know him because he died on the Westgate Bridge when it collapsed. He never even saw me, he was dead before I was alive. His name was Bobby Whelan.

“I was quite excited that I might be able to do something to get a bit of confidence. I’d be able to look after myself.

“We went to the PCYC gym and they said I was just way too young, to come back when you’re a bit older, about 10. I didn’t go back when I was 10 because we were living in New South Wales then so when we moved back to Burnie, I started boxing at the age of 12.

“I went there with my best mate at the time. Ron Miles, who was the Burnie boxing coach said ‘do you guys want to have a go’, we said ‘yeah we’ll have a go.’

“My mate Ross, who had fought in street fights before, whipped my butt. So my first taste of boxing was being beaten by my best mate.”

The beatings did not stop there, exacerbating each time the young man would enter the gym.

Even Crawford now looks back with a much more critical eye on the practices of the past. The harsh training methods that, in hindsight, were probably more harmful than helpful.

He does not regret the one added advantage they brought about, however.

“Ron Miles was a tough trainer. I remember going home from the gym after sparring bigger boys, just crying and crying,” he said.

“I got a broken nose in the first few months. I got knocked out by Bernard Shields, a senior boxer when I was about 13.

“He used to just stick us in there and let us belt each other senseless. They teach you how to box now.

“Not a good way to learn, but it taught me how to be tough.”

In popular boxing discourse, these are known as gym wars. Two fighters punching and moving with the intensity of a competition fight. Particularly harsh on a young person with little experience.

At this stage, Crawford was a fighter ill-equipped for this type of training, let alone signing up willingly for competition boxing.

When offered the opportunity to fight however, there was no turning it down.

“It was about two months I’d been training and Ron said ‘do you want to fight?’,” he said.

“I said ‘yeah, I’ll fight, I’ll fight’, I was so eager. There’s no way I should’ve been fighting, but being eager and enthusiastic, wanting to be good I said ‘I’ll do it.

“The first fight was against this Victorian, which was unheard of. They always seemed the best as a kid.

“I lost my first fight, got stopped in the second round. My mum was there and a few other people at the Seabrook Hotel in Burnie.”

Getting dominated in his first foray in the ring did not stop Crawford from trying again. Determined to do better and fight until he could hold his head high.

People from Tasmania find a way.

“I got belted, lost my next two fights. Then I started winning,” he proudly told.

Making a Leap

The curiosity that gave way to enthusiasm had become an obsession and within two years, he represented Tasmania. The first time he had his hand raised truly led to a fighting addiction.

In his early teens, he had boxing on his mind during every waking hour. The sport was as much a part of his identity as the freckles and red hair. Everything else would have to come second.

It was time to go chasing – training, learning and living boxing.

“I remember every time I got home after school – my mum was 16 when she had me, so she wasn’t too smart in a sense that she never told me to do homework – I always ran to the gym,” Crawford said.

“We used to live near Parklands High School. I used to run from there to Burnie PCYC and run back. I’d do that 4 to 5 times a week. I’d have two nights with the trainer and three I’d spend by myself.

“I was always watching videos. When my mum would go out, I’d be home looking after my little brother who was about two years old, I was about 12 or 13, I’d be home watching fights.

“Always watching fights, Sugar Ray Robinson or Muhammad Ali.”

To couple the runs back and forth to the gym and the tape study, there would be long conversations with his coach about the great fighters. About Crawford’s Grandfather Bobby, who Ron Miles watched and admired.

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Goal setting started to become an important part of Crawford’s career during his teenage years. His prowess in the ring as a member of the Tasmanian team was beginning to rise to the point where he could start seriously considering making a career between the ropes.

It just so happened that his earliest goals coincided with his earliest memories.

“I remember the 1980 Olympics was on. I remember sneaking into my mother’s bedroom and turning the black and white TV on watching the Moscow Olympics. I must’ve been 7 or 8 and thinking ‘I want to go to this so bad, I want to go there.’,” he said.

“I’m a very strong believer in the power of the mind and I’ve always been focused on visualisation and that kind of stuff.

“The more you see it, the more you believe it, the more you achieve.”

Goal setting worked side by side with visualisation. That is, the process of seeing the fight before it even took place.

