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GEORGE BARNES ; My Fighting Is My Business
"My Fighting Is My Business", Former Empire Champion.'My Fighting is My Business’:
Towards a Biography of George
Barnes, Australian Boxer1
Rodney Sullivan and Robin Sullivan
There is no consensus on George Barnes’s standing in Australian sports
history. In his influential Lords of the Ring Peter Corris gave a less than
flattering portrait of Barnes. Although admitting his popularity,
fearlessness, independence and honesty Corris denigrated his boxing
skills and achievements. He described Barnes as ‘the last of the old-style
of Australian fighters starting young, indifferently managed, relatively
unsuccessful overseas, going on too long and displaying courage in
excess of his skill’.2 Other commentators have been more generous. An
entry in the Encyclopaedia of Australian Sports presented him as a ‘tough,
rugged fighter who refused to give an inch in the ring’ and underlined
the precedents he created, the first son of a national boxing champion to
emulate his father and the first Australian to win the British Empire
welterweight title.3 In a profile subtitled ‘Son of an Anvil’, Grantlee
Kieza highlighted Barnes’s capture of the Australian and Empire
welterweight championships and his high earnings, a considerable
proportion of which were won overseas.4 Ron Casey a leading sports
journalist and contemporary of George Barnes summed him up him as
‘a wonderful fighter and great friend . . . so tough and durable’.5 Another
journalistic contemporary of Barnes, writing in the mid-1950s,
distinguished him from the more numerous ‘*****foot fighters’ of the
time, marking him as ‘a man not frightened to go in and mix it’.6 Bernie
Pramberg’s recent profile of Barnes was similarly positive, identifying
him as the ‘iron man’ of Australian boxing when the sport was at its
pinnacle. He had no hesitation in nominating him ‘one of our all-time
greats’ in view of the length of his career, with sixty-six professional
bouts over fifteen years, and his performances against world-rated
If one puts aside Corris’s bleak appraisal there are indications that
Barnes’s biography would be atypical. A collection of boxers’ biographiesis likely to overwhelm the reader with the number of lives cut short or
impaired. There is a familiar pattern of events in the lives of many
boxing subjects. Elements include a poor family, little formal education,
and a career forged out of a mixture of physical gifts, aggression, and
more or less fortunate management. The pattern often follows the wheel
of fortune with the career apogee succeeded by decline as the boxer’s
physical strength wanes. The glamour which accompanies him in victory
gives way to penury, drug addiction and ill-health unless an early death
preserves him, in company with Les Darcy, among those who shall not
grow old. Sometimes, as in the case of Muhammad Ali, the physical
deterioration is so pronounced, and in such contrast to the athleticism
which made him a champion, that the vocabulary of high tragedy is
called into service. The American writer Joyce Carol Oates described Ali
in his ‘dark brooding’, damaging, later fights as ‘the closest analogue
boxing contains to Lear himself’.8
His last fight apart, George Barnes is no antipodean Lear and his
biographer will have to find another analogue. His career reflects only
some elements of the conventional rise and fall pattern of the tragic
hero’s or boxer’s life. It offers an a different trajectory for he largely
escaped the bleaker half of the wheel of fortune’s rise and fall. His
success in the ring was mediated into a long and prosperous postboxing
career. He used his boxer’s skills to win economic independence
and add to his social experiences and status.
His considerable earnings from fighting were invested astutely.
