Ty Narkle is quick on his feet.
Switching from his natural orthodox stance to southpaw, the 22-year-old Perth boxer can change from a left-hand to a right-hand lead jab, punching from different angles and putting his opponent off balance.
“All the guys I spar with get really confused by that – they hate it,” Ty says. “I like to move around and be too quick for them.”
Ty knows, however, that even the quickest boxer can be caught off-guard.
“I was fighting a boy in the State Championships last year and he got me with a head butt by accident,” says Ty, who had been fighting to try to qualify for Australia’s Rio Olympics team.
“My eye sight went really bad, and I couldn’t focus.”
The head butt caused nerve damage in Ty’s right eye; after consultation, his doctor told him he’d never box again.
Ty had discovered boxing when he was 15.
“I used to fight a lot when I was younger … I used to think I could take anyone,” says Ty, who grew up in the Perth suburb of Midland.
“One day Mum said ‘get in the car, we’re going down to the gym’ and dragged me down to boxing.”
Ty’s trainer at the time wanted to make an impression on him, and threw him into the ring with one of his best fighters.
“I got busted up, and I didn’t want to go back,” says Ty.
“That taught me that I wasn’t the man. It made me less cocky.”
He persisted with the sport after that first beating, and began to find he enjoyed having an outlet through which to channel his aggression.
His trainer helped him develop a style based on speed and evasiveness.
“I used to keep my hands low, try to move my head a lot … I’ve always been quick,” he says.
“I watched a lot of tapes of guys like Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather. I wanted to see what they did, and how I could be more like them.”
He won the Western Australian 60kg Novice Title in 2010, and compiled an amateur fight record of 20 wins and five losses.
After winning the State 60kg title, he was named National Aboriginal and Islanders Day Observance Committee (NAIDOC) Perth Sportsman of the Year in 2015, and caught the eye of well-known Aboriginal boxer Anthony Mundine after a dominant performance in a Sydney fight.
Rio seemed like the next step in his career. However, the eye injury brought an abrupt halt to his progress.
The injury had ramifications beyond boxing.
He had been undertaking a Western Australian Department of Fire and Emergency Services Aboriginal firefighter cadetship, but was unable to proceed to a full firefighting career because of it.
He admits the period following the injury was a difficult time for him.
“It was hard not being able to fight … I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do for a living,” he says.
However, he wasn’t prepared to accept being forced to stop boxing without exploring other options.
“I went back to another doctor after I had surgery on my eye,” Ty says.
The second opinion offered a much brighter prognosis.
“The second doctor thought it would be okay for me to start training and fighting again,” he says.
The doctor didn’t need to tell him twice.
Ty began training again at his Forrestfield gym, and set himself the goal of making the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games team.
“I’m feeling really good,” he says.
“I reckon I’m about 90 per cent of where I was before I got hurt.”
As a young man, boxing helped Ty to find focus. He now uses his experiences in the sport to help other young Indigenous men.
After telling him he wouldn’t be able to become a firefighter, DFES contacted the Leederville-based Wirrpanda Foundation to see if they had any programs suitable for Ty’s skills.
Along with former Fremantle Docker Dale Kickett, Ty is now a mentor in the Foundation’s Moorditj Ngoorndiak (Clear Thinking) anti-recidivism program. His work involves establishing relationships with young Aboriginal men in Banksia Hill Detention Centre who have been through the justice system, and staying in contact with them on release to try to keep them from reoffending.
“We get them to court dates, make sure they get to school, and try to stay in touch with their families,” says Ty.
Wirrpanda Foundation Chief Executive Officer Lisa Cunningham says the program, designed by Foundation employees Kickett and Josie Janz-Dawson, has been highly successful.
“I think the statistic is seven out of 10 [program participants] will go back [into custody],” Ms Cunningham says.
“We ended up with 60 per cent of staying out.”
Ms Cunningham says strong Indigenous role models such as Ty are critical to the program’s effectiveness.
“There have been a lot of successful Aboriginal people in sport, so they are looked up to and revered,” she says.
“Ty’s quite close to a lot of the boys’ ages, and they respect him for his boxing and what he’s done in his life.”
