Harry Johns' Boxing Troupe

From the late 1920s to the 1960s, a troupe of selected fighters led by trainer and promoter Harry Johns, toured agricultural shows across eastern Australia.

By Australian Sports Museum

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences are warned that the following exhibit may contain images and voices of people who have died.

Banner, "Harry Johns' Gladiators of the Ring" - Elley Bennett and Cecil Shoomaker, 1949Australian Sports Museum

Tent Boxing

By the turn of the 20th Century, mobile boxing troupes had become a familiar sight at agricultural shows in Australia. Previously bare-knuckle boxing had been a popular, albeit illegal, sport in Australia. But with the adoption of the Queensberry Rules in the 1880s came gloved contests and boxing legislation, which opened the doors of opportunity to both boxers and promoters. Mobile tents, such as those run by Harry Johns and Jimmy Sharman, became an important part of the Australian boxing story.

Banner, "Harry Johns Sponsored These Champions"Australian Sports Museum

The boxing troupes of the era followed the annual calendar of seasonal agricultural shows, carnivals and rodeos - travelling from southern Australia in the summer, all the way to northern Queensland in the winter, and back again.

The colourful tents and the promoters’ showmanship were part of the main attraction, and the troupes who were highly sought after sometimes put on upwards of 100 shows per season.

Banner, "Harry Johns Sponsored These Champions"Australian Sports Museum

Harry Johns

Harry Johns, born c.1880, entered the Australian boxing circuit around 1914, and by 1915 had become a well known boxer and featherweight of Bendigo. Following his retirement in 1918, Johns became a trainer, and in 1928 launched the famous Harry Johns’ Troupe, which toured the show circuit in the eastern states of Australia until at least 1959.

Banner, "Harry Johns Sponsored These Champions" Banner, "Harry Johns Sponsored These Champions" (1935)Australian Sports Museum

The Fighting Troupes

The tent boxing fights tended to be theatrical affairs. Local amateurs were encouraged to match their skills in the ring against troupe fighters and would sometimes be invited to join the troupe if they put on a good show. The tents themselves were adorned with banners which promoted the fighters or provided blow-by-blow details of previous fights, particularly big-city fights or title bouts which Johns had a hand in promoting.

Banner, "Harry Johns Sponsored These Champions"Australian Sports Museum

Johns often toured international fighters, particularly from the United States, to add a cosmopolitan flair to the tent boxing scene. These included fighters like Gunboat Jack and “The Alabama Kid”, Clarence Reeves.

Banner, "Harry Johns Sponsored These Champions"Australian Sports Museum

Reeves became something of a celebrity fighter following his narrow 1938 loss to Australian middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight champion, Ron Richards.

Richards himself had entered professional boxing through the tents on his way to fame, fortune and an Empire title.

Banner, "Harry Johns Sponsored These Champions"Australian Sports Museum

The tents provided opportunities for fighters at various stages of their careers, providing both a pathway to professional boxing for younger men and regular bouts for older fighters.

Billy Grime held the Empire heavyweight title and was an Australian triple-title holder.

Banner, "Harry Johns Sponsored These Champions"Australian Sports Museum

Mickey Miller was the Australian featherweight champion in the 1930s.

Both Miller and Grime were inducted into the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame.

Banner, "Harry Johns' Stars of Glovedom" - Pierre Montane and Jack Hassin, 1935 (1935)Australian Sports Museum

Travelling boxing troupes also created opportunities for Aboriginal boxers to earn a living and travel the country. Around one quarter of the fighters who travelled with the Harry Johns’ Troupe were Aboriginal men. For some, boxing troupes were their pathway towards becoming professional fighters.

Jack Hassen (depicted on the right and misspelled "Hassin" on this banner) was an Aboriginal fighter who won the Australian Lightweight Championship in 1949. Hassen won the vacant title in a fight against Jack Kemp, who died after the fight from the injuries he sustained.

Hassen was deeply affected by Kemp's death and retired from boxing in 1951. He became active in union politics with the Waterside Workers' Federation and, with trade unions, fought for the end of the exploitation of fighters and boxers.

