Author: Professor John Maynard
The historical boxing gym was a place of smell and noise, of sweat and liniment and the constant smack of gloves against the heavy bag and the rat-a-tat-tat of fists rattling upon the speed ball. There were voices, expletives, encouragement and banter. The boxing gym and boxing itself has slipped from the lofty position that the sport held, not only in Australia, but globally. From the 19th century through to the 1960s and 1970s, boxing was a sport that captured the imagination of fans across the world including kings, queens, prime ministers and presidents. Famous writers like Lord Byron, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates have been infatuated with the boxing magic and driven to capture its essence. This adulation and interest placed boxers at the same position held today by rock stars. The rough and ready boxing gymnasiums that once proliferated across Sydney have now largely faded away. In this new era, it is important to recall the places and people of Sydney’s most famous boxing gymnasiums and their magnetic attraction to Aboriginal boxers.
The rites of boxing ‘simplify everything. Good and evil, the winner and the loser’. More than anything else, the boxing match has served as a metaphor for opposition – the struggle between two bodies before an audience, usually for money, representing struggles between opposing qualities, ideas and values… those struggles involve nationality, class, race, ethnicity, religion, politics and different versions of masculinity.
The prominent place and tone of the Sydney boxing gymnasium was set from the very earliest of times with the establishment of Larry Foley’s Boxing Academy in 1879. Foley’s first gym had operated out of the United Services Hotel on the corner of William and Riley Streets in Woolloomooloo. Foley’s most famous establishment, the Boxing Academy, was located in a back room and yard of the White Horse Hotel on George Street, close to the Sydney waterfront. Established in 1885, it gained the moniker the Iron Pot Gym and was recognised at the time as the ‘richest spawning ground of pugilistic talent in the world.’ Foley is regarded as the ‘Father of Australian boxing’ through introducing and championing the Queensbury Rules into the country. Larry Foley established his boxing gym after his retirement from the ring and he is remembered for producing a cavalcade of boxing greats that included Bob Fitzsimmons, West Indian-born Peter Jackson, Young Griffo and Paddy Slavin, to name just a few.
It is little known today that several Aboriginal boxers were on the boxing circuit during this early period. Two fighters referred to as Black Douglas and Black Alex remain uncertain of origin but were possibly ‘men of colour’. Peter Corris, in his study Lords of the Ring, reveals a number of Aboriginal fighters in the 1840s and 1850s, namely Yellow Johnny (who hailed from the Lower Hawkesbury), Yellow Jimmy or Jemmy (aka James Phoenix from Maitland) and Perry’s Pet, a protégé of John Perry (aka Perry the Black or Black Perry). Another fighter named Black Billy, alias ‘Young Sambo’, had a crowd routine where, before a fight, he would anoint himself with grease and red ochre.
The arrival to Australia in 1907 of boxing sensation Jack Johnson would deliver longstanding influence upon Aboriginal people, fighters and political activists. Johnson, because he was black, was refused the right to challenge for the world title on a long-held colour bar of exclusion.
Johnson had three fights in Australia in 1907 and knocked out all of his opponents. He was the guest of honour in a farewell function held by the Coloured Progressive Association (CPA) in Sydney before his departure. The CPA was a black organisation formed in Sydney in 1903 primarily comprising African Americans, Indians, Africans, Islanders and West Indians. The organisation was established to support visiting black merchant sailors whilst in Sydney. But it also welcomed Aboriginal men into the fold who worked on the Sydney docks including later high-profile Aboriginal leader Fred Maynard.
Fred Maynard was present at the 1907 CPA farewell for Johnson. It is beyond argument that Jack Johnson was not just a brilliant fighter but was an inspirational figure to black and oppressed peoples around the world. He was articulate, confident, eloquent and highly politicised and outspoken. Johnson himself was perfectly at home amongst seamen and dockworkers. As a young man he had been employed as a dockworker in Galveston Texas and those years may have been the foundation of his impressive physique. Aboriginal connection to Australian wharves would continue over the 20th century. High profile activist ‘Chicka’ Dixon and two top Aboriginal boxers, Jack Hassen and Roy Carroll, were also wharfies.
Just before he left Australia in 1907 there had been a fight proposed between Johnson and Aboriginal heavyweight Malley Jackson. Jackson was recorded as being an Aboriginal person, a ‘native of the Newcastle (NSW) district’, but was living in Tasmania at the time of the proposed fight. The match never came off and Jack Johnson sailed back to the United States.
Jack Johnson returned to Australia in 1908 and was finally given the chance to fight world champion Tommy Burns in the newly constructed Sydney Stadium. Twenty thousand people packed into the stadium with another 40,000 disappointed patrons locked outside. It would be the first time a black fighter went up against a white fighter for the most prestigious boxing title in the world. Johnson unleashed all of his pent-up resentment over the racism, prejudice and oppression that not just he and his family had witnessed throughout his life but what he had seen inflicted on others. Tommy Burns would be the recipient of that hatred and was completely destroyed in the ring. Johnson had no intention of finishing the fight early. He was like a cat playing with a mouse and wanted to inflict as much punishment on Burns as possible. Johnson knocked Burns down twice in the first two rounds and that set the tone of the fight. Police had to eventually step into the ring in the 14th round to stop the punishment.