This form of preparation was passed on to him by former International ranked squash player, Billy Barr, who Crawford looks back on as an important mentor during his career.

Part of the lessons passed on by Barr included mental strength training. Wall sits, shuttle runs, practically anything that teaches the mind to say no to a body desperate to quit.

Something can be said for the power of the mind. How transformative self-belief can be for a person and those around them.

Crawford’s next career move speaks to this in volumes.

In another case of foreshadowing for the future, boxing politics reared their head.

By 1988, two organising bodies had formed in Tasmania. Crawford’s home club, the Burnie PCYC, had decided to break away from the Tasmanian Boxing Association to affiliate with the new Tasmanian Boxing League. The latter of these was excluded from the Olympic selection system.

Crawford was no longer the only one left with a decision. His entire family were. Should they take a plunge based on teenage dreams or fall back into place and be left wondering what could have been as year’s progress?

The power of the mind won the day. Crawford found a way, taking such a fierce determination with him.

“My mum decided to pack up and move down to Hobart to further my career. If I wanted to go to the Olympics I had to stay with the (Tasmanian Boxing) Association, I couldn’t stay with the Burnie club,” he said.

“Mum had faith in me. My record was 14 fights, 6 losses and 8 wins, something like that.

“I had to move to Hobart. I was 14 turning 15, my brother was 4 turning 5. We started our lives again. I started at a new boxing club.

“I lost my first fight in 1988 to Jamie Nicolson, who ended up being my teammate in 1992. I remember going, ‘I’m not losing again, never losing again, never losing again.’ That’s when we moved down to Hobart.

“I stopped training with Ron then and started with a new trainer in Burnie, Bill Clarke. I was with him a couple of months before we moved down to Hobart where I was with Lance Atkinson.

Within the first few months of training at his new club, a timely reminder popped up to remind Crawford and his family were on the right course.

“My first three fights at my new club, I remember I had three stoppages – three knockouts. I knocked three kids out. I went 9 and 2 or 9 and 3, something like that,” he said.

“The Olympics were on that year and it reminded me why I was there, why I was boxing. I thought, ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Decorated

The deeper Crawford dove into boxing, the longer the list of accolades got. During the 1990s, 1996 was the only year he did not win a national senior title.

What is all the more impressive is that he achieved it across three different weight classes – Middleweight in 1990/91 and 1995, Light Heavyweight in 1992/93 and 1997, and Heavyweight in 1994.

In 1993, he also won three International tournaments, taking out the Oceania championship, Kings and Mayors cups. The same year saw him reach his highest ever World ranking – Number 2 at Light Heavyweight.

If this was not enough of a demonstration of his status as one of Australia’s greatest pound for pound fighters, he was also ranked number 5 in the World at Middleweight in 1995.

A year later, he moved to New South Wales as a means of furthering his boxing career. The move coincided with selection in the 1994 Commonwealth games team.

This list only scratches the surface of achievement.

It was the thought of being an Olympian that lit the fire for Crawford, though. Of bringing Australia’s first boxing medal back, an achievement that our Nation is still striving for in 2021.

In 1992, he was selected to go to Barcelona as Australia’s Middleweight fighter, an achievement he would repeat at the 1996 games in Atlanta.

Olympic selection was the realisation of his hard work to that point and commitment to a vision. He was exactly where he envisioned himself from a young age, competing against the best the world had to offer.

“There was a lot of good fighters, Oscar de la Hoya was there. Sven Ottke was also in my division,” he said.

“To get there and see them was just amazing. More or less my dream come true, exactly what I planned.”

In 1992, Crawford was defeated in the first round of competition by the Unified Team’s Aleksandr Lebziak from Russia.

He would meet the same fate against the same fighter at the following games, but in the round of 16. Both fights were stopped by the referee in the third round.

Although he did not achieve the desired success in terms of medal wins, Justann is incredibly proud of reaching the heights he did. As he should be. He dared to be great, taking on generational talents.

Along with the aforementioned names, other high level fighters that competed at the same games that Crawford went to include: Chris Byrd (who Justann faced in his last fight prior to the 1992 games), David Tua, Antonio Tarver, Wladimir Klitschko and Floyd Mayweather Jr.