Banner, "Harry Johns' Gladiators of the Ring" - Elley Bennett and Cecil Shoomaker, 1949 Banner, "Harry Johns' Gladiators of the Ring" - Elley Bennett and Cecil Shoomaker, 1949 (1949)Australian Sports Museum

Elley Bennett was champion in both the bantamweight and featherweight divisions. He knocked out the world bantamweight title contender Cecil Schoomaker in 1949 and became a dual Australian title holder when he knocked out Ray Coleman in 1951.

Bennett retired from the ring in 1954 while retaining his Australian featherweight title. He was never afforded the opportunity to fight for a world title, though many considered him a worthy challenger. In 1969 he became a founding member of the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation.

Banner, "Harry Johns - The Famous Fighting Sands Brothers" Banner, "Harry Johns - The Famous Fighting Sands Brothers" (1935)Australian Sports Museum

Known as the Famous Fighting Sands Brothers, Clem, Percy, George, Dave, Alfie and Russell Ritchie, were all respected fighters in their own rights. The six brothers fought 607 bouts between them, winning by knockout one-third of the time.

Banner, "Harry Johns - The Famous Fighting Sands Brothers"Australian Sports Museum

Clem Sands held the New South Wales welterweight title from 1947 to 1951.

Banner, "Harry Johns - The Famous Fighting Sands Brothers"Australian Sports Museum

His brother Alfie was New South Wales middleweight champion from 1952 to 1954.

Banner, "Harry Johns - The Famous Fighting Sands Brothers"Australian Sports Museum

The most highly regarded of the Sands Brothers was Dave, who held numerous national and international titles during his career.

Upon his induction into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998, Dave Sands was recognised as one of the greatest ever boxers in the world to never hold a world title.

Banner, "Harry Johns' Champions on Parade" - Dave Sands and Dick Turpin, 1949 (1949)Australian Sports Museum

Dave Sands held the Australian middleweight and light heavyweight titles in 1946 and traveled to England to take the Empire middleweight title in 1949. His title fight against Dick Turpin was a clinical demolition that ended in a first-round knockout. He became Australian heavyweight champion in 1950.

Dave fought bouts against quality fighters and was ranked number three in the world. He sought to challenge ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson for the world title but never had the opportunity before his untimely death in a truck accident in New South Wales at the age of 26.

Banner, "Harry Johns' Gladiators of the Ring" - Elley Bennett and Cecil Shoomaker, 1949Australian Sports Museum

The Legacy

Harry Johns was remembered as a fierce individualist and hard-nosed boxing promoter. He earned respect for his business acumen and for operating a successful tent show for more than 30 years. Today the legacy of tent boxing is seen as an important part of the story of Australian fighting, particularly for its role in fostering and supporting Aboriginal fighters to achieve fame and glory at a time of profound discrimination.

Credits: Story

Harry Johns' Boxing and Wrestling Troupe, University of Melbourne Archives, 2014
Harry Johns’ boxing truck, Museums Victoria https://museumsvictoria.com.au/treasures/collDetails.aspx?pid=16
Theatres of power: Tent boxing circa 1910—1970, Richard Broome, ANU Press, 1980 - http://press-files.anu.edu.au/downloads/press/p72561/pdf/article0114.pdf
A Man of All Tribes: The Life of Alick Jackomos, Richard Broome, Corinne Manning, Aboriginal Studies Press. https://books.google.com.au/books?id=bt18AwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Boxing in Australia, Grantlee Kieza, National Library of Australia, https://books.google.com.au/books?id=jVWiCgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false
Looking back at the life and times of Aboriginal boxers of yesteryear, Luke Pearson, NITV https://www.sbs.com.au/nitv/article/2017/02/03/looking-back-life-and-times-aboriginal-boxers-yesteryear
Gentleman Jack Hassen Tribute, The Sweet Science podcast https://archive.org/details/GentlemanJackHassenTribute
The Alabama Kid KOs Australia – Boxing.com http://www.boxing.com/the_alabama_kid_kos_australia.html

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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