Wray Vamplew’s observation that Australian boxers typically failed to
achieve financial security9 does not apply to Barnes. Indeed this aspect
of his life calls for attention as his image incorporated not only his
working-class origins, with its associations of male camaraderie and
violence but also the middle- class values of family, property, and
independence. At sixty-eight years of age in 1995 a well-preserved
Barnes nominated the Australian tax office as his toughest opponent.10
Born into a Boxing Family
George Barnes and his twin, Joan, were born into a boxing family in
Temora, New South Wales, on 20 February 1927. His Jewish mother,
Cecilia, born in Blackpool, England, cared for a family of four boys and
two girls. She was a boxing fan and passed her enthusiasm on to her
children.” Her father, Ben Rice, had fought at the National SportingClub in London and one of her brothers fought professionally. George
Barnes’s paternal uncle, who fought as Don Burns, was a promising
Australian middleweight prior to his early death. His father, Eric, was a
blacksmith born in Hay, New South Wales. A graduate of Jimmy
Sharman’s travelling troupe, he won the Australian middleweight
championship in 1921 under the name of Frank Burns by knocking out
Tommy Uren. He boxed overseas with a notable win over Jimmy Clabby,
a former world welterweight champion in Seattle and a eleven-round
loss to another former world champion, Ted ‘Kid’ Lewis, in an Empire
middleweight championship bout in London. He retired in 1928 after a
loss to the formidable Jack Haines. He subsequently worked as a farrier
and, after moving his family from Temora to Sydney, had responsibility
for shoeing the Colonial Sugar Refinery’s hundred draught horses at
Pyrmont. Eric Barnes was a ‘hard man’ who tried to dissuade his sons
from following his footsteps. He told George as a young boy that ‘the
fight game’s too tough, son. Forget it.’ But the boys persisted, with
fifteen-year old George going to the North Sydney Boy’s Club to acquire
boxing skills. After he took a severe beating his father bowed to the
inevitable and became boxing instructor at the Boys Club in order to
teach his son. Eric Barnes took enormous pride in his sons’ boxing
achievements describing the day on which George won the Australian
welterweight title as the happiest in his life. Three of his other sons were
also boxers of note. Bill became New South Wales amateur champion in
1959, Ron was a National Service middleweight champion and his twin,
Don, was a main event (twelve-round) fighter. The eldest son, Eric, was
the only one not to box as an adult. This was not so much out of
deference to his father’s wishes but because as a young boy, Eric ‘had a
big nose and every time he got a straight left on the nose he cried’.12
George Barnes began fighting as an amateur welterweight in 1942
at the age of fifteen, losing his first two bouts on points. He moved down
to the lightweight division and unsuccessfully contested the New South
Wales finals. War intervened, George was called up and served with the
AIF in Papua New Guinea. Discharged in Sydney in 1947 he worked for
twelve months as a blacksmith’s striker in order to prepare himself for a
boxing career. He turned professional in 1948 having decided to marry
Money, family tradition and love of boxing were important
considerations. His motives, he explained in 1951, were the love ofboxing that had drawn him into amateur fighting as a youth and his
determination ‘to try and make what I thought would be easy money
and try to follow in Dad’s footsteps as an Australian titleholder'.13
Although no graceful boxing stylist, George Barnes manifested
enormous physical resilience and determination. ‘Bulging muscled’,
stocky and appearing shorter than his five foot six inches (167.6 cm) in
height, he was noted for walking up to his opponents.14 Instead of
holding his left hand conventionally at the side of his face he carried it
low at his hip for a speedier delivery and guarded his chin with his left
shoulder. It was an offensive, rather than defensive, posture that defied
imitation.15 He had an unquestioned capacity to take a punch, to absorb
destructive physical punishment over a fighting career spanning eighteen
years: the only time he was knocked out was in his last fight in 1962.
There is considerable truth in his own self-deprecating verdict that 'I
was an awkward bugger. I can’t even say I was a really fit fighter, I used
to wear ‘em down.'16
Among the boxers who found Barnes formidably awkward were
the world ranked Americans Freddie Dawson, Wallace ‘Bud’ Smith and
Ralph Dupas. He won the Australian welterweight title in 1953 and was
Empire/Commonwealth welterweight champion in 1954-6,
1956-8 and 1958-60. He defended his Australian welterweight title
in Sydney in November 1953 by knocking out Tommy Burns before a
crowd of 13 000 people. Similar numbers were attracted to the three
fights between Barnes and Darby Brown in the mid-1950s. In these
‘classics of the Australian ring’17 Barnes lost and then regained his
Australian welterweight title, a sequence he repeated with the South
African Johnny Van Rensburg for his Empire welterweight title. He
finally surrendered the latter title to the Welshman Brian Curvis in May
1960. Corris used this defeat to reinforce his image of Barnes as a boxer
lacking talent, citing one unspecified report of the fight which claimed
that Curvis inflicted on Barnes ‘punishment that would have destroyed
a heavyweight’. This cannot be taken at face value since Pat Tennison’s
eyewitness account of the fight was headed ‘Barnes Glorious in Flying
Fists Title Loss’ and made it clear that though Curvis, eleven years
younger than Barnes, merited his victory through more skilful boxing,
he had to overcome first the awesome ‘staying power of hammer-fisted
Barnes’. Barnes has read Corris’s account of this fight and merely
commented he knew ‘nothing about the fight game’.18By February 1962 Barnes’s retirement was overdue and he made
the mistake of one more defence of his Australian welterweight title
fight against Gary Cowburn. Ray Mitchell, a noted chronicler of
Australian boxing, was present at Sydney Stadium and realised before
the first punch was thrown that an era in Australian boxing had ended:
‘when George removed his gown we saw not the iron muscles we used
to see, but softness’. He mourned his beating that night, and more so the
passing of ‘the tough Barnes who had become an institution’. His defeat
was the saddest he had seen in boxing since Freddie Dawson knocked
out Vic Patrick on 1 September 1946.19
Barnes’s body was tested by more than his opponents in the ring.