In this sense, he tasted success.

“It was what I wanted to be. Up against the best in the world. I never got where they got to, but I was there,” he said.

Everything was geared towards a third try at Olympic glory when the Sydney 2000 games approached, or so it seemed.

An Uncontrollable Ending

By the time 1998 rolled around, Justann Crawford had become a senior member of the Australian side. It was no surprise that he was named captain of that year’s Commonwealth games team.

His leadership still has a resonating effect on some of the fighters who were around the team at the time. One of which was a young Danny “The Green Machine” Green, who learned very quickly about the standard being set by the elder statesman.

“I learnt a lot from Justann back when we were on Australian teams together,” Green told The Inner Sanctum.

“He had already competed in two Olympic Games before I met him so I was super stoked to meet him, and even more stoked when I learned straight away that he was a quality human who cared a lot about others.

“He was very humble, and had a calming influence over me when I was in his presence. He would show me little tricks when we sparred and would go easy on me as he could see I was not on his level at that stage.

“Something I will always remember was his humility, work ethic and his beautiful and kind nature. He was a Trojan in the gym.”

All appeared to be in order in preparation for the 1998 games. A pair of International trips in the Oceania region were to be followed by a brief stop home with loved ones, before the athletes made their way to Kuala Lumpur.

“We had an overseas trip we had to go to New Zealand and I won. Then we had to go to West Samoa and I fought a pretty tough guy and I lost.

“I shouldn’t have lost, I fought stupid. That was the last fight before we went to the Commonwealth games.”

Little did Crawford know that this would be the final time he would lace up the gloves and helmet to represent Australia. 

What follows is his version of the events that led to an uncontrollable end to a prestigious career.

“When I got back to go to the Institute of Sport, the head psychologist wanted to talk to me,” he said.

“I went in there and spoke with them, he said, ‘Mate, we’ve had a few people call up the institute worried about you.’

“I said, ‘what do you mean worried about me?’ and he said ‘they’ve been worried about you thinking you’re losing your mind, memory’s getting bad.’ I was like ‘what?’ and he said ‘we want you to have these tests, are you okay to have them?’

“I said ‘yes, I’ll have the tests. There’s nothing wrong with me. Only thing wrong with me is my nose.’ The septum was going across my nose, making my voice sound funny.”

“I went and had these tests and the thing I did for some stupid f**king reason, still to this day I don’t know why I did it.

“We got to go home and be with our families before going to the Commonwealth Games. My girlfriend then, she’s my wife now, I went out with her and I got on the drink a bit.

“The next day I went and had these neuropsychological tests and I failed them miserably. They said, ‘because your IQ is so low and because you failed these tests we can’t let you fight ever again.’ So that was my career over and done with.

“It was all bullshit. Then I heard a few weeks later that the soccer players had the same test and 75% failed it. They still got to play soccer though. It was like, ‘What the f**k? Why do this to me?’

“I was the only one that ever got tested. First one to get tested, only one to ever get tested because they knew it was a bullshit test. That’s how it ended.”

Until now, most of the rhetoric has suggested it was an eye injury that forced his retirement. A detached retina, suffered in sparring a short time after he was axed from the Australian team led to surgery.

At the time, it was also reported that he had contracted a mystery illness. Without much memory of the report, Crawford concedes that it was probably a cover for the truth of the situation. Confusion has understandably arisen, then.

Crawford wants to make it abundantly clear that these were not the cause of his retirement, therefore setting the record straight.

His requests and offers to be allowed to compete at the Commonwealth games and subsequent Australian titles before retiring went unheralded.

The Australian Olympic Committee and the Australian Institute of Sport were both contacted for comment.

Axed

Brain trauma caused by boxing has become a hot topic in recent years, with many fans, media and former fighters alike calling for more accountability from athletes, promoters and regulatory bodies regarding athlete safety.

Without question, this is a necessity. That is, stringent, transparent processes that allow for a fighter to enjoy a post-retirement life and reap the fruits of their labour.

After all, seeing the decline of the stars of the sport – none more noted than the after boxing life of Muhammad Ali – makes for incredibly hard viewing.

