18/04/2024

During the 1990s, Indigenous boxers James Swan (front), Justann Crawford (second from left) and Robbie Peden (centre left) travelled the World representing Australia in the ring - Photo: Justann Crawford

The 1996 Australian boxing team made history at the Atlanta Olympics, by being the first sports team to feature three Indigenous athletes. 25 years on, their bond remains a special one.

This month, a record number of Indigenous athletes will take their place in the Australian Olympic team. Making their way to Tokyo will be 16 sportsmen and women across 12 different sports.

Their participation will add to the total of the 51 Indigenous Summer Olympians since 1964.

Without question, boxing has had the greatest representation throughout history. This year, Noongar man Alex Winwood will become the 20th Indigenous fighter to wear green and gold at the Olympics.

Despite being eclipsed by the Sydney 2000 team, Justann Crawford, Robbie ‘Bomber’ Peden and James ‘Swanny’ Swan broke new ground in Atlanta in 1996. In any sports team that had taken part in an Olympics, there had never been three Indigenous athletes within a squad.

Although there have been bigger achievements in Australian Olympic history, the trio created a watershed moment through fighting.

25 years on, their connection is still as special as ever.

“We had this close bond which helped with the team experience and all that kind of stuff, I think,” Crawford told The Inner Sanctum

“We were like brothers. That Indigenous connection made us closer than the other fighters.”

For much of the 1990s, the three travelled to all corners of the globe to compete in elite amateur boxing tournaments.

From Crawford’s triumph in the 1993 King’s Cup in Thailand to the medal wins of Peden (Gold) and Swan (Bronze) at the 1994 Commonwealth games in Canada, each achieved incredible honours.

With every medal, trophy and prize collected, each fighter also had his brothers by his side.

Just as siblings can encourage, love and care, they can argue though.

At times, Crawford recalls testosterone taking over. The competitive spirit born out of wanting each other to do better sometimes turned into fierce rivalry within the team.

“We went to Bangkok together, went to Jakarta, Europe, World Championships together,” he said.

“Sometimes it was ‘I’m going to out-do you.’ It was fun, as well as a bit of an ‘I’m going to show you’ kind of thing. Always trying to outdo each other all the time.

“There was kind of a bit of snarkiness as well.

“It was good, but there was tension there. We were trying to out-do each other so badly, I think.”

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Crawford’s Indigenous heritage is incredibly important to him. While he jokes that he may not fit certain stereotypes, he is proud of the contributions he has made and is aware of his place within Australia’s storied history of Aboriginal fighters.

In fact, it was through meeting a boxing icon that led to his belief in the power of such connections.

“It’s from my Mum’s side, my Mum’s mother and grandmother,” Crawford candidly told.

“My mum looks dark and I’m red-headed so I look nothing like her, but I know and feel that I’m Aboriginal.

“I met Lionel Rose when I was 15. He actually came back to my Mum’s place and he signed my Grandfather’s gloves for me, a horsehair pair of gloves. I’ve still got them today. You can hardly see the signature, but it was an honour.

“It was absolutely awesome. It was the first year I’d moved to Hobart and I was just starting to become a star. I won four or five fights for my new club in Hobart, three by knockout. I was on fire.

“That year I met him, I won my first Australian title. I figured that meeting him, that was part of my success in that Australian title.”

As alluded to, belief in bonding through a shared Indigenous identity carried through Crawford’s decorated career. Even though he was forced to retire in 1998 based on medical assessment, the brotherhood created with ‘Bomber’ and ‘Swanny’ lived on.

In 2005, Peden returned to Australia to fight for the first time since turning professional in 1996.

After a near-decade training and fighting under American trainer Roger Bloodworth, he had earned a shot at the vacant IBF World Super Featherweight title.

The bout was a re-match with the fierce Nate Campbell, whom Peden had knocked out in the fifth round of their first meeting 11 months prior. After Campbell dropped his hands and goaded Peden into throwing at an unguarded chin, the Australian unleashed a powerful left hook to claim victory.

A similar fate awaited the American in Melbourne and when ‘Bomber’ secured the eighth-round TKO, he became the third ever Indigenous World champion. His name forever etched in the record books, alongside Lionel Rose and Anthony Mundine.

Standing in the crowd, feeling every punch and riding every wave of emotion was his brother, who was just as elated as the new champion.

“Best thing ever. Best thing ever seeing your teammate that you travelled around with for years. I had tears in my eyes. It felt like I was winning it,” Crawford recalled.

“My brother won a World title, it’s absolutely amazing.

“Before we went in there, he said we could come in the change rooms straight after. Nothing better.

“One of the best things I’ve ever experienced I reckon. It being in Melbourne and being with a few of my teammates.”

Just as there is in any sport, there are highs and lows. Boxing is no different. A fighter can go from planting their flag at the top of the mountain to wallowing in the mire of its valleys in the space of a well-timed two punch combination.

Make no mistakes, these fighting brothers experienced their share of lows. Lows like Justann’s broken jaw in the final of the 1994 Oceania Championships put a dampener on the gold medals that each fighter won.

Of course, these are by far outweighed by the highs. Although the teammates rarely catch up today, it is evident that their connection is an unbreakable one.

The relationship born out of shared experience and identity is one that Crawford holds close to his heart.

“We had a 20-year reunion a couple of years back. ‘Swanny’ was going to come but couldn’t make it. I stayed at Peden’s house in Melbourne and we went to the local fights.

“We’ve been through a lot of stuff together,” he concluded.

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