He had to counter the debilitating legacy of malaria contracted during
the Pacific War. This was one of three major physical handicaps he had
to overcome. He suffered serious burns to much of his body when a
home-made methylated spirits lamp ignited during a blackout in March
1951, hospitalising him for a month. Unable to work for over two
months or box for eight, his weight shot up some three stone (19 kg). He
damaged his left hand fighting in 1952 and for the rest of his career often
boxed with the hand broken, using injections to deaden the pain.
Frequently the hand swelled during fights to the extent that his glove
had to be cut off.20 After this injury so early in his career ‘he could only
throw the left with half the power it once carried and no longer was his
hook the weapon it had once been’.21
Mastery of such physical challenges points to the strength of the
will that drove George Barnes’s body. St Vincent’s Hospital staff told
him that he was unlikely to box again after burns left his right hand bent
claw-like from his wrist and his body bent forward from the waist. His
response was ‘I’ll fight all right because I intend to be the lightweight
champion’. He repaired his flame-ravaged body with a splint to correct
his right hand, rigorous back exercises, and a labouring job lumping
bags of sugar.2 2His campaign for the lightweight championship recommenced
within months when he knocked out the Filipino Little
Paras in Melbourne. His metabolism and diet caused him to gain weight
quickly; when fighting in the lightweight division with its limit of nine
stone and nine pounds (61.2 kg) he used to go up to eleven stone
(69.9 kg) between fights and induced rapid weight loss through exercise,
dieting and time in the ‘sweat box’, shedding up to sixteen pounds
(7.26 kg) a day in tropical gym work. He dehydrated his body in thefortnight before a fight in the belief that it would prevent his face
swelling and bruising after a punch. This precaution was to prevent a
recurrence of the ‘eyes closed drum tight’ he suffered after his 1952
victory over the future world lightweight champion Bud Smith.23
Barnes’s success in disciplining and punishing his body was the
greater given his inclination towards hedonism rather than asceticism.
Indeed his physical durability and relative longevity give pause for
thought to a later generation attuned to more spartan health regimes.
His pronounced weight fluctuations followed pendulum swings between
discipline and gratification. He alternated long periods of physical selfindulgence
with much shorter intervals of intensive physical preparation
immediately before an important fight. Underpinning both at crucial
periods in his career was heavy manual labour, an ideal means of
preparing his body for the ordeal of the boxing ring. In between fights he
drank at least ‘a gallon of beer a day, smoked heavily and thought
nothing of devouring eight eggs at a sitting. Such periodic indulgence
along with his thirty-five years aided his 1960s metamorphosis from an
iron man to the vulnerably soft target battered into insensibility by Gary
Cowburn. There is a confessional note in Barnes’s recent comment that
‘I’d have fought a lot longer if I’d drunk less’.24
The Social Context of Boxing
Barnes’s social milieu, particularly after he became a successful boxer,
was Sydney's sporting and racing elite along with their admirers from
the media, the police, the professions, and others attracted to the glamour
and money which circulates among top sports people. This was a world
where weigh-ins for big fights were held before large crowds in wellestablished
city clubs. It was before such a gathering at Sydney City
Tattersall’s Club in Pitt Street for the weigh-in for Barnes’s 1954 fight
against the formidable black American Freddy Dawson that a prominent
bookmaker Tom Powell called out ‘I’ve got money here to say Barnes
won’t go the distance with Dawson’. Barnes’s father-in-law, Jim Barker,
a successful horse trainer, replied ‘I’ve got money here to say he will’. At
that Powell put £5000 ($10 000) in notes on the bar with the words
There’s five thousand quid he won’t go the distance’. The Barnes clan
collected the money after George knocked Dawson down with a left
hook in the first round then uncharacteristically boxed to lose on points
while safely surviving the fifteen rounds.25Such free flow of money and the subsequent revelations of Royal
Commissions into police corruption and organised crime in New South
Wales and Queensland raise inevitable questions about Australian boxing
and corruption. Corris commented that a degree of corruption fixed
fights, fraudulent injuries, and ‘ring-ins’ has been a permanent feature
of Australian boxing, though never on an American scale.26 The prism of
George Barnes’s boxing career provides little evidence of corruption.
