Stars 'N' Stripes
By Orion Foote
Down Under: A Century
of American Boxers
in New Zealand
While sifting through archival material relating to the history of boxing in New Zealand, I began to realize just how many celebrated American boxers had graced the "square circle" in New Zealand during the past 100 years or so. As a consequence, my search for interesting photographic material began to unearth many colorful stories, as did many hours of research while perusing the sporting columns in early newspapers.
As a result of my discoveries, I thought that it may be of some interest to American enthusiasts of the sweet science if I were to outline or document some noteworthy fighters who, for one reason or another, made their way to New Zealand and captured the imagination of boxing fans Down Under.
Although what follows is in no way a comprehensive list of every boxer who has visited or fought in New Zealand, it is hoped that this will shed some light on an aspect of American boxing history that had, perhaps until now, remained relatively obscure. I certainly welcome comments, especially names that I may have overlooked or simply been unaware of. I look forward to corresponding with you, wherever in the world you may be!
Dick Matthews, aka the Pacific Coast Wonder
According to local newspaper reports at the time, Dick Matthews arrived in New Zealand in 1885 with the somewhat dubious title of Champion of the Pacific Coast (U.S.). In 1886 he won the New Zealand heavyweight title by defeating expatriot Englishman Jim Pettengell at Dunedin, which he defended on several subsequent occasions. He made a brief return to the United States sometime in 1886, where he fought the highly regarded Denver Ed Smith and Jack McCauliffe.
Matthews eventually lost his NZ title to Harry Laing in 1887, and he then went on an exhibition tour throughout the country until 1890. Not long after returning to his native Southern California, it was reported that Matthews had been shot dead sometime in 1893, while working as a barman.
Tommy Burns (NZ Exhibition Tour, 1909)
Okay, so Noah Brusso was actually a Canadian! But I've decided to include him in this colourful collection of American pugilists who visited our shores over the years. A few months after losing his world heavyweight crown at the hands of Jack Johnson in Sydney, Burns visited New Zealand and conducted training and sparring exhibitions at Wellington and Palmerston North with sparring partners Pat O'Keefe (British middleweight champion, 1914-1916) and Leo O'Donnell.
According to reports, the exhibitions at Wellington on August 9 were something of lackluster affairs, due to Burns & Co. having to make do without a sleeping carriage during the overnight express trip from Auckland. They arrived in the capital with only an hour or so in which to refresh themselves before the evening's entertainment.
It was also noted that Burns was considerably overweight at 291 pounds during the beginning of his brief tour. Apparently a recurring ankle sprain from the Johnson bout was aggravated two days later at Palmerston North (August 11), resulting in southern dates of the tour having to be postponed.
Jack Johnson (Documented Evidence of a Visit to NZ)
In an article that appeared recently in Fight Times (a New Zealand martial-arts and boxing periodical), fellow New Zealand boxing historian Dave Cameron makes mention of a signed letter that evidently came into his possession recently. The letter, signed "Yours truly, Jack Johnson," addressed to "Mr. Walter Jackson of Auckland," and dated May 12, 1934, makes clear reference to a visit to New Zealand aboard The S.S. Sonoma. In the letter Johnson refers to his stay in both Australia and New Zealand, saying he was "treated like a king in both countries, and those lasting thoughts will remain in my mind for a long time".
The record books and biographical material available show that the infamous Johnson made two trips to Australia in 1907 (when he fought Peter Felix and Bill Lang in Sydney and Melbourne, respectively) and then in 1908 (for his historic win over Tommy Burns for the world heavyweight championship at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney). It would be assumed that Johnson's visit to New Zealand would have occurred at or about this time. Evidently the S.S Sonoma was a mail steamer that made regular visits to Sydney from San Francisco, and it is known to have called into New Zealand ports on more than one occasion.
The signature on the letter has been verified with other known specimens of Johnson's signatures, and Cameron's conclusion is that the signature given is "absolutely the same as those." Further investigation will perhaps shed more light on this intriguing anecdote.
A notable American boxer of the "old school," who according to the 2003 edition of The Ring Boxing Almanac won the Australian version of the world welterweight title when he KO'd Guy Buckles in the 13th round at Sheridan, Wyoming, in 1910. Before arriving in New Zealand, Clabby had amassed a highly impressive record while fighting in Australia, where the quality of his opposition had been second to none, racking up impressive wins against such top-liners as Dave Smith, Eddie McGoorty, Fritz Holland, and Tommy Uren.
In fact, the only boxer to ever really dominate Clabby throughout his remarkable ring career (which spanned nearly 20 years as a professional) was the Australian wunderkind Les Darcy, who many still believe was the greatest middleweight ever to never have won a world title. In November 1919, Clabby kicked off his Kiwi sojourn with a 10-round KO win over Jack Heeney (brother of future world
heavyweight title contender Tom Heeney) at Hastings. He followed this up with a busy schedule over the ensueing year in New Zealand, with a further seven bouts here against some of our finest from the era, including Tommy Uren, George Cook, Albert Pooley, and Jim Tracey. Clabby's only loss was a 15-round decision to Uren at Hastings on New Years Day 1920.
