Following the publication of details of my victory over Costello and the issuing of my challenge to Sullivan, I came in for the greatest "hero-worship" it was ever my privilege to on joy in Australia. The fans there looked up to me as the man who would bring the Commonwealth the championship of the world. One firm of hatters in Sydney were so enthusiastic over my success that they created a "Slavin" hat, which had a tremendous sale. It was much like a "bell-topper," with a slightly lower crown and wider brim. All the sports were wearing them. "Hero-worship" may have some advantages, but fighting was my game and I was anxious for more of it. I was young, strong, and ambitions, but I could find no opponents for championship matches. The best I could do was to stage exhibitions, and agree to knock out some village beauty in four rounds. One morning a cablegram was handed to me. It was from Bill Riley, of Wellington, New Zealand, and read as follows:
"Offer you two hundred pounds to meet Harry Lang, heavyweight champion of New Zealand: also return transportation and training expenses."
The cable found me in a receptive mood. I had never heard of Lang and knew little of New Zealand, but here was a chance to fight, so I cabled accepting at once. I have always felt gratified for that opportunity to visit New Zealand. I found it to be one of the greatest sporting countries under the sun. I actually discovered crowds that, were prepared to "let the best man win." They gave no thought to the ambition in many countries of "win at any price."
I received a royal welcome on my arrival in Wellington. Everyone was keenly interested in the man who had come to meet their Harry Lang, who had built up a great reputation for himself. No man had ever stood before Lang for more than a round. I was told that he nearly broke men in two with his punches. Details of the fight were quickly adjusted, save one, the scene of combat. Lang was not present, but his representatives were determined to have the fight in Wanganui, the centre of the Maori population.
"Why in Wanganui, when you have such n good crowd to draw from in Wellington?-" I asked.
It was then that I was informed that Lang was a Maori. It was somewhat of a surprise to me.
"Well,if you're sportsmen, lets toss for it," I offered.
"All right" responded Lang's spokesman.
Riley tossed the coin. I called and lost.
"All right, boys," remarked Riley. "You fight in Wanganui on April 16. 1888, to a finish.
In those days we tossed a coin to solve many of our differences. If we reached a deadlock we did not throw the fight overboard but threw a coin in the air. I often think that there was a great deal more sportsmanship in the ring in Australia in those days than is the experience throughout the world to-day. Champions fought at all times and did not take their personal friends around as referees and demand King's ransoms as purses. The date of our fight had been set to coincide with the land sale conducted by the New Zealand Government at Wanganui on behalf of the Maori. This meant that thousands of natives would be down the river and, with whites from various parts of the country, would provide a very attractive "gate."
The ring was pitched on the turf inside the race track of the Fair Grounds. I was the first to enter the ring and, as I looked about, I had a queer feeling inside. It was the oddest crowd I had ever fought before. Squatting on mats were between three and four thousand Maoris with brown faces and flashing eyes and teeth. Intermingled with the Maoris were many whites, which made the scene resemble a gigantic checkerboard. My wandering thoughts were quickly checked by a thunderous cheer which broke out. I sought the cause of it and saw Lang and his seconds wending their way through one of the lanes between the people. I watched attentively, as this was my first glimpse of my opponent. As he stripped off his sweater his wonderful shoulders were turned to me. I speculated on their punching power and could well believe the stories I had heard. Lang was certainly a beautiful figure, far more pleasing to the eye than myself. At my best I was rangy and spare of flesh. To conceal my inward felling I crossed over to Lang's corner.
"First time I've had a chance to shake," I said, offering my hand. "Here's the best of luck, but I don't fancy your chances this afternoon."
"Thanks," he replied in a soft voice.
"Here's a hundred pounds to say I win," I challenged.
"I'll take fifty," answered Lang.
"And I'll take the other fifty," flashed a Maori prince in a ringside seat.
There was a wild chattering and clapping of hands as Lang and I met in the centre of the ring in the first round. We lashed at each other, and, while Lang had plenty of hitting power, he did not know how to use it properly. For three rounds we waded into each other, and the crowd relished the milling. They gave us a big hand as we went to our corners at the end of the third round. In the fourth I broke through for several hard body blows then crossed Lang with a short-arm punch that caught him flush on the point of the jaw. He dropped to the turf and was counted out.