Certainly his recollections include the offer of a bribe overseas and his
acquaintance with men who from the vantage point of a later decade
might be deemed connected to the shadowy world of organised crime.
But there is Barnes’s unquestioned reputation for honesty. To this must
be added his own verdict, delivered perhaps only half in jest, that ‘the
boxing game’s never been dirty in Australia . . . [perhaps because it has]
been run by thugs who wanted the game to be clean’.27
Most references to Australian boxing as business focus on the
activities of such ventures as Stadiums Limited, acquired by John Wren
in 1915, which held a near monopoly of boxing in the eastern states until
1975. Inevitably the perspective tends to be from the top down. George
Barnes, in a view from below, saw himself operating a small family
business. His trade was boxing and his returns had to be maximised
against the competing claims of other boxers and more particularly
against those of boxing promoters, managers, trainers and government.
Barnes’s individualism, enlightened pursuit of self-interest, and informed
family network enabled him to defy Stadiums Limited when he believed
his own well-being or financial returns were at stake. In 1950 he was
banned from fighting by John Wren after he failed to attend a bout in
Brisbane with Max Skinner for which a large crowd had assembled.
Barnes defied Stadiums Limited because he believed that the fight was a
mismatch, with Skinner too heavy an opponent for him and because of
the promoter’s failure to insist on a weight limit.28
In 1954 Barnes again defied Stadiums Limited and his managertrainer
Em McQuillan by accepting an invitation to box under the
auspices of Art Mawson’s rival Australian Boxing Club. The inducement
was $6000 for an Empire title fight and any legal costs his defection
might bring. Stung by Barnes’s challenge Stadiums Limited
unsuccessfully applied to the New South Wales Equity Court for an
injunction to restrain him from fighting outside the company’s promotion.
It was an important legal victory for the sportsperson who seeks tomaximise his or her returns from sport. Barnes had detected a conflict of
interest between McQuillan’s association with Stadiums Limited and his
role as manager-trainer. A sharp sense of business acumen as well as
natural justice underpinned Barnes comment that ‘I engaged McQuillan
as my manager and I expect him to act on my behalf. Instead he has been
acting for Stadiums Ltd and making decisions . . . without even consulting
me.‘29 Barnes was atypical in overturning boxing’s power hierarchy of
promoters, trainers and boxers30 which deprived so many of the latter of
dignity and livelihood.
Four years later Barnes had the opportunity to travel to the United
States for a series of elimination contests to fill the world welterweight
title vacated by Carmen Basilo. Mindful of Les Darcy’s American fate he
declined this risky prospect of a career pinnacle in the United States in
favour of less glamorous but more assured returns. With the assistance
of Jim Barker he negotiated a series of South African bouts, including
defences of his Empire title which provided returns well above Stadiums
Limited maximum rate of 25 per cent of gross takings. For his successful
title defence against Benny Nieuwenhuizen in Johannesburg in April
1956 he received 35 per cent of the gross gate less entertainment tax and
expenses, providing a return of some $12 500 tax-free in Australia.
Barnes’s stand was ‘I’ll fight anywhere as long as I’m offered the right
money. Boxing is my living.‘31 The seriousness with which he took his
judgement that his boxing was his business showed in his successful
campaigns in Australia and South Africa to end the issue of
complimentary tickets, a practice which diminished gross takings and
Writing the Biography of George Barnes
George Barnes’s biographers will have to place his business values and
practices within the wider context of Australian society and culture.
This can be attempted by considering his multiple images. There is the
iron man of Australian boxing, the handsome son of a fighter, hardened
by the labour of sugar lumping and swinging the blacksmith’s hammer.
