Innovative SBS project, I'm Your Man, explores the diverse history of some of Australia's best-known boxing legends. Enter the ring and fight alongside the boxers.
By
Luke Pearson

3 Feb 2017 - 4:24 PM  UPDATED 5 Jun 2017 - 12:04 PM

Jerry Jerome (1874 - 1943)

Jerome is believed to be the first Aboriginal national boxing champion, winning the Australian Middleweight title in 1912. Amazingly, Jerome didn't begin his professional boxing career until 1908, at the age of 34, but he nonetheless proved himself to be a competitive fighter and more than capable of keeping up with, and often bettering, his contemporaries. 

He retired from boxing in 1915, after earning a a total sum of five-thousands pounds over his career, a quarter of which was placed in trust. He continued fighting in boxing tents and eventually retired, broke, to Cherbourg Aboriginal Settlement. According to the Australian Database of Biography, Jerome maintained his independent and fighting ways: the Chief Protector of Aborigines J. W. Bleakley claimed that he sought to 'obstruct discipline and defy authority'.

 

Richards, Ranold (Ron) (1910–1967)

A bare-knuckle fighter, Richards took to boxing early and was widely regarded as a superb fighter by the age of 20. At 22 he won the Queensland Middleweight title. He then went on to win three Australian titles, middleweight, light heavyweight, heavyweight, and middleweight British Empire title. Although Richards was considered a contender for world titles, his career was riddled with mismanagement and exploitation and overseas fights never eventuated. 

After his wife passed away in 1937 his career lost direction, and despite earning up to £20,000 in his career, he was penniless by 1946. After being charged with vagrancy in Sydney in 1947, he was placed under the native affairs branch of the Queensland Department of Health and Home Affairs and sent to Woorabinda Aboriginal settlement for three years. He later returned to Sydney, was again arrested for vagrancy, and drunkenness, and was this time sent to Palm Island where he spent 17 years. He again returned to Syndey after hearing of his estranged wife being seriously ill, and passed away himself in 1967.

 

Elliott 'Elley' Bennett (1924-1981)

From Barambah (Cherbourg) Aboriginal Settlement, 'Elley' Bennett was short in stature, but was regarded as an explosive fighter, and was referred to in Ring magazine as the hardest puncher in the world, pound for pound. He was a dual title holder, holding both the national bantamweight and featherweight titles in 1951. He retired in 1954, still retaining the featherweight title. 

Bennett was also a founding member of the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation in 1969, and was commemorated in a play written by his son, Roger, titled 'Up the Ladder' in 1995.

 

Jack Hassen (1925 - 2002)

Like many Aboriginal boxers of his time, Hassen began his career fighting as a tent boxer with Jimmy Shaman, before eventually becoming Lightweight Champion by defeating Archie Kemp. In the eleventh round, Hassen appealed to the referee to stop the fight, fearing for the safety of Kemp who had taken many heavy punches in the later rounds. The fight was ordered to continue and Hassen won by knockout. Kemp died the following morning from a cerebral haemorrhage. Hassen never fully recovered from this tragedy and lost his title soon after. 

Hassen was also a staunch trade unionist, joining the Sydney Branch of the Waterside Workers' Federation in November 1963 and retiring in July 1984. 

 

The Sands Brothers

 

Clem, Percy, George, Dave, Alfie and Russell Ritchie; six Dugnhutti brothers from Newcastle, known as the Fighting Sands Brothers. Following in the footsteps of their father and grandfather into the world of boxing, all brothers were respected fighters in their own rights. According to the National Portrait Gallery site, the brothers had a total of '607 bouts between them', 'winning a third of that total by knockout'. The most successful of the six were Clem, who held the NSW welterweight title from 1947 to 1951; Alfie, who was the NSW middleweight champion from 1952 to 1954; Russel, the youngest of the six, who won State and National Featherweight titles in 1954. and Dave, who is regarded by many as the greatest Australian fighter to never hold a world title. 

Dave Sands did however win a long list of national and international titles; the Australian middleweight and light heavyweight titles (1946); the British Empire middleweight title (1949); plus he simultaneously held the Australian middle, light heavyweight and heavyweight titles (195). In all, Dave won 97 of his 110 professional bouts and at the time of his death, aged 26, was ranked number three in the world. He had aspired to fight Sugar Ray Robinson, who is widely acknowledged to be the greatest pound for pound boxer of all time, for the World Middleweight title but sadly never had the chance. Despite Robinson legendary status and one of the greatest fights of all time, many believe that Sands would have been able to beat Robinson if his manager had been able to secure the fight in 1951. Sands fought on the undercard instead, defeating Mel Brown, and Randolph Turpin went on to take the title from Robinson. Dave Sands died the next year in a tragic truck accident in Dungog, NSW, never having had the opportunity to become the first Aboriginal World Boxing champion.

 

George Bracken 

Ring Australia's 'Fighter of the Year' in 1958, Bracken was the Australian Lightweight champions twice, 1956-1958, and 1959-1962. For a man who had been described as an inspiration by Lionel Rose and by Anthony Mundine, it was disheartening to find very little information about the man himself. There is, however, a great clip from "That's Boxing" on Youtube that fight clips, and Bracken himself telling a story of racism he experienced from a South African boxer. 

Sadly, many Aboriginal boxers of yesteryear (including some listed here) died broke and penniless, a victim of their times, with tales of racism, mismanagement and missed opportunities rife throughout their careers; but in times where many Aboriginal people were confined to missions and reserves, these men dared to chase fame and glory, and should be celebrated for their achievements. 

 

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