Alter I had helped Lang to his corner. Riley entered the ring and announced to the crowd that I was going off i quest of the world's championship. This was a signal for a rush towards the ropes. Everyone wanted to wish me success. I shook hands with the whites and rubbed noses with the Maoris until my nose was as tender as a boil and twice its natural size. Maori princes and princesses took their turn in rubbing proboscis along with the common folks. The Maoris staged their picturesque dances and their weird shouting went on far into the night. The next morning they paddled away in their great war canoes, while I signed a contract for a tour of the principal cities in New Zealand. On my return to Melbourne I was greeted with the announcement that the Irish lad, Jack Burke, had arrived there and was seeking to devour the best in Australia. His claim to fame was that he was the only man who had stayed five rounds with Sullivan up to that time. A match with Burke appeared a logical one for me. If I could beat him my backers felt sure that I was entitled to a match with Sullivan. Arrangements were made for an eight-round bout between Burke and myself at the Hibernian Hall, Melbourne, on August 17, 1888. The hall had a seating capacity of 2,000. After the bout was arranged word was received that the Marquis of Queensberry, the man who introduced the rules which supplanted the London prize ring, would be in Melbourne on a world tour. He was invited to be the honorary referee, and accepted with much pleasure. The fact that the Marquis would be in attendance and that the fight would undoubtedly prove one of the most spectacular ever held in Melbourne, stirred up intense interest. Ten thousand people clamored at the doors when they opened, but only one-fifth of their number were admitted. Near riots developed outside and the doors had to be closed. The disappointed fans were still milling about the doors when the Marquis of Queensberry and his party reached the hall. The officials refused to open the doors for fear of a stampede. Joe Thompson, the referee, came forward with a bright suggestion which solved an awkward situation.
"Let's use the skylight," suggested Joe. A long ladder was obtained from the fire department and the party climbed to the roof. On e by one the party were lowered into the hall by means of a rope. The unique means of entry greatly tickled the audience. The Marquis, in his dress suit, took the situation in good part, and laughed at the crowd as he was eased gently down to the floor.
When the Marquis recovered from his experience he took his seat at the ringside and felt for his watch, worth one hundred guineas.
It was gone!
Some member of the light-fingered gentry had relieved His Lordship of his time-piece during the jam outside. But, true sportsman that he was, he worried little about the loss. Officials, however, were greatly perturbed that such a thing should happen in the city of Melbourne. Immediately an appeal was broadcast to the successful pickpocket to prove himself a "sportsman" and return the watch to the greatest figure in the history of boxing. The watch was returned.
Owing to the fact that Jack Burke came with a great reputation, my backer, John Daugherty, refused to bet on any other grounds than that I would be on my feet at the end of the eight rounds. Burke turned out to be one of those dancing men, whom I always had trouble in stopping. For six rounds I chased him all over the ring without landing many telling punches. In the last two rounds I took two punches on the jaw just to see what Burke had, and when I found that they were not heavy I kept boxing in. In the eighth round I crossed my right to his chin and he dropped, but was up at the count of six. He rushed into a clinch but I shook him off and was measuring him for a right to the pit of the stomach when the going sounded. We gathered in the office of The Melbourne Sportsman the next day and I offered to meet Burke again and stop him in four rounds. Burke became surly and wanted to fight me there, but his backers pulled him off. Burke published a challenge the next day for a bare-knuckle fight with me. I accepted it once and added that I would make an additional bet of £200 that I would stop him inside of four rounds. Finally a return fight was arranged but we agreed to fight with five-ounce gloves and a percentage of the "gate." My representative, Mr. Turner, of The Sportsman, and "Mick" Nathan, representing Burke, were instructed to pick out the gloves and initial them. The gloves were bought and Turner turned them over to Nathan to look after. Excitement was ace high for the contest and the Hibernian Hall was filled at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, although the preliminaries did not start until 8:30.
After Burke and I entered the ring the gloves were tossed in and I was startled. They were regular pillows. I protested. Nathan said that the gloves were only five ounces, and showed Turner's initial on them. Turner, who was near-sighted, admitted the initials, but thought the gloves looked bigger than the ones he had bought. I tried on the gloves but could not clench my fists. I refused to fight with them and offered a pair of my own, but Burke shouted out, "New gloves or none."
"All right, none," I fired back. "Bare fists suit me."
We argued for an hour and the spectators were wild over the delay. In order to save the game receiving a black eye by the calling off of the bout I agreed to fight provided all bets were called off. By the time we finally got into action I was so furious that I decided that, if possible, I would cut Burke to ribbons. In the first round I hit him a score of blows and both gloves burst. Long straps and heavy wool which had been placed in them by a saddle maker came out from beneath the leather and these cut Burke as I landed.
"Better change gloves," my seconds advised during the interval.
"No, it'll soon be over," I hissed.
In the second round I made a target of Burke's face and marked him with every blow. Just before the bell I whipped over my right and it caught him on "button." He was knocked out cold.
"No use wasting time in Australia," Daugherty told me after the fight. "You'd better make arrangements to leave for England and then cross over to the States and try to get a match with Sullivan."
The Register (Adelaide, South Australia), March 18, 1926.