Pipe Bands To Title Fights

In August 1908, Sydney was a hive of activity and excitement. On August 20, the US Navy steamed into Sydney Harbour. Dockside crowds gave the visiting US sailors an enthusiastic welcome and thousands more lined the streets to watch the crews take part in a welcoming parade. That night, the stadium opened its doors to its first audience, for a performance by the Scottish pipe band, “The Kilties.”

Adding to the excitement was the fact, that in four days time, Sydney would stage its first world heavyweight title fight. The Burns - Squires fight, however, was not the first fight to be held at the stadium. That honor fell to two North Sydney brothers, Harry and Charlie Raff. The fight was a preliminary to the main bout between Sid Russell and Peter Felix, for the NSW heavyweight championship.

Harry and Charlie were both popular lightweights and arguments raged over who was the better boxer. At the special request of fight fans, McIntosh agreed to stage a six rounds fight between the two. He stipulated that he would not allow a points decision to be made., and that any bets on the result would be decided by a majority newspaper decision. At 3pm on Friday August 20, Harry and Charlie Raff came out of their corners and began an era that would last for sixty two years. The assembled journalists made Harry an unanimous winner.

The main event was scheduled for 4pm. To help promote the forthcoming world title fight, McIntosh engaged Tommy Burns as referee. A large crowd looked forward to an exciting bout between the two well-known heavyweights.

Felix (photo) aged 42, was a veteran boxer who had been fighting for fourteen years. Born in 1866 on the West Indian island of St Croix, Felix stood 6’ 3” and weighed 12½ stones (79½ kg). In 1899 he became Australian heavyweight champion by beating Bill Doherty in seven rounds. During the course of his career he fought most of the top Australian heavyweights of the time.

His biggest moment came in February 1907. Jack Johnson had arrived in Australia with the intention of fighting Bill Squires. However, Squires had made his way to America in pursuit of Tommy Burns and Felix stepped into the breach instead. The fight took place at the Gaiety Athletic Club in Castlereagh Street and was billed as “The Colored Heavyweight Championship of The World.” Johnson demolished Felix in less than a round, having sent the unfortunate challenger to the boards three times.

The 23 year old Russell was considered a valuable standby in the days of the Gaiety Athletic Club and National Sporting club. Russell had earned a shot at

the state title by virtue of wins over leading heavyweights of the day, such as Jim Griffin and Billy McCall.

The fight was scheduled for twenty rounds and the much younger Russell was declared the winner on points. The first title fight fought at the Stadium had been decided.

Less than 18 months after beating Felix, Russell would be dead. He went to England and France, and became popular amongst fight crowds. It was in France, that a promising career, was cut tragically short. In Paris, Russell contracted cerebral meningitis and died in 1910 aged only 25.

Felix won only one more fight after his encounter with Russell and retired in 1909. In 1915 at the age of 49, he made a comeback at Broken Hill. He was knocked out in two rounds by Bill Turner and never fought again. In 1926, aged 60, he died of heart failure at his home in Sydney’s Palmer Street.

“The Burns Boom Is On,” declared the newspaper ads, and it certainly was. Within a few days of going on sale at Paling & Co’s Music Warehouse in George Street, almost half the tickets had been sold. Demand for tickets was also heavy in Newcastle, Melbourne and even Auckland. Reserved seating cost £5, £3, £2 and £1, whilst a limited number of unreserved seats were available at 10 shillings.

Hugh D. McIntosh, Governing Director of Scientific Boxing and Self Defence and Managing Director of Sports And Amusements Ltd, had found another money spinner. From his office in Challis House, Martin Place, he planned a campaign that made Tommy Burns and Bill Squires household names, even amongst those who were not sports minded. Twenty thousand people would pay to see his “two man show.”

Copyright Mike Hitchen, Lane Cove, NSW, Australia. All rights reserved