The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Boxing / Young Stribling in the Land of the Southern Cross

Young Stribling in the Land of the Southern Cross

King of the Canebrakes
Young Stribling and his family.

After losing his Australian middleweight title in March 1932, 20-year-old Australian heavyweight champion Ambrose Palmer attempted to bounce back with victories over a pair of foreign heavyweights. His first opponent, New Zealand heavyweight champion Alan Campbell at Sydney Stadium on May 2nd, was said to be New Zealand’s best heavyweight since Tom Heeney, who had unsuccessfully challenged Gene Tunney for the World Heavyweight Championship in 1928.

Palmer bludgeoned Campbell into submission in nine rounds, unable to miss with his left hook. While the Kiwi was brave and continually looked for a blow that would turn the tide, Palmer’s defence was too tight and his work was methodical. Following a ninth-round knockdown, a further barrage brought about the end of the fight.

Palmer then met Tony Gora, a Hawaiian heavyweight who was on his way to Australia for a series of bouts. Gora was brought to Australia by Hugh McIntosh, the promoter of the 1908 heavyweight championship bout between Jack Johnson and Tommy Burns. McIntosh had leased his old stadium at Rushcutter’s Bay for a series of bouts involving international boxers as he was facing ongoing bankruptcy hearings involving his purchase of the newspaper “The Sunday Times,” and was attempting to re-enter the industry that was so successful for him over 20 years ago.

His original plan was to bring heavyweight contenders Primo Carnera and Paulino Uzcudun to Australia for fights, as well as British middleweight Len Harvey. While waiting for these fighters to arrive, McIntosh planned to stage a number of domestic matchups, including a third fight between Palmer and Fred Henneberry, the man Palmer had lost his middleweight title to.

The previous two bouts between Henneberry and Palmer were split and both had drawn large crowds. Palmer had outlasted Henneberry in their opening bout by surviving a torrid rally by the South Australian born boxer to win a razor thin decision but had lost his title in the rematch via ninth round disqualification when he dropped Henneberry to the canvas with what was described as a borderline low blow.

It was the third time Palmer had lost in his career, all three losses were via disqualification and all three from low blows. The rematch, which was part of a week long “sports carnival” which were part of the Harbour Bridge opening celebrations, drew a large crowd of over 12,000 fans to see the two domestic stars clash. The fight would have to wait though as Henneberry was a small middleweight who had recently moved up from welterweight and Palmer had outgrown the middleweight division. The rematch with Henneberry was the last time Palmer would make the middleweight limit in his career as his attempts to boil down to 160lb were draining his stamina.

While the offers from McIntosh to bring Carnera and Uzcudun to Australia fell through, in April it was reported that McIntosh had cabled an offer to “The Georgia Peach” William “Young” Stribling to come to Australia for three contests, the first of which was to be against Ambrose Palmer on July 4th. While Gora was unknown to the boxing world, Stribling was a veteran of over 300 fights and the year before had lost in the 15th round in a challenge for the World Heavyweight Championship against Max Schmeling.

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Born in Bainbridge, Georgia on Boxing Day in 1904, Stribling turned professional in 1921 and fought a torrid schedule in his first few years as a professional, often fighting two or three times a month. In 1923, at the age of 18, Stribling challenged Mike McTigue for the Light Heavyweight Championship of the world, originally winning the contest before referee Harry Ertle reversed his decision an hour later. Stribling avenged the loss in a non-title bout the following year and then defeated future Light Heavyweight Champion Tommy Loughran in 1925.

Stribling lost in his second world title bid to new champion Paul Berlenbach in 1926, suffering a knockdown in round seven and losing a decision. He lost a return with Loughran the following year, but all the while continued to fight multiple times every month, after which he began to campaign exclusively as a heavyweight. He lost in the first round of the elimination tournament to crown the new champion after Gene Tunney’s retirement, losing a ten-round decision to Jack Sharkey, who would win the title two years later from Max Schmeling.

A pair of controversial bouts took place in Europe with another future champion Primo Carnera saw each man disqualified in bouts that are widely believed to be fixed. Even as he entered his tenth year as a professional, Stribling continued to fight multiple times every month. By the time he met Schmeling for the World Heavyweight Title in 1931, he had fought a recorded 268 times as a professional, winning 238 with 120 wins by knockout.

Despite the high number of knockouts in his career, Stribling was known as a scientific boxer who preferred to use his clever defence and took no joy in hurting his opponent. Stribling gave Max Schmeling a hard fight for the first ten rounds until a right hand in the eleventh hurt him. He battled on until he succumbed in the fifteenth and final round, the only time he had been knocked out in 269 professional contests.

