BOXERS: Dave Sands and Lionel Rose

Dave Sands and Lionel Rose are regarded amongst the greatest Australian boxers of all time.

Research By Professor John Maynard on Episode 2

Aboriginal people and access to sport in this country reveals a troubled past. Whilst across the past thirty odd years both the AFL and NRL have opened their doors to Aboriginal participation in the past it was only a very few Aboriginal players that managed to break through these very restrictive and inhospitable spaces. Boxing on the other hand was the sport where Aboriginal fighters got their chance. All the way back to Jerry Jerome and the likes of Ron Richards Aboriginal fighters were amongst the countries greatest. Amazingly over 15% of all Australian champions were calculated to be Aboriginal. When we think of great Aboriginal fighters one certainly comes to mind Dave Sands.

Dave Sands or Dave Ritchie from Burnt Bridge in Kempsey sadly never won the World Title his talent so richly deserved. He was killed in a trucking accident in 1952 before he had the opportunity of challenging for the title. At the time of his death he held three Australian titles at the same time and was the British Empire Champion. His funeral was one of the biggest ever witnessed in Newcastle with over 15,000 people lining the streets in pouring rain to pay their respects. He left a young non-Indigenous widow and three young children. Many of the sites connected with Dave Sands remain around the Newcastle area including memorials at the site of the gymnasium where he trained, the old Newcastle stadium site, a Stockton sports oval pavilion with a plaque in Dave’s honour and his headstone at Sandgate cemetery.

Dave Sands between 1951 and 1952 was unquestionably Australia’s most prominent sportsman. Labeled Newcastle’s ‘dark destroyer’ Dave was one of six brothers, all boxers. Dave was the best of the six fighting Sands brothers Clem, Ritchie, George, Dave, Alfie and Russel. Whilst being a sporting celebrity may have protected Sands from racism he would not tolerate any such behavior. During WWII whilst training at Newcastle beach he encountered three drunk white American servicemen who were taunting his younger brothers with crude, loud racial remarks. Dave Sands asked them to stop and the three GI’s continued to hurl abuse. The situation ended when Dave Sands threw three well timed punches that saw the three antagonists all knocked out. He fought one hundred times in his career losing only ten. He held the Australian middleweight, light heavyweight, heavyweight championship of Australia and the middleweight championship of the British Empire. He won the Empire Title by knocking out Dick Turpin in London in the first round. The British press were ecstatic with this ‘boxing sensation’ stating that ‘Turpin was straw before the hurricane against Sands who gave him no chance from the first punch’.

There are numerous stories and memories of Dave Sands the much-loved hero in Newcastle. Both my auntie and my mother declare that he was simply gorgeous and the best-looking man you would ever see. When Dave was walking down Hunter Street all the girls would call out ‘g’day Dave’.

His home in Stockton was a place for family and friends to stay. An interviewee states that the garage had bunk beds for people staying. But Dave would not tolerate alcohol on the premises or anyone being under the influence. No matter how early in the morning or late at night if someone had returned under the influence a light would come on at the back of the house and footsteps would be heard coming down the path. The garage door would open and Dave would step in wearing his dressing gown and carrying two sets of boxing gloves he would turn on the light and throw one set of gloves to the guilty intoxicated culprit. Tell him to put them on and when done would knock him out. Dave Sands was tragically killed in a truck accident at Dungog when out cutting timber with his brothers. Sugar Ray Robinson widely regarded by many as the greatest pound for pound fighter in history avoided fighting Dave Sands and made no secret of it. Carl Olson who Dave Sands soundly defeated twice won the vacant middleweight championship of the world beating Dick Turpin at Maddison Square Garden in 1953. Olson said after his victory “If that Australian was still alive this title would be his”.

Lionel Rose in 1968 could lay claim to being the most idiolised man in Australia. After his victory over Fighting Harada in Tokyo he was welcomed back to Melbourne by over 100,000 people a bigger crowd than welcomed the Beatles. He was crowned Australian of the Year and defended his title on three occasions and was feted by all sections of the public even meeting Elvis Presley. But Lionel like many Aboriginal success stories discovered that acceptance and adulation was only guaranteed in winning. After losing his title in 1969 his career and life would undertake a spiraling downward descent. In 1968 at the height of his fame as a twelve-year-old I had Lionel sign a copy of his book Lionel Rose – Australian at a Newcastle Department store. As a ten year old and attending fights in Melbourne Lionel Rose stated in an interview that when he grew up he wanted to be a great champion like Dave Sands. For my part I kept a scrap book of all Lionel’s fights from newspaper coverage and I used to get the boxing magazines. It was a golden period for Australian fighters Johnny Famechon won the world featherweight title and other Aboriginal boxers like Tony Mundine lost a world title fight to Carlos Monzon and Hector Thompson also lost a world title fight against ‘Hands of Stone’ Roberto Duren. Duran and Monzon are both classified as all-time great fighters.

But it was Lionel Rose who led the way to the explosion of interest in the sport and its media coverage. I can recall Lionel beating Rocky Gattellari for the Australian bantamweight championship at the Sydney Stadium. I watched that fight on an old black and white TV. Even in memory the startling feature was the fact that even Lionel coming from Melbourne and fighting Sydney based Gattellari he was the overwhelming crowd favourite. Suddenly and Aboriginal sportsman had been elevated to a dinlky-di Aussie over the import, dago Italian as the fickle white Australian crowd had labeled Gattellari. Lionel Rose completely destroyed Rocky Gattellari that night knocking him out and seeing him rushed to hospital. The following year in 1968 Lionel Rose was granted a title fight against the great Japanese world title holder Fighting Harada in Tokyo. Rose was the underdog in betting but gave a sensational performance to rest the title away from Harada and created Australian national hysteria. He returned as a boxing superstar and a national treasure. He would next defend the title against another Japanese fighter Takao Sakurai. Rose again won on points despite being knocked down early in the fight. He next defended against highly ranked Mexican fighter ChuCho Castillo at the Los Angles Forum again winning on points that resulted in a Mexican fan riot. In March 1969 Rose defeated English bantamweight Alan Rudkin over fifteen rounds in Melbourne to again retain his title. I well remember all of these fights from watching on TV. The Rudkin fight in particular sticks in my memory because for more than half of the fight Lionel Rose had been completely dominant and gave one of his greatest displays but the last four or five rounds saw Lionel hanging on and in some ways lucky to survive. Lionel Rose had for sometime been battling weight issues and had to waste a lot to get down to the bantam weight limit. It had drastically weakened him and you could see that the wasting had taken a toll. I have always felt he should have immediately vacated the bantamweight title and division and stepped up to the featherweight range. Sadly, his trainer and advisors did not give him that advice and he took another title defence against the ruthless unbeaten Mexican Ruben Olivaries. Lionel Rose was knocked out in the fifth round I recall being devastated from that fight and seeing Lionel on his knees with Olivaries standing over him. Rose had looked drawn and weary even coming into the ring.

Lionel Rose was crowned Australian of the Year, receive an MBE and had a hit record with ‘I thank you’. He fought again for a world title against Yoshiaki Numata in 1971 but was beaten in a fifteen round decision. The backslapping brigade stepped away from Lionel after his boxing career and he endured personal hardship before his death in 2011.