This was, however, somewhat avenged three months later, when the two met for a second time, contesting a hard-fought 15-round draw.
A match against the renowned Fritz Holland was scheduled for July 23, 1920, at Wanganui, but a dispute erupted over purse negotiations, and the bout was canceled. The two had met on four previous occasions in Australia, with Clabby having the edge in all but one encounter.
He concluded his lengthy spell in New Zealand with a masterful points decision over George Cook on August 25, 1920.
Harry "Hop" Stone
The nickname of this unusual character (and hasn't boxing produced many of those!) came from his highly animated style of footwork. Stone, a New Yorker of Jewish descent, in his day had fought many first-class fighters the world over in a remarkable professional career, including two of the finest from his era, Ted "Kid" Lewis and Jack Britton. Hop had a style that epitomized elusiveness. He was known for "careering around the ring in uncontrolled leaps and bounds, skipping, jumping up and down on the balls of his feet, and generally defying all that ever had been written on correct balance and firm-footed punching."
Hop campaigned in New Zealand on several occasions after an impressive sojourn in Australia, though he was equally well known for his publicity stunts, which were at that time virtually unheard of in New Zealand boxing.
Amongst these were shadow boxing around telegraph poles, riding a scooter through the streets, and constantly carrying a portable gramophone with him whenever walking the streets, with the popular tunes of the day crackling through the tiny speaker. Harry Stone loved to make a spectacle of himself as much as he loved the ring, and many stories abound as to his jovial eccentricities.
Fritz Holland (c.1920-1930)
A highly skilled and seasoned professional campaigner of the 1910s, who fought many top-class opponents from that era, including three well-documented encounters against the renowned Australian middleweight Les Darcy. Some time in the early 1920s, Holland made his way to New Zealand (probably via Australia) and became a much sought-after and well-respected boxing trainer here, particularly among the amateur ranks, where he produced many well-schooled scientific boxers.
Pete Sarron (Fought in NZ 1929-1930)
Dubbed the "second Harry Greb" by Ring writer Joe Holman in the late 1920s, Sarron was very popular with fight fans while campaigning in New Zealand rings, due to his highly charged all-action style. He is most remembered here for his three fights against New Zealand featherweight champion Tommy Donovan in 1930. Sarron also had two memorable contests against the legendary Australian triple champion, Billy Grime, while in Australia.
Some time after returning to the United States, Sarron won the NBA world featherweight title in 1936, by outpointing Freddie Miller in Washington, D.C.
Gene Tunney (Visited Wellington as U.S Naval Officer, 1943)
This ring legend scarcely needs any introduction. A recently discovered photograph shows Tunney on the steps of Parliament buildings in Wellington (capital of New Zealand), along with local boxing luminaries Alan Maxwell, Tim Tracy, Johnny Leckie, and Ted Morgan (welterweight gold medallist at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympic Games).
Tunney served as a Lieutenant-Commander in the U.S Navy during World War II, and it appears that Tunney's naval ship must have been visiting New Zealand ports at the time. It should be remembered that Tunney had a special association with our country, due to his last defense of the world heavyweight title, when in 1928 in New York he defeated our own Tom Heeney of Gisbourne, New Zealand.
Clarence Reeves, aka the Alabama Kid
Sources report that Reeves hailed from the state of Georgia, U.S.A. He was brought out to fight New Zealand heavyweight champion Maurice Strickland at Palmerston North on December 26, 1940, losing a points decision over 12 rounds. It's also interesting to note that another American boxer, by the name of Johnnie Hutchinson, appeared on the undercard in the second of two welterweight contests that year against local hero Vic Calteax.
Hutchinson proved too good for the local boy, winning both encounters. Hutchinson, at one time ranked No. 5 in the U.S., had previously met no fewer than three world champions in Ike Williams, Beau Jack, and Sammy Angott. In addition to the bouts against Calteaux, he fought New Zealand lightweight and featherweight champion Clarrie Rayner twice during his visit in 1940 (lost 1 and won 1).
Incidentally, Harold Foote (the author's uncle) later fought Clarrie Rayner for the New Zealand featherweight title at Wellington in September 1945. The Alabama Kid is also noteworthy for two bouts against the legendary Archie Moore in 1949, as well as earning a hard-fought draw against none other than former light-heavyweight champ John Henry Lewis. Reeves evidently lay claim to a very impressive record in the United States: of 150 bouts, he had only 10 losses.
Reeves also had two bouts against Les Brander at Auckland on October 8 and 22, 1940 (won by KO1 and KO5, respectively).
Willie Jones (Top U.S Prospect from the 1940s)
Jones, who was originally from California, began boxing around 1944 and at one time was considered a fine prospect. He lost a close decision to world title contender John Thomas at Long Beach in his first main event. He then went to Australia and knocked out five opponents before arriving in New Zealand with an impressive 34-0 record and a formidable reputation. Local promoters had set up a fight with recently crowned local welterweight champion Bos Murphy.
