Boxing star Harry Garside: Trolling ‘affects me more’ than getting punched in the face

Sometimes the young and talented who find themselves riding the wave of fame arrive at an interview accompanied by an entourage. In contrast, Harry Garside brings his mum.

The champion boxer rose to prominence last year at the Tokyo Olympics after winning the men’s lightweight bronze medal – our first Olympic boxing medal in three decades.

But the 24-year-old, who practises ballet for strength and conditioning, paints his nails and occasionally wears a skirt, has since stepped outside the ring to strike blows for youth resilience and against gender stereotypes.

Growing up, Harry Garside spent a lot of time with his mother Kate while his brothers fought outside. Now he is a professional boxer. Credit:Paul Jeffers

It is seniors day at the Chirnside Park Country Club in Melbourne’s outer east, and the roast of the day, advertised next to a Michael Bublé tribute act, is beef.

The club’s bistro is a long-time family favourite for Kate Garside, 52, a business manager at a primary school, and her husband Shaun, a roof tiler, who would take their sons Josh, Jack and Harry on family occasions when they were growing up in Mooroolbark.

The boxer nominates this place when The Sunday Age asks about a suitable venue for an interview, and handily, Kate offers up her member’s discount card when I head to the counter to order lunch.

Garside is Generation Z made different. A rare combination: working-class “mother’s boy” succeeding in the most old-fashioned masculine sport there is, coupled with Instagram-sharp looks and bountiful kindness.

Harry Garside at the Olympics.Credit:Getty

He’s been a boxing fanboy since the age of nine and has a full-leg tattoo of his idols Muhammad Ali and Vasiliy Lomachenko, admired as much for their character as their prowess. Almost beyond his boyhood ken, he has the chance to be among them.

And he says boxing, despite its dark reputation – “could you not have picked table tennis or lawn bowls?” asks Kate – is full of some of the most beautiful people he has ever met.

“It is because they are humbled by Mother Nature. As athletes, we are constantly humbled. You come in with a big ego in the gym, someone will fix you up, and that is very humbling,” he says, grinning broadly and crinkling his eyes.

But to be prominent in the online era goes hand in hand with online hate. Garside posted a picture of himself wearing a skirt on Instagram and was called a paedophile.

Mother and son viewed the comments together. “I am so used to getting punched in the face, but I am not so used to copping so much positive and negative feedback from people,” Garside says.

“I wouldn’t say it hurts more, the comments, but it is something that probably affects me more.”

Garside, carrying an enormous bottle of water, is clearly not up for a drink over lunch. Kate forgoes a glass of white wine. She is recovering from breast cancer, and her son, who lives in Bellevue Hill in Sydney (he tells everyone Bondi because it sounds less posh) is back home visiting.

Growing up, Garside was often indoors with Kate while older brothers Josh and Jack were outside fighting. Garside grew up wanting to be “tough like my brothers”. Are they fighting now? “No.”

In a “life’s like that” twist, it is Garside who has won seven Australian national boxing championships, an Olympic bronze medal and a Commonwealth Games gold medal and has a 3-0 record since turning professional.

He is frank as to why he started. “I had to prove that I was a man and then I fell in love with the sport. I was pretty insecure for a few years and that came out in ugly ways. The more I do boxing, the more I figure out about myself the more secure I get in my own skin.

“You don’t need to show aggression when you are secure, you don’t need to say things to people when you are secure, you don’t need to prove your opinion is the right one when you are secure. I am not there yet, but I am 300 times better than I was when I was a teenager.”

Reading from afar about his desire to wear a dress to the Olympics opening ceremony, I offer up that I had wondered if Garside was gay. He fixes his normally expressive face in an impassive mask.

Turns out I was not the only one. Father Shaun, who couldn’t make lunch as he was off tiling roofs, had wondered the same thing and asked his son about it when he was 16. The answer was no. “There was no judgment or malice, he was just preparing himself.”

Garside trains twice a day and takes Sundays off. He doesn’t go to church, but like a lot of boxers he is quite spiritual.

“My mum is a medium; she talks to the spirit world,” he explains.

The obvious question – did she try to find out if her son would get to the Olympics?

“I did, but I didn’t tell him,” Kate says.

The answer from the medium she consulted was that something would change the way people got to the Olympics. “They will get there, but it is going to be a different way.”

Garside missed selection for the Tokyo Games and there is not a “different way” to qualify for the Olympics. Until the coronavirus pandemic, which postponed the Games for a year and Garside got his chance.

Garside recently shed most of his clothes to appear bronzed on the front cover of gay magazine DNA in little more than his boxer shorts and boxing gloves. He did it to show he was an ally to young people.

It is very much the philosophy of Reach Foundation, the charity founded by AFL player Jim Stynes to teach children resilience and self-worth. Attending a youth workshop proved pivotal to Garside forming his sense of self. A teenage drinker, he used the Reach workout to express how seriously he wanted to be a boxer. He still recalls his friends’ eyes widening at the news.

“However someone shows up in this world, I do not mind so long as people show respect to one another and try not to judge someone,” he says.

Now Garside lives in Sydney with his girlfriend, Ashley Ruscoe, a contestant on TV reality show The Amazing Race. He met her just twice before he jumped on a plane to spend three months away before the Games. But he knew.

Stuck on a flight for 13 hours to the United States, influenced by the Matthew McConaughey book Greenlights and feeling all this raw emotion, he started writing poetry to her.

“Then to spend 3½ months abstinent, just to talk and get to know each other, no physical touch. I think that’s beautiful.”

Things are going well for the Garside family as well. Oldest brother Josh, who has been battling addiction, is making a success of rehab. “The fame that Harry got helped him in a very strange way,” Kate says. “He was in prison. He was then being noticed for what his brother was doing. So it gave him a bit of family pride. And credibility in jail.”

Our time is up. There’s another media commitment, and some friends are dropping by the house.

At one point I confess to Garside: “I don’t actually get boxing.”

He is delighted. “I don’t either mate. Don’t worry.”

Son and mother depart, bumping into an acquaintance on the way out.

It is only at the end when I realise his essential contradiction. In our age of anxiety, Garside is brimming with the joy of life; it flows out of him in almost every utterance. For a man whose day job involves punching people in the face, Harry, where is the aggression?

“It’s there.” He laughs and lights up, all teeth and eyes. “Don’t worry.”

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