Image courtesy State Library of Victoria
Michael Caiafa first learned to box at age 12 to protect himself from kids who targeted him for being the only Italian kid in their country Victorian school. On the cusp of 90, he continues to train for fun, and is teaching octogenarians at his aged care facility how to box.
Michael was born in a small town near Naples in 1933. His parents moved to a market garden farm and orchard on the outskirts of Shepparton, when he was about three years old.
After school and most weekends, Mike helped his mum and dad, often working late into the night to get the produce ready to truck to Melbourne. He took up violin, not because of a love of music, but because it meant he was given Saturday morning off.
‘I’d go into town for lessons and that gave me three or four hours of freedom. I became very good. I played in the Shepparton Orchestra. I should have kept it up.’
School was not much of a respite for the young Michael.
‘When I started high school, because I came from an Italian background, the other kids didn't get on too well with me. It was just after the war,’ he says.
‘I remember I went home crying one day and my dad said to me, “Look, if you don't stand up for yourself, this is going to happen the rest of your life”.
‘I became a very good boxer and, one day, one of the kids at school called me something and I belted him, and they respected me after that, and they made me form captain.’
Michael moved to Melbourne to study at RMIT and completed his six months in the national service. ‘I did army reserves three or four years after that. It made a man out of me.’
He got a job at the Board of Works after he met his future wife, Jan. Family were noticeably missing when the young couple married at the registry office in Melbourne.
‘My parents almost disowned me because I married an Australian girl. They came around about two years later, when my first son was born.’
As well as being a good boxer, Michael was a talented cricketer and football player.
Love of footy
‘I played for Fitzroy Reserves, and I was playing on the weekend with the Carlton Stars, which was like the VFL. I made the list at Hawthorn, but I decided to go back to Fitzroy to play with all my mates.’
Michael became known for his skill in compiling the game statistics for Fitzroy and when the club folded, he had five teams knocking on his door. He assisted the Brisbane Lions and Richmond before ending his football career at Carlton.
Jan and Michael travelled to Austria three times, where they met Dutch violinist André Rieu.
‘We became good friends. He used to come to Melbourne and stop at the Grand Hyatt and we would stay there at the same time, and we got to know him and know all his orchestra. One day I took half of them to the Queen Victoria Market.’
Michael now lives in an aged care facility with Jan, who is unwell. He continues to exercise for 90 minutes a day and is teaching two female residents, both aged in their 80s, to box.
‘They love it,’ he says.
Reviewed 02 August 2022