With more acceptance, comes more respect for fighters. It also affords them the opportunity to retire with their legacy intact and on top of the game.

For this reason, the opinions, emotions and reactions created by Crawford’s account will naturally differ. What cannot be argued is the fact that he was cast aside from the sport without as much of an afterthought.

His aspirations and hopes were dashed. Another crack at Olympic gold, Commonwealth gold and tenth Australian title across juniors and seniors knocked down by the hardest hit he has experienced in boxing.

It is a fact made all the more sad when further evidence of Crawford’s commitment to the sport is presented.

“We used to have to pay for our own trips. I used to get sponsored by the Tasmanian Institute of Sport and my trainers used to get me local sponsors, but we used to have to pay for own trips,” he said.

“Olympics and Commonwealth games were paid for, but all the tournaments to get to them, we had to pay for.”

Along with the Tasmanian Institute of Sport, Crawford is thankful for the support he received from local businesses like Cooleys Hotel and Claremont Meats.

Then of course there is the way in which he retired, itself a testament to everything he had given to boxing. Crawford made his announcement when he returned to Tasmania as a manager of the team from his adopted New South Wales.

There was no press conference, no real public recognition by a boxing authority, nothing.

Just a dejected 25-year-old taking the microphone in the middle of the ring at the Carlyle Hotel in Hobart’s northern suburbs. Certainly not the way such a credentialed fighter deserved to go out.

Having boxing taken away has not been an easy pill to swallow and he believes the way it happened has had an impact on the way he is perceived by the World.

“It got in my head that maybe there is something wrong. Even though I know there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m thinking maybe,” he said.

“Your mind goes crazy. You start to think maybe I am wrong, maybe something is wrong.

“My partner started to look at me a little different as well. If I said I forgot something, she started looking at me a bit funny and I’d think ‘for f**k sake’. From them saying this, it’s made people look at me so differently. Look at me as if I’m strange.”

The biggest impact, though has been on a fractured heart that to this day still bleeds green and gold.

“It broke my heart. I cried and cried for days.

“That was over twenty years ago. I still get tears in my eyes now.”

The Dream Remains

In 2019, Crawford appeared in a music video for a song by Australian band, The Lazy Colts titled Be The One.

During the clip, the emotional fighter talks about his career as he watches his performances from the years gone by.

He also talks his fighting mentality and continues to shadow box combinations that have become entrenched in his memory.

The vision makes it very clear that the Olympic dream still remains and lives on in spirit. Though he has battled to deal with the changes that have come from losing his ability to compete, he has come to terms with it.

Crawford still goes chasing, but the runs up and down Mount Street take place metaphorically. They are revealed in the form of training clients. Whether they are focused on achieving fitness goals or bettering their skills for competition, he holds the pads for them. 

“I’ve been a personal trainer more or less since 2001. When I stopped my training I became a personal trainer in Balmain. I love training people,” he said.

“I’ve got a fitness app coming out soon called CHAMP.

“I still spar people, my clients today. I still muck around and spar.”

In fact, goal setting is still a key part of his Crawford’s life and he recalls those that he has stuck to since he was a teenager.

Realising these goals has led to incredible life achievements, namely marriage to Alison whom he met in 1994 and has been with since October 1996.

Then there are his daughters, Sophie and Ellie, both gifted athletes in their own right.

“Goal setting is so important,” he said.

“I had to write three goals in grade 11. They were, be the first Australian to win an Olympic gold medal, be married and have kids, and be a trainer. I almost achieved all of them.

“I’ve got two girls as well and I’m married. I’m pretty lucky I turned out the way I did.”

He might not be able to compete, but he still finds a way to live and breathe boxing. Tasmanian people find a way.

After losing the ability to compete, Crawford has turned his attention to training – Photo: CHAMP by Justann Crawford on Facebook

Though Crawford still gets emotional to this day, the tears serve as a just reminder of his dedication to the sport. Of the obsession required by an athlete to reach the pinnacle that is the Olympic Games.

To this end, each time he finds himself thinking about what could have been it is his mind going chasing again. Chasing in the same way he did as a teen. The obsession is as strong as ever in these moments.

Without question, Justann Crawford’s Olympic dream still remains.

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