‘ Ray of hope’ for island
RAY Dennis is an ordinary bloke leading an extraordinary life.
Humble and self- deprecating, Dennis has lived on Palm Island for the last 18 years where he has trained, mentored and given his all to hundreds of indigenous boxers.
To Palm Islanders he is Uncle Ray, a respected 80year- old knockabout who dragged himself out of a hole in 1999 to work as a volunteer in the Aboriginal community.
“I couldn’t get permanent work in Townsville, and a mate and I were making 100 bottles of home brew a week and drinking a lot of it,’’ Dennis said.
“I had to get away from it all and decided to do some volunteer work at Palm Island. A bloke I’d taught to box about 50 years ago in Townsville lived on the island so I went over and stayed with him.
“When I arrived on Palm, I wanted to do some good and all I really knew was boxing.”
Within 10 years Dennis had been nominated as Australian of the Year for his unyielding and selfless work in the community. Tomorrow he will be inducted to the Queensland Boxing Hall of Fame at a function at Yatala.
Not long after Dennis arrived, boxing became a beacon of hope for Palm Islanders.
As many as 50 boys and some girls attended after school.
The Palm Island Boxing Club established itself as one of the strongest in Australia and Dennis went on to produce about 50 national champions.
“I teach them being a good person is just as important as being a good boxer,’’ he said.
“The discipline of boxing can keep them off the streets and away from drugs and drink.
“Most indigenous youngsters are naturally gifted athletes with very quick reflexes. If you can get them to train consistently they can reach their potential.’’
Dennis spent most of his early life at Nanango where he reluctantly attended school for just five years.
At 14 he was working on a farm near Mundubbera, playing rugby league and boxing.
His bible was a book on boxing technique written by Ambrose Palmer, a former champion boxer and AFL footballer of the 1930s and ’ 40s who later trained Johnny Famechon.
“I never had a proper trainer, but I learned all the right things from that book,’’ Dennis said.
A rangy back- rower in rugby league, Dennis played senior football in Nanango, Moree and Townsville.
“I played against Mal Meninga’s father when he was playing for Wondai and also sessions Gorden Tallis’ father in Townsville,’’ he said. “I trained racehorses for a while in Nanango. I enjoyed the horses … we had a bit of success.’’
Dennis was in his mid- 20s when he moved over the border to Moree for football. Unwittingly, he also started training boxers.
“I used to help a group of bike riders with their fitness in Moree and I sort of got into boxing from that,” he said.
He’s a bloke game to try most things, including marriage and divorce twice with the same woman.
They first married in 1962 and went their separate ways about five years later. The couple resolved to have another try in the 1980s and remarried, but split again in 1994.
After working in the drycleaning industry for many years he struck a tough period when unable to gain full- time work in his early 60s. Palm Island was the catalyst for resurrection.
It wasn’t easy, but Dennis relished the chance. He worked overtime and contributed his pension money to restore a rotting boxing ring and purchase gear for the gym.
“We’d only had the club going three months when I took 11 boys to Proserpine for a State of Origin amateur tournament against New South Wales,’’ he said. “Ten of them won and five went on to the national titles that year.’’
Dennis, who will attend the Hall of Fame function, will undergo surgery for a troublesome leg in coming weeks.
“It’s slowed me down a bit, but one of my boxers, Patrick Clark, is looking after the gym while I’m away,’’ he said.
“Patrick fought Jeff Horn as an amateur … we knew Horn was very talented back then.”