Boxing is a combat sport in which two people punch each other according to a set of rules, overseen by a referee. The match (a ‘bout’) takes place in a square roped-off ring. It is divided into rounds and the winner is decided either through accumulated points, disqualification or a knock-out (a strike which renders a boxer unable to fight). There are different age and weight categories. Boxing is also divided into separate professional (money-earning) and amateur categories.
Boxing is more dangerous than most sports because it is based on physical violence. New Zealand boxers have died as a direct result of being punched during boxing matches. The New Zealand Medical Association has called for the abolition of boxing.
The police tried to stop the 1862 fight between Harry Jones and George Barton but were prevented from doing so by a large and enthusiastic crowd, who were determined to see the match go ahead. The police considered it to be illegal and a breach of public peace. The Canterbury provincial solicitor and other government officials were present at the match as spectators, which some did not approve of. The two fighters were convicted of assault.
The first recorded organised boxing match in New Zealand took place in 1862 on the banks of the Waimakariri River in Canterbury. Harry Jones, a London prizefighter (someone who fights for money), beat local man George Barton and won £100 (almost $11,000 in 2012 terms). The fight was bare-fisted.
The arrival of two British boxers in New Zealand placed boxing on a more organised footing and paved the way for New Zealand professional boxers.
Irishman Jack Stagpoole organised boxing matches throughout New Zealand between 1870 and 1880. English champion Jem Mace came to New Zealand in 1880. He set up a boxing school in Timaru and held the first New Zealand boxing championships there in 1880.
Marquess of Queensberry rules
The Marquess of Queensberry rules are a boxing code, first published in 1867. The rules were drawn up by Englishman John Chambers under the patronage of John Douglas, the Marquess of Queensberry. The 12 rules, which were the first to mention wearing gloves, were designed to give order to boxing and make it a recognised sport which was played according to a set of rules, rather than a free-for-all. The rules are applied to both professional and amateur bouts.
Timaru blacksmith Bob Fitzsimmons, who immigrated to New Zealand from England in 1873, entered Mace’s 1880 tournament. Fitzsimmons won the title and successfully defended it the following year. He then became a professional boxer and fought for years in Australia before moving to the United States in 1890, where he won world titles in the middleweight, heavyweight and light-heavyweight divisions. He was the first boxer to win world titles at three weights.
Other 19th-century boxers
Māori boxer Herbert Slade also fought in Mace’s 1880 tournament. Mace took Slade to the US, where he unsuccessfully fought the American heavyweight boxer John L. Sullivan before a 130,000-strong crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 1883. Aucklander Billy Murphy won the world featherweight title in the US in 1890 and remains the only New Zealand-born boxer to win a major professional world title.
The Criminal Code Act 1893 outlawed prizefighting, so boxing for money was technically illegal until 1904, when the Police Offences Act was amended to allow for police approval of organised professional matches. The first match under this regime took place in 1905. In the 2000s boxing was regulated under the Boxing and Wrestling Act 1981.
Tom Heeney and Morris Strickland
Since the days of Bob Fitzsimmons, New Zealand professional boxers have struggled internationally, though some forged professional careers in New Zealand and Australia. There have been exceptions. Gisborne plumber Tom Heeney turned professional in 1920 and fought some of the best world heavyweights of his era. In the US in 1928, he unsuccessfully fought world champion Gene Tunney for the world heavyweight title.
Morris Strickland turned professional after winning the New Zealand heavyweight title in 1932. He was in the top 10 of the world professional heavyweight rankings in the late 1930s.
In 1969 Morris Strickland was asked if he would be a professional boxer if he had his time again. His answer was emphatic: ‘No, and I wouldn’t advise anybody else to do it either. It’s not worth it. The chances of getting big money are quite remote and the chances of getting injured are high. All medical men know punches are bad for you.’1
After Strickland, the next New Zealander to attract international attention was Samoan-born Jimmy Thunder (previously known as Jimmy Peau), who held two minor versions of the world heavyweight title in the early 1990s. Samoan-born David Tua emerged in the 1990s and beat a succession of top boxers to earn a world heavyweight title shot against American Lennox Lewis in 2000. He lost on points in 12 rounds. Auckland-born Samoan Joseph Parker held the WBO heavyweight title from 2016 to 2018. Brazilian-born New Zealand citizen Geovana Perez won the new WBO women’s light heavyweight title in a bout with Northlander Lani Daniels in 2019.
The 1920s and early 1930s were boxing’s heyday as a spectator sport in New Zealand. In 1930 almost 18,000 people watched a bout in Wellington between Waitara boxer Tommy Donovan and Pete Sarron of the United States. This attendance figure at a boxing match has never been equalled. Boxing remained popular after the Second World War, with major bouts attracting crowds of over 10,000 in the 1950s and 1960s. Crowds were much smaller in the early 2000s.
New Zealanders could also tune in to fights overseas via radio and then television – American boxers Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier were major drawcards in the 1960s and 1970s.