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Originally scheduled for the 6th of June, the Gora-Palmer bout was firstly delayed in order to give Gora an extra week to prepare but then an ankle injury to Palmer put the bout back to the 20th of June. Gora lived up to expectations early in the contest and landed several hard punches, including a right in round two that momentarily stunned Palmer, but Palmer was busier and his defence was tighter, and he had a clear lead after the first five rounds. A head-clash in round six opened a large cut over Palmer’s left eye which would require four stitches to close. Despite the cut bleeding profusely for the remainder of the contest, Palmer was in clear control as his superior stamina allowed him to take over. While Gora never looked like being stopped, he also never looked like winning after the sixth round. Although Gora was cheered by the crowd of 8,000 for his efforts, Palmer was awarded the referee’s decision.

Palmer praised Gora post-fight for his toughness and his power, saying, “I hammered him with everything I could yet he stood there, and came back for more. Yes, he is game; and that little right-hander he hit me with in the second round was hard.” Palmer’s inability to finish Gora had reporters already limiting his chances in the bout with Stribling.

“Ambrose Palmer, the Australian heavyweight champion, does not appear to have the remotest chance against Young Stribling, after his failure to knock out the Japanese boxer Tony Gora, whom he hit with everything except the stool. Palmer apparently, does to pack a sufficiently powerful wallop to bowl his opponents over.”

Stribling arrived in Sydney on the ship “The Monterrey” on the 23rd of June with another heavyweight Clyde Chastain and was set to meet Palmer on the 4th of July. While many agreed that if Palmer could upset Stribling it would be a huge achievement for an Australia boxer, Stribling was seen as too big and too experienced for the 20-year-old. While he had outgrown the middleweight division, Palmer was not even a light heavyweight by American standards. Palmer often weighed in around the 165-168lb mark while Stribling was a fully-fledged heavyweight who rarely weighed less than 190lbs.

The Australian promoters billed the Stribling-Palmer contest as a “world’s heavyweight elimination contest”, suggesting that the winner would be fighting newly crowned heavyweight champion Jack Sharkey. Promoter McIntosh also sought an injunction that prevented Stribling, an avid pilot with 1,200 hours flight experience, from being allowed to fly a plane until after he had completed his contest with Palmer.

Stribling impressed the Australian public in his workouts with many commenting on how little wear and tear his face showed despite so many career bouts. There were some concerns that the cut Palmer had suffered over his left eye in the Tony Gora contest would delay the contest but the eye was cleared by the doctor and the fight took place on the advertised date. The contest was expected to draw the largest crowd for an Australian bout since before World War I. Sydney’s public transport agencies saw an opportunity to make some money off the bout also, doubling ticket prices on the Eastern Suburbs line that ran from the city to the stadium.

Weighing in at 182lb, Stribling entered the ring with over a 16lb weight advantage over Palmer, who came in at 166lb, lighter than he had against Gora. Sydney newspaper “The Referee” joked that Palmer had “fretted himself down” to that weight as his wife was due to have a baby around the date of the fight. The size difference appeared to be much more significant as the men started the contest as Palmer carried a lot of his weight in his legs while Stribling carried the bulk of his weight in his upper torso. Palmer fought out of a crouch to begin the opening round while Stribling established his jab and landed some shots to the body. Many of the American’s jabs sailed over Palmer’s head but Palmer’s retaliations were falling short in a tame opening round.

The crowd cheered wildly in the second round as Palmer backed Stribling to the ropes and landed a clean left hook. Stribling stayed patient and waited for openings while Palmer tried to capitalise on his success. The cheers of the crowd turned to concern at the end of the round as Palmer’s previously injured left eyebrow was bleeding. Stribling stayed patient and used his enormous reach advantage, holding Palmer off in the third round with his jab and looking for openings for the right hand. Twice in the third round he was warned for infractions, once a kidney shot and once for holding and hitting. This was the beginning of a rivalry with Australian referees that would last for the duration of his visit. Stribling landed several hard-right hands to Palmer’s body before the end of the round and shoved Palmer partway through the ropes.

Referee Joe Wallis’ run ins with Stribling continued into the fourth round as he ordered Stribling’s corner to wipe excess water off him at the start of the round. The crowd was also turning on the American as he argued back after being warned for hitting Palmer’s kidneys. All the while Ambrose Palmer, blood now dripping from his left eye, was being repeatedly backed into the ropes and punished by the larger American. Stribling repeatedly stayed an arm’s length away from the undersized Australian, stepping back as his punches fell short, and hammered Palmer with counter shots while tying him up when he got within punching range. The crowd booed at the end of the fifth round as Stribling pushed Palmer back into the ropes.

Palmer was down in the sixth round for a count of two courtesy of a short right hand as the massacre continued. The 20-year-old continued to fight bravely by attacking Stribling again after rising but Stribling tied him up and continued to stifle his attacks. Two clubbing right hands landed on Palmer’s injured eye before the round came to a close. In the seventh the crowd was calling for Stribling to fight with more venom and stop prolonging the beating but Stribling, ever methodical, continued to take no chances and continued to argue with the referee about various infractions. A pair of uppercuts hurt Palmer again in the eighth round but Stribling continued to fight defensively as Palmer tried in vain to land something to get him back in the fight.

