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Boxing and wrestling

by Joseph Romanos

Boxing matches have been held in New Zealand since the 1860s, and Timaru blacksmith Bob Fitzsimmons won world titles in the 1890s. Recent boxing stars have included David Tua and Joseph Parker, and since the 1990s women have also taken part – sometimes controversially. Professional wrestling matches are often highly choreographed performances.


Professional boxing

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.

Crowd control

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.

First match

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.

British influence

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.

Bob Fitzsimmons

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.

Legal status

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.

Honest answer

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

Recent stars

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.

Spectators

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.

Footnotes
    • Quoted in Joseph Romanos, ed., I’m absolutely buggered: more great New Zealand sports quotes. Auckland: Moa Beckett, 1994. Back

Amateur boxing

Amateur boxers are not paid but do enter competitions. Amateur boxing is administered by Boxing New Zealand, which was founded in 1902 as the New Zealand Boxing Association.

Competitions

The annual national boxing championships run by Boxing New Zealand were first held in Christchurch in 1902. Until 1924 the winner and runner-up from separate North and South island championships were sent to the national championship. From 1924 each local boxing association sent representatives.

In addition to the national championships, amateur boxers have fought in local bouts and travelled to bouts in other parts of New Zealand and in Australia. From the 1970s New Zealand amateur boxers began travelling overseas more regularly and fighting foreign boxers on New Zealand turf. The new jumbo jets made air travel cheaper, and local associations increasingly cultivated international relationships.

In 2012 there were 45 New Zealand-based events on the Boxing New Zealand calendar.

Clubs and gymnasiums

Local boxing associations – clubs – affiliated to the national association were started in the early 1900s. Boxing lessons and bouts were also provided by private gymnasiums and YMCAs. In 2012 there were 27 local amateur associations, comprising 108 clubs, affiliated to Boxing New Zealand.

Poet-boxer

Poet Denis Glover was a keen boxer. He was introduced to the sport at high school and belonged to the Canterbury University College boxing club. Glover wrote in his autobiography: ‘In the [school] boxing championship I found myself up against a redoubtable fist-merchant. He had real boxing boots … [and] was reputed to drink an occasional glass of beer behind the matron’s back and also to smoke cigarettes … I fought him in the school championships and everybody was demanding my massacre: it would serve me right for being in the Sixth and for being different. He won.’1

Schools and universities

Boxing started in schools and universities in the early 1900s. It was part of the school sporting curriculum for boys. All universities had boxing clubs and held tournaments, and boxing was a competitive sport at the annual inter-university tournament. By the early 1960s university boxing had waned in popularity, though in the early 2000s some university gyms offered boxing classes. Boxing was no longer available in schools, though some school pupils belonged to boxing clubs and gyms and competed for national junior titles.

Armed forces

During the First and Second world wars, professional competitions ceased and amateurs and professionals were allowed to fight together. Boxing matches between members of the different Allied armed forces were organised, as were New Zealand bouts. New Zealand won British Army boxing titles in the First World War. During the Second World War, New Zealanders fought Australians in Egypt, and US marines when they were stationed in New Zealand between 1942 and 1944.

Weighty problems

During the sea voyage to the 1928 Olympic Games in Amsterdam, Ted Morgan put on weight and had to move up to welterweight from his usual lightweight division. He also dislocated his knuckle while training in England before the games. Despite these challenges, Morgan went on to win gold and was described by one journalist as ‘the best boxer among the British Empire contingent’.2

Olympic and Commonwealth games

Boxing became an Olympic sport in 1904. Women’s boxing was included in the Olympics for the first time in 2012, with two participants attending from New Zealand.

Charlie Purdy was the first boxer to represent New Zealand at the Olympic Games, in 1924. New Zealand’s most successful Olympic boxer was Ted Morgan, who won the welterweight gold medal at the 1928 games. Other Olympic medallists were Kevin Barry, who won the light-heavyweight silver medal in 1984, and David Tua, who won the heavyweight bronze medal in 1992. Auckland boxer Paea Wolfgramm, fighting for Tonga, won a super-heavyweight silver medal in 1996.

New Zealand boxers who won Commonwealth (previously Empire) Games gold medals were Frank Creagh (heavyweight, 1950), Wally Coe (welterweight, 1962), Bill Kini (heavyweight, 1966), Jimmy Peau (heavyweight, 1986), Michael Kenny (super-heavyweight, 1990) and David Nyika (light heavyweight, 2014; heavyweight, 2018).