Ty says many of the Moorditj Ngoorndiak participants are impressed by his abilities as a fighter. He encourages them to follow his example.
“When you box, everyone encourages you to fight, but on the streets people will try to break it up,” he says.
“I try to tell them, if you want to get into fights, it’s better to do it in the ring than to do it on the street and get into trouble.”
Working with Aboriginal youths has also helped Ty establish a stronger connection to his community. Ty is a Noongar man, and, through working with the Foundation and the firefighting cadetship, has found himself learning more about his culture.
“I’m teaching myself some Noongar words from a book I have at home,” he says.
“I want to be able to say a few sentences in it, then maybe learn to speak it better than that. I’m learning things I didn’t know about Noongar culture all the time.”
Ty is now back in full training.
Every day begins with an hour-long gym session near his home in South Guildford, before he drives to Leederville for work.
Afterwards, he heads to Forrestfield for a two-hour training and sparring session, before heading to a nearby pool to swim 20 laps.
“The swimming helps keep my breathing strong, and keeps the air circulating,” Ty says.
The Forrestfield Bulls – Ty’s boxing gym – is in a nondescript shop space at Forrestfield Forum in the Perth foothills.
The Bulls’ original gym was destroyed by a storm in September 2015, and Ty’s coach, Peter Scott, relocated the club after the shopping centre management offered the club a temporary home until a new gym was found. Ty and his teammates now train there, lifting weights in a side-room no more than two metres wide. The walls are adorned with photos of the gym’s past champions, and a trophy display sits proudly in the corner of the room. For Ty, who spent time training in back yards and unfamiliar gyms while the space was installed, it’s now a second home.
He begins his training sessions with heavy-bag work, before firing off combinations on the speedball; he has recently found out his first fight since his injury will be against the top-ranked fighter in his weight class, and wants to be prepared.
“I’m sparring against some bigger guys, because they’ll hit me harder and wear me out,” he says.
“It’s good … it means I have to move around, use my speed.”
Ty spars two bigger men in succession.
A framed poster of him at the NAIDOC awards ceremony overlooks the ring as, true to his word, he dances around and makes his opponents miss, wriggling out of trouble when they pin him against the ropes. When he is hit, he shakes off the blows, readjusting his helmet with a glove-clad fist.
Afterwards, his second sparring partner lies on his back on the canvas, exhausted.
“That was good,” Ty says.
“I’m going into the fight wanting to win, but it’s more about improving and getting back to my best. That’s why I want to fight the best guys.”
The fight, originally scheduled for May 22, fell through after Ty’s opponent pulled out. A lack of viable fights at 60kg means he will likely have to drop weight and fight at 56kg. Peter Scott has found him several potential fights at the lighter weight in Perth and Adelaide. Ty presently weighs 62kg, and is prepared for the tough dietary and fitness regime required to shed the six kilograms.
“A lot of boys are taller at 60kg and have longer reach than me … my coach reckons I will get a lot of wins at 56kg,” he says.
However, his goal of making the Commonwealth Games hasn’t faltered.
“I want to make it to the Gold Coast [for the Commonwealth Games], then go on to the Olympics in 2020,” he says.
“After that, I want to go pro. I want to really go somewhere with boxing.”
On the Wirrpanda Foundation website, Ty’s staff profile features a quote by Brazilian soccer legend Pelé:
“Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all love of what you are doing.”
It seems, from outside, that he has reached a point in his life where he is successful both in boxing, and in his work. However, he still feels there is work to be done.
“I’ve got a boy [from Moorditj Ngoorndiak] who comes down to my gym once a fortnight,” he says.
“I want to get him down once a week, though … I reckon he could be real good at boxing.”
Ty is past the frustration of the setback his injury represented, and is making plans for future work to sit alongside boxing.
“I want to get into youth work or something like that … I really like getting to have a yarn with the boys, and keeping them out of trouble,” he says.
And, he feels his own history and achievements will play an important part in helping to guide the next generation of young Indigenous people.
“Because I used to get into trouble and get into fights, I want to help get them on the right track,” he says.
You sense that, for Ty, a love of what he’s doing is at the root of his success.
Photos by Alasdair Beer, except where otherwise indicated.