By Jarrod Gilbert

On Saturday, the gangs had a fight.

I craned forward to watch. A professional curiosity, of course. At least it was until I started cheering.

Gang fights are hardly new. Gangs have fought for as long as gangs have existed.

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One lunchtime in Christchurch's Cathedral Square in 1980, the Mongrel Mob and Black Power attempted to resolve their differences. The gang members postured around, each waiting for the other to make a move. Laden with weapons, one side moving forward, the other back, then the reverse, like a menacing dance. Which is exactly how the large crowd saw it. The fight occurred during an Arts Festival, and the dozens of onlookers thought the groups were engaging in radical street theatre. The curtain came down on this particular act with a tomahawk to the back of a head. The crowd departed without a hint of applause and there was no call for an encore.

Before that there was the riot of 1979 in the small Northland town of Moerewa. It was arguably the most serious incident of gang violence this country has ever experienced. Members of the Storm Troopers had been searching for members of Black Power to have a word about an escalating disagreement. Unable to find their foe they turned on an enemy who is always on hand when trouble to about: members of the New Zealand Police. The cops were outnumbered but not outgunned. They shot one gangster in the leg, but would have been excused for doing worse. The pub car park was a war scene, the local fire engine had been relieved of their axes, which were now weapons, and the police paddy wagon that was set alight cast ominous shadows. A couple of gang members attempted to throw a police officer into the burning vehicle, while enthusiasts of the idea yelled "Burn the bastard!". Another cop had his teeth knocked out and his skull broken. It was potentially a life-threatening injury.

New Zealand how it used to be before those bloody millennials came along, eh?

Interestingly, the majority of gang fights and battles never come to public attention. They happen late at night or go unseen. There are no complaints to police and media seldom get wind of them; the gangs spit at the idea that law enforcement is involved in their processes of dispute resolution. What happens between the gangs stays between the gangs. These are the rules of the game.

On Saturday night, however, the rules changed. The gang fights on Saturday were in the ring, more Queensberry rules and less pool cues to the face. Furthermore, it involved groups who have been the fiercest of enemies for as long as anybody can remember and for reasons everyone has long forgotten. It's part of a broader movement within the gang scene to change some of the negative behaviours that have defined it in the past.

But if there's one thing the public dislikes more than gangs misbehaving, it's gangs behaving. "It's a front for organised crime! It's all part of a recruitment drive!" The public isn't happy unless it's seeing menace.

Don't get me wrong, 10 percent of me thought the boxing event might descend into a glorious riot. That's the same 10 percent that watches motor racing to see the crashes, and loves YouTube clips of people falling over. But having spent time with the gangs, there is no part of me that doubts the intentions of some progressive leaders pushing for change. They want what we all want. A better future for themselves and their whanau.

Is a fight night that brings the gangs together going to do that? No. Not on its own, but it is evidence of the intent. It's part of a process. It introduces enemies to one another upon which they learn they are alike. It teaches respect. In practical ways it teaches fitness and health and opens up lines of communication between gangs that are invaluable in solving problems among the groups when they do arise.

I went to the event with Rex Timu and some of his boys from the Hastings Mongrel Mob, a group that, in fairness, hasn't enjoyed the most positive of reputations. At 51 years old Rex quit the smokes, trained, and slipped between the ropes to have a fight. His opponent, a younger, heavier and likable man knocked Rex down twice. Twice he climbed back to his feet. His mana was not diminished by hitting the canvas, only enhanced by climbing off it.

It's trite to say that I saw Rex's journey to change the Mongrel Mob in that fight, but to see Black Power members applaud his efforts - some with much difficulty - is evidence that change is certainly happening.

But is anybody noticing? Not really. One who was meant to be there to witness it was Hone Harawira. He was supposed to be sitting next to me. He couldn't make it much to my relief; I called him a buffoon in this column last week. It wouldn't have been a good look if the two of us had started the riot.

* Dr Jarrod Gilbert is a sociologist at the University of Canterbury and the lead researcher at Independent Research Solutions. He is the author of "Patched: The history of gangs in New Zealand".