The Australian’s face was a mess as he entered round nine. His left eye was swollen and bleeding and his mouth and right ear were also dripping blood. “The Georgia Peach” dished out more punishment, finding an opening for his right uppercut three consecutive times that snapped Palmer’s head back. The end finally came in round ten as Palmer went down a second time. Stribling feinted his left jab and threw another right uppercut which landed on Palmer’s chin. Somehow Palmer was up at the count of four and Stribling threw and missed the same punch before the two men ended in a clinch. Palmer’s chief second, Jack Warner, threw in the towel Joe Wallis crowned Stribling the winner by technical knockout.

The fight was a huge economic success. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 12,000 were in attendance while Melbourne’s Sporting Globe reported the number at 14,000 and the Referee reported that while 12,400 were inside, a further 5,000 waited outside to hear the result. The live gate was in excess of £4,000 with Palmer earning a purse of £940, the equivalent of one year’s salary.

Speaking to the Sydney Sportsman a few days after the contest, Ambrose Palmer was in good spirits despite the bad loss. “He picked me up and spun me round like a top when he wanted to. I hit him twice as hard as I was able in one round and he looked at me as if the flies were troubling him.” Asked whether he would be interested in a return contest, Palmer stated “What would be the good? I couldn’t hurt him. I’d just be wasting his time.”

Palmer would be the only Australian who Stribling would meet in the ring during his time in Australia. Three weeks after the win Stribling was back in the ring at Sydney Stadium against the American journeyman Frankie Wine. Wine was never in Stribling’s class, having previously lost to him three times in America, and he fought purely to stay the distance. Stribling fought cautiously as he knew Wine was not in his league and that it was an easy night’s work. The Sydney fans didn’t appreciate the cautious tactics, especially after the Palmer fight, and the crowd wanted to see Stribling force the action more. They booed him early and by the 14th round they were walking out. Stribling won a wide decision, but his safety-first approach had killed off his ability to draw a crowd in Sydney.

McIntosh then took Stribling to Brisbane where he met Canadian heavyweight Jack Renault, who had been the distance with Jack Sharkey, Paulino Uzcudun and the great African-American heavyweight George Godfrey. Fighting to please his new audience, Stribling tore into Renault to give the Australian crowd what they wanted. Displeased by the difference in skill level, the Brisbane crowd booed the mismatch and counted both men out numerous times from the second round. After five rounds Renault’s corner halted the carnage due to a badly cut ear and, despite a £1,200 gate, Stribling’s reputation in Queensland was that of a bully.

So McIntosh brought Stribling south to try and build the American’s following there. Stribling met Johnny Freeman, another man he had beaten before coming to Australia. Originally scheduled for the 24th of August, Stribling postponed the bout due to a hand injury he suffered against Renault and the two met on September 22. The bout was another commercial success. The gate was approximately £1,100 but like Stribling’s previous three encounters in Australia, the crowd were unsatisfied. Freeman put up a stronger fight than even Palmer did, taking a handful of rounds and lasting the distance, but he never looked like winning the fight. The majority of the crowd were booing early and left the arena as the two men were still fighting. McIntosh returned to Sydney with Stribling, matching him with Freeman to keep him busy while he wired Perth and Adelaide, the only two major cities Stribling had not fought in, to see if he could match the “Georgian Peach” there.

The third bout between Stribling and Freeman, which took place on October 21st, was declared a no contest after the 8th round. In a fight that Stribling was reportedly winning easily, both boxers had been warned repeatedly by the referee during the contest for holding and hitting as well as kidney punching and fighting after the bell. An argument between the referee and Stribling’s father and chief second broke out at the end of the sixth round after Stribling pushed Freeman through the ropes. After Stribling repeated the infraction at the end of the eighth round, the fighters began to trade punches after the bell. After the referee and both fighters’ respective corners failed to break the boxers up, the referee disqualified both fighters and ruled the bout a no contest. Hugh McIntosh announced both boxers’ purses would be withheld until an investigation had taken place. Each boxer claimed after the contest that they had not heard the bell.

Stribling did fight in Adelaide and Perth, defeating Tony Gora and George Thompson respectfully, both by decision. He returned to the United States in 1933 after fighting in South Africa and France after leaving Australia. In September he defeated world Light Heavyweight Champion Maxie Rosenbloom in a non-title fight, which was the 251st recorded career contest of his career and tragically the last. While riding his motorbike to visit his wife and newly born child in hospital, Stribling was hit by a car which crushed his left leg and fractured his pelvis. Stribling was taken to the same hospital his wife and child were at and lasted two days before succumbing to the injuries. He was only 28 years old.

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