While Jones was in New Zealand, many stories began to circulate among the local fight scene that he was in fact either Bob Montgomery, Ike Williams, or Beau Jack masquerading under another name. But this simply wasn`t true, as all of the above were fighting in the U.S at the time. Reports at the time said that many top contenders in the U.S wouldn`t risk their hard-earned reputations by fighting Willie Jones, and in a piece that appeared in Ring around 1945, it was observed that "he might yet become a great fighter."
This crafty veteran -- an aircraft engineer hailing from Seattle -- was 40 when he arrived in New Zealand in the early 1960s. Though at the time, he was a top-notch, highly rated light-heavyweight title contender, possessing one of the finest left jabs in the business. Cotton had recently fought leading contender Bob Foster, who apparently was recognized by Michigan as world light-heavyweight champion, due to wins over top opposition.
Cotton's resume also included a hotly disputed points loss to NBA champ Harold Johnson, which compelled Johnson to pay a fine tribute in saying, "[Cotton is] one of the smartest boxers I've ever met." Cotton fought six bouts while in New Zealand, winning them all.
Stiniata campaigned at the same time as his compatriot Eddie Cotton. He beat South African champion Mike Holt while here, though he was later beaten by Cotton.
Muhammad Ali (Exhibition Tour, 1979)
Ali arrived in February 1979 for a much-anticipated exhibition and promotional tour, which incidentally turned out to be the most expensive promotion ever staged in New Zealand at that time. Promoter Russell Clark wouldn't disclose precise figures at the time, though he was adamant that the Ali deal was "the biggest of them all."
An Ali celebrity dinner was held at the exclusive Trillos club in Auckland on the 7th, and the following evening at Western Springs Stadium, the great one boxed exhibitions, which for some turned out to be something of a disappointment. Ali, in his own inimitable way, turned the whole thing into a comedy spectacle. He clowned his way through his bouts, pausing every now and then to joke with the crowd or chase the referee around the ring.
Still, for the vast majority, it was enough to simply be in the same room as "The Greatest," and many would never forget the experience. Ali boxed the entire exhibition in a full tracksuit, and photos taken while working out at a local gymnasium during his visit Down Under show clearly that he was not in the best of physical condition for the tour.
At the conclusion of the exhibition bouts, the 1974 NZ Commonwealth Games bronze medallist, Lance Revill, took the ring with Ali, who feigned annoyance at Revill, shouting, "You`ve got a big mouth; you think I'm fat; you think I'm out of condition; I`m going to make an idiot of you!"
Revill said later, "My eye was all puffed up afterwards, but it was well worth it." The Ali circus (which included Bundini Brown) then moved on to Australia for further promotions and exhibitions.
Later, as a result of Ali`s connections with New Zealand, the Muhammad Ali Amateur Sports Club, which included future WBA heavyweight champion Tony Tubbs, competed in boxing tournaments against New Zealand teams.
Jessie Burnett (In World Cruiserweight Eliminator)
In March 1981 a cruiserweight world title eliminator was contested in Auckland, New Zealand. It included former world middleweight title prospect from Australia Tony Mundine (father of Anthony Mundine, who fought Sven Otkke in 2002 for the IBF super-middleweight crown). Tony Mundine had previously fought many top notchers during his impressive career, including a challenge for Carlos Monzons middleweight title, and although far past his fighting prime, he was considered a legitimate threat to the highly ranked American contender Jessie Burnett.
Burnett had evidently learned his craft while serving time in a California prison, and he had turned professional shortly after his release in 1971. The two had met previously in 1976, when the courageous Burnett, having been a mile behind Mundine on points, managed to turn the tide and KO the hard-hitting Australian in the sixth round. The return encounter at Auckland, New Zealand, in 1981 again went Burnett's way, with a fairly comfortable points win for the highly touted American.
One judge, however, had Mundine outscoring Burnett, although most at ringside including the other two judges, and Mundine himself fully accepted the decision. Burnett finally got his chance at glory two years later, when he challenged T.S. Gordon, albeit unsuccessfully, for the WBC cruiserweight title.
Kronk Boxing Club (Amateur Team Visits in 1987 and 1993)
The first team to visit (1987) featured an impressive line-up: Michael Moorer (boxing at middleweight), Jonathan Littles, Vernon McGriff, Myron Walker, Jerry Reese, and Brian Thomas. Apparently this tour ended suddenly and in "controversial circumstances" with a second tourney being suddenly canceled.
It would be very interesting to hear Emmanuel Steward's account of what actually happened -- though perhaps he didn`t come with them. They made a return visit to our shores in 1993, though admittedly with an inferior squad to that of their earlier visit, with both featherweight and heavyweight representatives having to be replaced at the last minute by Los Angeles boxers, due to health and passport problems. Remarkably, the New Zealand team won the first tourney 5-0!, but the "Kronksters" had the better of things in the return fray, winning by three bouts to two.
© 2003 Orion Foote
New Zealand Boxing Historian
Featherston, New Zealand.