Jack Johnson would hold the world title for another seven years and his influence on Aboriginal fighters was immense. The first high profile Aboriginal boxing champion Jerry Jerome was adamant that it was Jack Johnson’s exploits that inspired him to take up boxing. Jerome would also follow Johnson’s stance of demanding his place of equality on all counts. Jerome led a strike at Taroom Aboriginal settlement in 1916. He refused to work and incited ‘all others to refuse work unless paid’.
Two huge personalities with egos to match would dominate Sydney boxing over the greater part of the 20th century: Ern McQuillan and Bill McConnell. Both trainers ran boxing gyms in the city. The men would run a hostile feud with each other across decades of differing opinions on who was the better man. The men’s gymnasiums were just around the corner from each other and they were contesting over turf and fighters. The feud at times erupted into brutal fist fights when the two men crossed paths.
McQuillan for his part trained 60 Australian champions but sadly never had one of his fighters crowned as a world champion. McConnell could boast that he had trained Australia’s first recognised world champion in Jimmy Carruthers. Carruthers won the world bantamweight title by defeating Vic Toweel in South Africa in 1952. Carruthers is recorded as landing 147 punches in two minutes and 19 seconds to knockout Toweel in the first round. There were many others besides McConnell who had a dislike of Ern McQuillan, including claims that he had insider links with Sydney Stadium. The word on the street was that: “If you don’t train with Ern, you don’t get fights”.
Aboriginal boxers were a very important part of the Sydney boxing and gymnasium scene across many decades. Legendary names like Jerry Jerome, Ron Richards, Jack Hassen, Dave Sands, Lionel Rose, Tony Mundine, Hector Thompson and Anthony ‘Choc’ Mundine were just a few of the cavalcade of great Aboriginal fighters. Boxing was the one sport where historically Aboriginal people could get a degree of a go. Even rugby league and AFL, the bastions of Aboriginal sporting inclusion and presence today, once had very clear barriers that in the main excluded Aboriginal players from the game.
Tent boxing was a major part of the Australian agricultural show circuit across the 20th century. Famous boxing troupes like Jimmy Sharman’s toured the country. Aboriginal boxers were drawn to the tent boxing circuit in the hope of earning a ‘few quid’ and more importantly of catching the attention of someone that might open the door to mainstream boxing. All of the great Aboriginal boxing champs had earned their stripes on the tent fight circuit. Historian Richard Broome has stated that tent fighting gave Aboriginal boxers ‘a stronger sense of power from below’ and that that they themselves were the ‘agents and manipulators of that power and discourse.’ The tent boxing troupes produced boxing ‘heroes and an heroic edge to Aboriginal community history.’
Probably and arguably the greatest Aboriginal boxer of all time Dave Sands was not based in Sydney but trained with his brothers Clem, George, Alfie and Russell in Newcastle, out of Tom Maguire’s backyard gym in Beaumont Street, Hamilton. The famous fighting Sands brothers were originally from Kempsey, and from the Ritchie family at Burnt Bridge. They were given the surname Sands as a fight name. Dave was the outstanding fighter of the family, holding the British Empire title as well as the Australian middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight titles all at the same time. He was close to securing a world title fight when he was tragically killed in a truck accident at Dungog in 1952. His death witnessed one of the biggest funerals ever held in Newcastle. Carl Olson would be crowned as world middleweight champion in October 1953 after defeating Randolph Turpin for the vacant title at Maddison Square Garden in New York. Olson would say after his victory: “If that Australian was still alive this title would be his.” Dave Sands had beaten Carl Olson soundly in two fights. Although he was not a Sydney-based fighter, Dave Sands did train regularly at Tom Laming’s Golden Gloves boxing gym on Westmoreland Lane in Glebe when in town. When Dave Sands was down in the ‘Big Smoke’ to fight at the Sydney Stadium, large crowds of fans would pack the gym to watch him spar and workout. He also trained at the nearby Victoria Park, in front of enthusiastic onlookers. 
Dave Sands’ exploits in the ring inspired many young Aboriginal men to pursue a boxing career. The great social and political changes of the 1960s, including the overwhelming 1967 Referendum result, released Aboriginal people from the tight restrictive government controls over their lives, and thousands flocked to Sydney and Redfern looking for better working opportunities. Many of the young Aboriginal men looked to sport to provide a financial bonus, and boxing was the big drawcard. Melbourne-based Aboriginal boxer Lionel Rose was crowned world bantamweight champion in 1968 when he beat ‘Fighting Harada’ in Tokyo. When Rose returned to Melbourne, he was welcomed by a crowd in excess of 250,000 people (bigger than the crowds that greeted the Beatles) and would later be named as Australian of the Year. The success of Lionel Rose was a massive influence on young Aboriginal fighters at the time.
Boxing received a surge of interest during the 1980s and 1990s through the exploits of three great Sydney-based Australian world champion boxers, namely Jeff Fenech, Jeff Harding and Kostya Tzsu. It was for a short time period like stepping back to the halcyon and golden years of Australian boxing during the 1940s and 1950s.
About the author
Worimi man Professor John Maynard is a leading historian based with the Purai Global Indigenous History Centre at the University of Newcastle.
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