From Poverty Bay to Broadway: The Story Of Tom Heeney
Hodder Moa, $39.99,
You play rugby and a host of other sports that have a greater or lesser degree of body contact in them. But you don’t play boxing. Boxing has been called “the sweet science”. There is nothing sweet or scientific, however, except as an example of the laws of velocity, in a straight left to the bridge of the nose. The boxing trade (for it can’t really be called a sport) is one of few examples of a mainstream entertainment where the object of the exercise is to maim and possibly kill your opponent. And yet this brutal, inhuman trade has a redemptive power.
Too many former fighters end up as mumbling, shambling carcasses. A few lucky fighters, though, have their lives enriched, financially and psychologically, by their careers in the square ring. One of those lucky few was Tom Heeney, a major figure in world and New Zealand sport in the 1920s, and now remembered only by sports tragics of a certain age.
There was a time, from the late 19th century through to the 1960s, when boxing was a common aspect of the life of male New Zealanders. Boxing was taught in the schools. The trade was seen as a manly art, character-building and as a metaphorical furnace to make men of steel to serve the interests of the Empire. There was a thriving amateur boxing system. New Zealand’s first gold medal at the Olympics was won at the 1928 Games at Amsterdam by a boxer, Ted Morgan. There were regular fight nights in the town halls of major New Zealand cities. Up to the 1960s, for instance, these fight nights were presided over in Wellington by Brian O’Brien, the author of a splendid history of boxing in New Zealand, Kiwis With Gloves On (1960), with the male political, legal, business and social establishment in attendance dressed in their dinner suits to watch the contests.
From Poverty Bay To Broadway: The Story Of Tom Heeney by Lydia Monin, a New Zealander who lives in Dublin, is the biography (more a hagiography) of one of the big figures in what might be called the golden era of boxing, when world heavyweight title fights were big news throughout the English-speaking world. The Poverty Bay of the title is where Heeney was born and bred. The Broadway reference is New York’s Great White Way, where Heeney was for a short time, in June and July 1928, the toast of the town as he prepared for his challenge for the world heavyweight title against Gene Tunney, the self-made sophisticate who defeated the snarling, unshaven and uneducated Jack Dempsey.
Monin seems to have read all the documents on Heeney’s life. There is a bibliography running to nearly four pages and a useful index listing a colourful cast of characters whose life met and sometimes came into brutal contact with that of Heeney: Tex Rickard, Max Baer, Primo Carnera, Sir James Carroll, Paul Gallico and Damon Runyon. A character in one of J D Salinger’s short stories mentions Tom Heeney. Hemingway followed Heeney’s title fight on radio and wrote to Scott Fitzgerald about it. Later, Hemingway became drinking buddies with Heeney when he owned a bar in Miami.
The account of Heeney’s early life in Gisborne in the first two decades of the 20th century provides a fascinating insight into New Zealand of the time – small, tough, friendly, egalitarian, slow-paced with reasonably harmonious relations between the races, where everyone seemed to know everyone else, where even small-town men and women had a pioneering confidence and rural swagger about taking on the world at sports and trade.
This world seems sepia-steeped now in our memory. A strength of this biography is that it is recreated in vivid details. It is clear, too, that Heeney was the epitome of that dying New Zealand breed, unfortunately, of the “Man Alone” character. This breed, which can be male or female, tends to lack ostentatious PC sensibilities but practises egalitarianism rather than preaches it. The breed is pragmatic rather than ideological. It is stoic and outwardly unemotional but has a burning passion to achieve against the best or the hardest the world can offer. It is a breed that lets actions speak louder than words. A breed that is laconic in speech but courageous in the testing of its talents.
Given these characteristics it is not surprising that Heeney gave a game, battling performance against Tunney that impressed the cynical scribes at the ringside.
Tom Heeney was an apprentice plumber, a strong swimmer, and a pugnacious rugby player who was good enough to play for Hawke’s Bay/Poverty Bay against the 1921 Springboks. He was also a rising boxing champion. After he won the New Zealand and Australian heavyweight championship titles, he took off for Britain. He had mixed success there before moving to the United States. There he won and lost many fights and finally established himself as a top-ranked heavyweight by the time new world champion Gene Tunney, now married to an heiress, wanted one last fight before retiring.
He chose Heeney, nicknamed “The Hard Rock from Down Under”, for that final match. On 26 July 1928 at the Yankee Stadium in New York City, Heeney, wearing a Maori cloak given him by the widow of Sir James Carroll, was belted into submission in the 11th round of a 15-round event by the skilful, clean-hitting Tunney.
There is no list of Heeney’s fights in this account of his life, nor is there any attempt to make an argument for how good a fighter he was. Good enough to fight for the heavyweight championship against one of the greats of the trade seems to be the answer implied by the author. For the record, though: Heeney boxed on until 1933 (to recover money lost in the Depression) for a total of 69 professional bouts, 37 wins (knock outs 15), 22 losses, eight draws, one no-decision and one no-contest.
This seems to be the record of a strong journey-man who could occasionally get in some powerful punches. Preparing for his title fight, for instance, Heeney was knocked around by a light heavyweight James Braddock, who in the 1930s went on to win the heavyweight title and win the nickname of “The Cinderella Man”. Paul Gallico, after describing Heeney as an “Australian”, called his boxing style “the triumph of mediocrity, hooked to deep earnestness, rare courage and iron-shod durability.” This is probably a fair assessment.
There is a photo in the book of Heeney in the second round of his title shot planting a left hook on Tunney’s jaw. The champion is clearly knocked off balance. But by the end of the fight the gap between Heeney’s skills and those of Tunney were, according to Grantland Rice, “as wide as the gap between New York City and Gisborne, New Zealand.”
By the time Tom Heeney died on 15 June 1984, he was virtually a forgotten man of New Zealand sport history. It wasn’t until 1996 that he was inducted in the New Zealand Sporting Hall of Fame. I knew about Heeney’s achievements before reading his biography but was surprised to learn that he lived for another 58 years after his title fight.
Heeney’s rich parallel life in literature and celebrity was news to me, too. He came back to New Zealand for the last time in 1969 for Gisborne’s bicentenary. By then boxing was moving out of the mainstream of New Zealand sport. In the late 1950s, for instance, I boxed for Victoria University at a varsity tournament in Dunedin against Pat Hohepa (and lost); Bob Jones was the next fight (a winner); and the heavyweight title was won by Wilson Whineray who had travelled down from Christchurch in the late afternoon after playing in an All Black trial match.
A decade or so on, boxing was no longer part of the varsity tournament. The mantra of boxing as a character-building sport had lost its power. The ties of Empire and boxing, with heavily publicised Empire title fights, have disappeared with the Empire itself. Most importantly, other sports – rugby league, rowing, cricket and rugby particularly – have taken the place in New Zealand of boxing as a way into the comfortable affluence of the middle classes for the aspirational children (like Heeney) of the battling classes.
Tom Heeney had a splendid and successful life. His story is well-told, if somewhat in the prosaic style of his boxing, by Monin. Now for Lloyd Jones, perhaps, to re-create the Heeney legend in his elegiac prose, in the manner of The Book of Fame.
Spiro Zavos is a Sydney reviewer.