At the Stretton Boxing Club on the outskirts of Brisbane, three sharp thuds ring out across the gym as one of Australia’s top prospects, Cameron Hammond, works the bag under the watchful eye of trainer Glenn Rushton.
“I’ve learnt a lot being here at Stretton, sparring the likes of Jeff Horn and Dennis Hogan, and I do believe I can beat most of the top guys out there,” Hammond said.
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains names and photos of those who have died.
The former Olympian was scheduled to fight on the undercard of last night’s Jeff Horn-Tim Tszyu bout, but with negotiations falling through, the 28-year-old is now eyeing a return to the ring in October.
“I’ve still got the fire in the belly and hopefully when I do fight, I can show the people in Australia that I’ve got more to give,” Hammond said.
Rushton, who is also the trainer of former welterweight world champion Horn, believes Hammond is one of the most naturally gifted athletes he has seen in the ring.
“We haven’t seen the best from Cameron as yet, but I have every intention of bringing that out of him and I’d dearly love for him to hold his head high and retire as a great Indigenous champion and terrific representative of Australian boxing,” he said.
Hammond is the latest in a long line of Aboriginal men who have made their mark on the sport, a participation that dates back to the late 19th century.
In 1912, Jerry Jerome, a Yiman man born at Jimbour Station in Queensland, defeated Charlie Godfrey to claim the national middleweight championship.
In claiming victory, he would become the first Indigenous Australian to win a major boxing title.
A proving ground for future champions
A number of Indigenous men began their relationship with the sport through tent boxing, often and most notably as part of Jimmy Sharman’s troupe.
The travelling circus followed touring agricultural shows across Australia, with eager locals, many of whom were Aboriginal, stepping into the ring to showcase their skills.
Aboriginal men frequently impressed in the tents, with many catching the eye of notable trainers or joining the troupe as a travelling fighter.
“There was denied mobility for our people and denied opportunity in every aspect of life,” said John Maynard, an Aboriginal historian at the University of Newcastle.
“Most of our mob were confined on heavily restricted and controlled missions and reserves, but if you were able to buy some freedom in the boxing ring, then, well go for it.”
There has been some conjecture in regards to how Aboriginal people were being treated while fighting as part of the troupe, something researched at length by Richard Broome, emeritus professor of history at Latrobe University.
“They were performers, they wanted to be there,” he said.
“They were pretty well paid because the entrepreneurs wanted them to stay and they often formed close relationships with each other; it really closed those racial divides which were around at the time.”
Professor Maynard said in a time of deep racial divide, boxing was one of the only sports in which Aboriginal people were treated equally.
“All the other sports there were colour bars of exclusion, but with boxing, there was more of an open door and Aboriginal people were encouraged into the space because they were good,” he said.
Tony Mundine, a multiple national champion, took part in a number of tent boxing shows as a teenager.
“We used to go up from Bayugiul where I come from into Grafton for the Grafton Show and they used to have tent boxing there,” Mundine said.
“I was only 14 or 15 years old. We had no money, you know, Aboriginal people had no money … I reckon I had about four, five fights.”
Mundine’s career peaked with a world title challenge in October 1974 against Argentina’s Carlos Monzon.
Despite losing via a seventh-round knockout, Mundine said he had fulfilled a childhood dream.
“I had him gone in the fourth round but I couldn’t finish him; he was a great fighter and a great champion, and that’s why he is a champion.”
A historic moment
In the 1960s, Aboriginal people still found themselves facing social, economic and political disadvantage.
A young man born at Jackson Track, an Aboriginal reserve in Victoria, would prove a trail-blazing figure against this oppression.
On February 27, 1968, Lionel Rose made history by defeating Japan’s Fighting Harada to claim the bantamweight world title, a victory that saw him become the first Indigenous Australian to hold a world championship belt.
“He was only 19 years of age. To go to Japan to become the undisputed bantamweight world champion at just 19, it’s hard to understand the significance of that,” boxing writer Paul Upham said.