Women can do anything

Critics of boxing who condemn the sport for its violence have not applauded the advent of women boxers, some arguing that boxing is too dangerous for women to engage in. Unsurprisingly, women boxers do not share this view. In 2012 Auckland boxer Alexis Pritchard said ‘Look at the opposition there was to women running the marathon. It's the same kind of thing. Women can do anything. It's just that old school mentality.’3

Participation

According to the 2007/8 Active New Zealand Survey, 2.6% of New Zealand adults (84,000 people) boxed at least once over a 12-month period (including people who boxed in gyms).

Boxing was an exclusively male sport until the 1990s. The first women’s national title bouts were held in 1997.

Footnotes

Wrestling

Wrestling is a combat sport in which participants grapple with one another in a square ring, overseen by a referee. Wrestling has always been a mixture of entertainment and athleticism, with some matches a demonstration of orthodox, genuinely competitive wrestling and others a choreographed performance. Wrestlers can be amateurs or professionals.

Showmanship

Professional wrestling has long had a hefty element of performance to it. In 1931 the president of the Dominion Wrestling Union said, in reference to criticisms about wrestling and violence, that ‘it is true that at times some of the bouts have been a bit rough, at any rate in the eyes of New Zealanders, but there are many of us, of course, who realise that a good deal of this so-called “rough-house” wrestling is mere showmanship, and is practised by the participants for the purpose of adding a little more interest to the proceedings.’1

Early days

Informal wrestling matches occurred in the 19th century, and more organised bouts took place at Caledonian sports days and other athletic events.

The first professional wrestler of note to visit New Zealand was Estonian Georg Hackenschmidt, who toured in 1905 and 1910. Māori wrestler Ihakara Robin (known as Ike Robin) became a local sports figure and wrestled one-time world champion Stanislaus Zbyszko three times in Auckland in 1926.

Administration

The New Zealand Wrestling Union was formed in 1930 to administer wrestling, and its first national championship took place in 1931. The union’s rules applied to both amateurs and professionals until 1965, when the wholly amateur New Zealand Olympic Wrestling Union (now Wrestling New Zealand) was formed.

Promotion

The Dominion Wrestling Union was founded in 1929 to promote professional wrestling and brought numerous international wrestlers over to New Zealand.

Wrestler Steve Rickard ran the Dominion Wrestling Union before replacing it with a new promotional organisation, All Star Pro Wrestling, in 1962. Another leading promoter and former professional wrestler was John da Silva of the Central Wrestling Association.

Professional promoters active in the early 2000s were Kiwi Pro Wrestling, New Zealand Wide Pro Wrestling and Impact Pro Wrestling.

Money earner

During the economic depression of the 1930s, people continued to pay to attend wrestling. In 1930 gate takings by the New Zealand Wrestling Union were £10,744 and this rose to £19,259 (almost $1.9 million in 2012 terms) the following year.

Boom times

Wrestling boomed in the 1930s. New Zealander Lofty Blomfield was one of many high-profile professional wrestlers, including foreign visitors, who thrilled local fans. Huge crowds packed town halls to watch the bouts and more listened via radio. The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 curtailed wrestling events.

Professional wrestling’s stocks rose again in the 1950s, which coincided with the emergence of Wellingtonian Pat O’Connor. A silver medallist at the 1950 Empire Games, O’Connor based himself in the United States, where he was a world professional champion from 1959 to 1961.

Wrestling reached a wider audience through radio, and particularly television. Promoter Steve Rickard masterminded the popular television show On the mat, which showcased New Zealand and international wrestling stars from 1975 to 1983.

Decline

Professional wrestling declined in popularity in the 1980s, though New Zealand teams who had found fame overseas, such as The Bushwhackers, continued to attract good audiences. New promotional organisations were started, but most were regionally based and had a limited following.

Amateur wrestling

Amateur wrestling is a minor sport in New Zealand. In 2012 there were 16 wrestling clubs affiliated to Wrestling New Zealand.

National amateur wrestling championships have been held since 1931. Women’s amateur wrestling was introduced at national championship level in 1991. Most amateur wrestlers in New Zealand are freestyle wrestlers, the other main form being Greco-Roman. In freestyle wrestling, wrestlers can use all parts of their body against their opponent’s entire body; in Greco-Roman wrestling only the arms and upper body of both wrestlers are involved.

New Zealand’s most successful amateur wrestlers have included Doug Mudgway, John Armitt and Dave Aspin, who were all Commonwealth Games gold medallists.

One of the most noted New Zealand trainers was former Estonian Olympic representative Anton Koolman, who ran a gym in Wellington and produced a succession of national champions from the late 1920s to the early 1950s.

Footnotes
    • Evening Post, 23 June 1931, p. 4. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources


How to cite this page: Joseph Romanos, 'Boxing and wrestling', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/boxing-and-wrestling/print (accessed 8 December 2019)

Story by Joseph Romanos, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 1 Jan 2015