Paul Gallen parks his ute on the grass in front of a nondescript Masonic Hall in Cronulla, shovels down a mouthful of pre-workout powder, trudges through the front door and gets to work.
Today’s sparring partner is Joe Goodall, a 28-year-old, 194cm monster who won silver at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and has been flown down from Brisbane for the session.
Paul Gallen.Credit:James Brickwood
Gallen is 11 years older and 15cm shorter than Goodall, who catches the former Shark with a booming left hook more than once in the early rounds.
As the rounds click over, though, Gallen comes into his own. Like most of his 19 seasons in the NRL, he wears down his opponent, finding the towering Goodall’s square chin.
“That’s not a corporate fighter,” Goodall says as he steps through the ropes when it’s all over. “That’s a boxer.”
After Gallen warms down, he plops down on a chair, ashen-faced and sweat beading out of every pore.
Gallen trains in Cronulla ahead of Wednesday’s bout with the highly-touted Justis Huni.Credit:James Brickwood
“I dead-set think people in boxing reckon I just put my feet up and then turn up and fight,” he tells me. “People don’t understand that I’m training hard and getting the best guys I can to spar. Joe’s a very good boxer. So is Jason Wheatley, who I’ve also been sparring. I respect the sport.”
There’s nothing quite as cliched in boxing as the war of words. The incessant tongue-fu between opposing camps to entice half-interested fans into subscribing on pay TV to an event they normally wouldn’t worry about.
The manufactured hate — from both camps — for Gallen’s fight on Wednesday night against Olympic hopeful Justis Huni has been particularly strained.
“I’m just honest!” Gallen insists.
The fight really should sell itself.
Huni is 22, 193cm tall and considered a star in the making. While he is the overwhelming favourite, he’s also got the most to lose against an old warrior who has stunned the sport with victories over Mark Hunt and, most recently, a first-round knockout of Lucas Browne.
“I won’t worry about boxing him,” Gallen says of Huni. “I’m going to fight him.”
The fight in Gallen is why he’s gone, in the space of a decade, from being a footballer just looking for a payday against Sonny Bill Williams to someone who could walk away from the Huni fight with an Australian heavyweight title.
Sure, he’s driven by the money and has unashamedly said so. It’s been reported he could make as much as $1.5 million from this bout.
’At the start, he was a rugby league player who fought. No longer. I keep telling him, ‘You’re a boxer’.′
But there’s a competitive stubbornness, an inability to stop training and competing, that won’t subside. It’s why he played rugby league until he was 37 and why he’s stepping into the ring with prodigious upstarts at 39.
“The money is the end result and the reason I’m here,” Gallen says. “But I’m someone who’s extremely driven.”
Why? Still? What’s left to prove?
“I can’t answer that,” he says. “People ask why and I don’t know. My mum and dad aren’t as driven as me. My kids are chilled out. It’s not always healthy but I’m just never satisfied. With anything.”
Gallen hoists the Provan-Summons trophy aloft to end five decades of heartbreak for Sharks fans in 2016.Credit:Getty
Take the 2016 NRL grand final when the Sharks won their first premiership, the porch light finally turned off.
Gallen, the captain, hoisted the trophy that evening at ANZ Stadium but was later seen in the dressing-room with a scowl on his face.
Instead of playing his mandatory 80 minutes he was on the field for 58, including the final set in which he carted up the ball twice with the Storm desperate to force a turnover.
“I wasn’t happy with my game,” he says. “I came off after 20 minutes because I had shingles … I’d just won a comp. I spent my whole career trying to win one. But my mindset was, ‘I want to win another comp next year’.”
Gallen is undefeated in 12 professional bouts.Credit:James Brickwood
The Sharks didn’t defend their title the following season but, at the age of 36, Gallen was named Dally M lock of the year.
Shaw has prepared some handy boxers in his time, including helping Daniel Geale to two world titles, but still marvels at the work ethic of his current charge.
One day, Gallen turned up for training and Shaw asked how he’d spent his morning. Gallen told him he’d run a lazy three kilometres of sand dunes, as you do.
“I’ll train after this interview,” Gallen says. “I’ll go down to the Sharks and do cardio. I was going to run but I want to give my calves a rest.”
Olympic hopeful Justis Huni has plenty to lose when he faces Gallen in the ring on Wednesday.Credit:Getty
What Shaw won’t abide any longer are claims that Gallen is merely another footballer dabbling in a sport they know little about.
“At the start, he was a rugby league player who fought,” Shaw says. “Leaning in, pushing forward, everything on the front foot. No longer. I keep telling him, ‘You’re a boxer’. I know he reads the criticism and it does get to him.”
How long can he keep going? Some in Gallen’s corner believe Gallen could get down to cruiserweight, although the man himself laughs this off.
The concussion issue is always lurking in the background.
He says he suffered no concussions during his football career. He came off for two head injury assessments and returned to the field both times.
Shaw reckons he’s taken very few blows in sparring. The only noticeable time he’s been rocked in the ring came against Hunt, who stung him with a hook to the back of the head.
But Gallen’s family wants all this to be over sooner than later.
“I don’t have much left, mate,” he says. “I’m 40 this year. There’s a part of me that really enjoys this, but there’s a part of me that knows my age will catch up with me eventually. I want to enjoy life. I’ve worked so hard to get where I am. I don’t need to be doing this for the next two or three years.”
Does he ever wonder what might have been if he finished football earlier and focused on boxing sooner?
“It’s easy to think that,” Gallen says. “But I am a footy player. I still am. I look at these guys and see how much work they put in and unfortunately they don’t get the recognition they deserve.
“To say I should’ve started early and younger, nah … I’m satisfied with what I’ve done.”
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