He’s going flat-chat. Has been since about 6.30 this morning, in fact.
After all, it’s Friday and customers are picking up their meat orders for the week-end. I suggest to Steve Dale that, maybe it’s not an ideal time to chew the fat with him.
“No worries,” he says, and guides me out the front door of S & A Dale’s Butchery. A continual stream of passers-by give him cheek. I suppose when you’ve been in business for over 30 years, you’re part of the furniture in Myrtleford.
Steve’s slight and weatherbeaten, with a warm smile. It’s a fair way back to his halcyon days as a boxer, when he rose to prominence in the glorious era of Channel 7’s T.V Ringside.
He was the pride and joy of the Alpine Valley , this lightweight pug. His attacking style made him a favourite of fight fans, who religiously turned on their tellies each Monday night, in the hope of watching him in action.
Steve and his brothers – Bruce, John, Dick and Gerald ( he also had a sister, Maureen) sparred each other regularly. They were right into boxing and honed their craft at the old Myrtleford footy club rooms, where a ring was set up..
John Garoni, who was to become a great mate and mentor, was Steve’s trainer and polished his skills, guiding him through a five-year amateur career before deeming him ready for pro ranks.
After a couple of handy local wins, John suggested it might be time to step up in class. He quizzed Max Pescud, a former local, and by now a top-notch city trainer, about the chance of pitting Steve against better-quality opponents.
Max was straight to the point : “Sure, but don’t waste your time coming down if the boy can’t fight.”
“He’ll be okay. He’s got the goods in my book,” was John’s reply.
He was matched against Phil Slater, a taller, more experienced opponent, in his first bout at Festival Hall in July of 1969.
Half-way through the first round he was knocked down and, as he groggily rose to his feet at the count of eight, the words of referee Terry Reilly were ringing in his ears: “Get up”. “If I’d stayed down, I wouldn’t have been invited back,” Steve says.
He recovered well, to win the three-rounder. “I think my purse was about $30, which wasn’t bad dough for a young fellah in those days.”
The crowd, appreciating his courageous come-back, and the ripping contest, showered the ring with coins. He and Slater shared the spoils. “They used to bring the bucket of coins into the dressing-rooms afterwards and we would divvy it up. Often you’d pick up another $20, which was really handy.”
I asked Steve what his schedule entailed on the day of a fight.
“I would start work at about sixish and knock off at 1pm. I didn’t have a license in those days, so I’d get a ride with someone and we’d go out to Max Pescud’s place. I would relax while Max cooked me a bit of tea and then we’d head into Festival Hall. Often, we would drive home the same night.”
” I remember, after one of my big wins, Mick Flecknoe and the boys were still celebrating at the pub when we arrived home. We called in and joined them.”
Steve’s mum – his keenest fan, couldn’t bear to watch him fight. ” She’d disappear into the kitchen when I came on the telly. I don’t think she ever saw one of my fights.”
After chalking up a succession of good wins, he had became a favourite of those hard-bitten Festival Hall patrons. They’d seen him clamber back into a couple of contests after an early knock-down and knew that he was made of the right stuff.
As his career progressed, one of Steve’s biggest obstacles was finding suitable sparring partners. He often headed across to the Beechworth goal, as there was no shortage of inmates who were eager to take him on.
It wasn’t ideal, but these make-shift sessions, combined with plenty of roadwork, kept him in good nick and enabled him to rein in his battle with rising weight.
He was rated one of the leading contenders for Channel 7’s ‘Crown’ lightweight championship contest in 1970 – the lure being a $10,000 purse. It attracted the cream of the nation’s boxers in the weight division.
He opened with a good win over Duke Rowlands and was too good for a dour southpaw scrapper, Steve Szabo in the second heat.
It had been a gruelling contest, with Szabo continually holding in the closing stages. Dale’s crisp punching and his efforts to keep ‘making’ the fight were again acclaimed by the crowd when referee Reilly raised his hand to signify a win for the country lad.
Steve’s pro record was, by now, 18 wins and a draw. He knew that he would have his work cut out against his next opponent – the brilliant Kempsey aboriginal, Hector Thompson.
Thompson was just rising to prominence and was in the early stages of an 87-fight career which was to earn him national titles and subsequently, the right to challenge World Champions Roberto Duran and Antonio Cervantes.
Steve wishes he had been fitter for the fight.
“I was struggling to make the 9 stone 9 limit and had a sauna in the morning. I still had to lose a bit, so I jumped into the sauna again. It drained me of a fair bit of energy, but Hector proved too strong. He beat me on points in an eight-rounder. I’m not sure whether it was he, or the Tongan, Manny Santos, who won the $10,000.”
But Steve reckons Hector Thompson wasn’t his toughest opponent.
I was lucky enough to beat him on points in our first meeting. We met again at Festival Hall a month later and he sent me home with two black eyes and cut above the eye. It was a hell of a fight and was declared a draw.”
Steve hung up the gloves after 34 pro fights, but has maintained his devotion to the sport. With the help of a couple of mates, Kevin Grealy and Gerard Harrington, he has operated a gym at the Myrtleford Showgrounds for more than 30 years.
For a gold coin donation, which covers lighting, a steady stream of locals receive boxing lessons, or just take the opportunity to keep fit each Monday night. The great Gary Ablett was one who pulled on the gloves under the tutelage of Steve Dale.
One of Steve and Alison’s sons, Damien, is involved in the butchery. The other – Simon – who is employed at TAFE, is also a boxing ‘nut’ and operates his own backyard gym in Wangaratta.
Simon was eight years-old and had been earning a bit of pocket-money at the shop, when his arm was caught in a mincer.
Despite the loss of the arm, he earned a name for himself as a hard-working ruckman for Myrtleford in the early 2000’s.
But his dream had been to follow in his dad’s footsteps. In his first bout at Albury’s Commercial Club, and with big-names Long John McCubbin and Barry Michael in his corner, he won easily.
Because of his disability, Simon had to reluctantly give boxing away after recording three straight wins. However, it certainly hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm.
And there’s no shortage of that in the Dale family………..