To succeed in sport requires large measures of grit, determination, belief, and talent. Socioeconomic status and ethnicity are often less of a barrier to reaching the highest echelons in the sporting sphere, and sports have consistently recognised First Nations people’s talents in ways that other spaces have not. First Nations athletes have been conquering the world sporting stage since early colonisation.
Many Aboriginal families have a story of a male family member fighting as a part of a travelling boxing troupe. These troupes gained popularity as early as 1910 and flourished up to the 1970s, a popular form of mass entertainment in an era without television. Boxing was one of the few ways that Aboriginal men could earn a living wage outside of hard labour and many families are proud of their grandfathers, fathers, brothers and uncles who became boxing legends. Boxing historian Bert Cox helps us to remember this era through his avid collecting of articles, programs, statistics and photographs — much of which are now kept in the Library.
One of the best-known boxing families was the Sands Brothers. Dunghutti brothers Clement, Percival, George, David, Alfred and Russell, known as the Fighting Sands, were from Burnt Bridge outside of Kempsey. Between the six of them they won state, national and Empire/Commonwealth titles.
By far the most successful brother — and the most famous — was Dave. Fast on his feet, with a renowned left hook and the ability to land blows and defend himself from heavy assaults, during the 1940s he won middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight titles — often all three in the same year. Soon after World War II he was fighting in front of enthusiastic crowds of up to 10,000 people in Sydney and Brisbane. Overseas, he was victorious in heavily promoted fights in Britain and the United States.
Sadly, Dave Sands died in 1952 when he was only 26 in a truck accident near Dungog. At the time he was ranked number 3 in the world. He won an extraordinary 97 of his 110 professional fights during his boxing career. Because it was widely accepted that he would have won the world championship had he lived, he was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998.
In May 2022, Sands’s family were presented with a replica belt in recognition of the achievements of this boxing champion at NSW Parliament House.
The promotional photo from Bert’s collection illustrates Dave’s generous nature as he signed ‘Best luck Bert from Dave Sands’.
These are just some of the First Nations sporting heroes and memorabilia in our collection, which covers many sports, not just boxing. To view these materials or learn more about how to access the Library collections you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org and ask to yarn with our Koori collection specialists.
Finally, the Library has an upcoming First Nations exhibition to celebrate 50 years of Koori Knockout, opening in September 2022. We’re looking for stories, objects, images and memorabilia to borrow for the display. Have you got a jersey in the back of the cupboard? A box of photos? T-shirts? Posters? Club documents? A trophy under your bed? We’d love to hear from you! Please get in touch with us at:
Melissa Jackson (Bundjalung) and Kerry-Ann Tape (Ngiyampaa), Indigenous Engagement.
Thanks to Chad Ritchie for his insights into Dave Sands, his grandfather.
This story appears in Openbook winter 2022.