A public reception at Melbourne’s Town Hall saw 100,000 people gather in appreciation of the new champion, and later that year Rose was named Australian of the Year and made a Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE).
In December 1968, he travelled to Los Angeles to defend his title against Mexican Chucho Castillo.
Through his success and affable personality, Rose had managed to transcend the sport, typified by the fact that during preparations for the Castillo fight, Elvis Presley reached out to Rose’s team and requested to meet him.
“Elvis actually signed a $1 bill for Lionel to take home to his mother, because his mother was a huge Elvis fan,” Upham said.
Rose would defeat Castillo in a 15-round split decision in what many believe was one of his last great performances before losing his title to Ruben Olivares the following year.
“When you see the images of Lionel Rose, the wastage to make the bantamweight must have had an incredible impact on him, but take nothing away from Olivares; he was a great fighter and regarded as one of the greatest bantamweights of all time,” Professor Maynard said.
Stories of success
Before his death at age 26, Sands had accumulated 97 wins from 110 bouts.
Born David Ritchie at Burnt Bridge on the NSW mid north coast, he hailed from one of Australia’s greatest sporting families, with brothers Clem, Percy, George, Alfie and Russell all successful boxers in their own right.
Dave proved to be the most gifted of the brothers and climbed quickly through the Australian ranks.
On September 6, 1949, Sands faced the UK’s Dick Turpin for the British Empire middleweight title, claiming victory via knockout.
The following year Sands made US television history with the screening of his fight against Carl “Bobo” Olson in Sydney.
As negotiations to challenge world champion Sugar Ray Robinson began to gather pace, Sands died after a motoring accident in August 1952.
“He was killed, tragically, when he and his brothers were out cutting timber at Dungog … he was in line to fight for the world title at that point, having held three Australian titles at the one time,” Professor Maynard said.
Sands was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998.
Thompson and Tony Mundine were two of the biggest names in Australian boxing in the 1970s, with both sharing a mutual respect in and out of the ring.
“Hector was a great fighter for his time, a great fighter, and he was a great guy as a human being,” Mundine said.
Born in Kempsey, Thompson lived at the infamous Kinchela Boys Home until the age of 13, an experience he said steered him towards boxing.
In an impressive career, Thompson fought for two world titles and in 2005 was inducted into the Australian Boxing Hall of Fame.
His first tilt at title glory came in 1973 against Roberto Duran, a man regarded by some as the best pound-for-pound boxer of all time.
Thompson’s second title challenge came in 1975 against Antonio Cervantes, a bout that ended via referee technical decision (RTD) in favour of the Colombian.
“Hector was a quiet, unassuming guy, but he was certainly an inspirational figure to young Aboriginal boys and men at that particular time and the community as a whole, and he certainly carried himself with dignity,” Professor Maynard said.
He died in May this year aged 70.
The son of Tony Mundine left a successful rugby league career — 134 NRL games, a premiership and three NSW Origin appearances — to make his boxing debut in 2000.
Less than 18 months later, he travelled to Germany to take on IBF super-middleweight champion Sven Ottke.
Despite a 10th-round knockout loss, Upham said Mundine’s critics needed to remember that it was only his 11th professional bout and Ottke’s 12th title defence.
“Anthony was fantastic early in that fight but he ran out of gas, only because he didn’t have the experience of fighting at that pace,” he said.
It would take two years for Mundine to get another chance at a world title, this time defeating American Antwun Echols for the WBA super-middleweight belt.
“The first title that I attempted was against Ottke, I fell short, but Ottke came out and said I was the hardest fight of his career.”
Mundine’s 2007 victory over Sam Soliman is regarded as one of his most dominant performances in the ring.
“He knocked him down a number of times and it was probably one of Anthony’s most impressive knockout wins, because Sam Soliman would go on to have a great career and have great wins after that,” Upham said.
In May 2009, Mundine defeated fellow Australian and Commonwealth Games gold medallist Daniel Geale for the IBF junior-middleweight crown, making him one of only a handful of boxers to win world titles descending in weight.
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