He has the relentless stoicism of the mythical Australian male, the man
who refuses to give an inch, not frightened to go in and mix it. This was
the image that even in defeat and title loss could command from an
observer words like ‘force’, ‘power’ and ‘hammer-fisted’. One commentator was able to find a sardonic reassurance in Barnes’s
defeat by the formidable black American Freddie Dawson by highlighting
his survival of the fifteen punishing rounds, the first time an Australian
had accomplished this feat. He concluded somewhat smugly that Barnes
was ‘a plucky Australian champion . . . too tough for the negro to knock
It must be said that Barnes himself, throughout his career and in
recent reminiscences, never identified fellow boxers by race or nationality.
He defined them rather in terms of their boxing prowess and, if
opponents, the contribution they made to his income stream.
A second image of George Barnes, carried prominently by the
popular press, was familial, domestic, bourgeois; a nurturing yin to
complement the yang of the iron man. This image was framed in the
nuclear family, home, garden and neighbourhood of 1950s Australia.
Here George was depicted with his wife, attending to one or both of his
sons, sometimes with a family pet in attendance. At other times, he was
presented helping out an elderly neighbour or a local scout troop,
mowing his lawn, or tending his poultry, even getting up from his sick
bed one night to comfort sick ducklings with hot water bottles. This
image accommodated the Barnes’s nuclear, suburban family as
consumers, gradually furnishing their $7400 Drummoyne home,
carpeting it for $950 and experiencing ‘the kick we got out of adding to
our belongings gradually'.34
The boxer as small businessman was the image Barnes himself
projected most readily. With considerable realism he interpreted his
career as the marketing of his body and boxing skills. The market was as
predatory an arena as any boxing ring. He was vigilant against
exploitation by promoters, managers, trainers and governments. He
stands out in Australian boxing history for his readiness to dispense
with unsatisfactory managers, including early in his career his father,
and his successful defiance of Stadiums Limited attempt to curtail his
autonomy and income. His decisions about whom and where to fight
were primarily and consciously business decisions. His own estimate of
himself and his calling was of the mundane, analogous perhaps to the
farmer and the motel proprietor which he became through investing his
earnings from the ring. Joyce Carol Oates’s grandiloquent meditation on
his craft, ‘a Dionysian rite of cruelty, sacrifice and redemption’,35 failed
the test of Barnes’s own experience and interpretation.There are other images of George Barnes including the usefully
provocative but excessively negative and unidimensional portrait which
Corris has already embedded in the historiography of Australian boxing.
In our planned biography of Barnes we sense that the three images we
have outlined are the most useful vehicles with which to explore his
career and context. Our challenge is to deepen our understanding of
them and of the processes which formed them. We must also tease out
the subtle relationships among them. Above all we must do justice both
to George Barnes and the art of biography.
1 This is a revised version of a paper presented to the Australian Society for Sports
History’s Sporting Traditions X Conference, 27 June 1995, at the University of
Queensland. The authors thank George and Betty Barnes for their generous
assistance and hospitality.
2 Peter Corris, Lords of the Ring: A History of Prize-Fighting in Australia, Cassell,
Sydney, 1980, pp. 172-3. In the year of its publication the sports historian, Bill
Mandle, nominated Lords of the Ring as one of the ‘three good books of Australian
sports history’. Mandle, 'The Future of Australian Sports History’ in Ray Crawford,
ed., First Australian Symposium on the History and Philosophy of Physical
Education and Sport, Proceedings: Influences and Innovators, School of Physical
Education and Leisure Studies, Preston Institute of Technology, Melbourne, 1980,
3 Malcolm Andrews, The Encyclopaedia of Australian Sports, Golden Press, Sydney,
4 Grantlee Kieza, Australian Boxing: The Illustrated History, Gary Allen, Sydney,
Ron Casey, Confessions of a Larrikin, Lester Townshend Publishing, Sydney, 1989,
Sid Barnes (no relation), Daily Telegraph, 5 Feb. 1956.
Bernie Pramberg, ‘Barnes one of our all-time greats’, Courier-Mail, 14 June 1995.
Joyce Carol Oates, 'The Cruellest Sport’, New York Review of Books, 13 Feb.
Wray Vamplew, ‘Boxing’, in Wray Vamplew and Brian Stoddart, eds, Sport in
Australia: A Social History, CUP, Cambridge, 1994, p. 52.
The material on George Barnes’s family background is drawn from interviews by
Rodney Sullivan at Ashmore on 29 Jan. 1994,29 April and 21 May 1995 and
George Barnes, ‘Cuttings Book’, p. 78.
Barnes, ‘Cuttings’, pp. 69, 75; Kieza, Australian Boxing, pp. 162-3.
Barnes, ‘Cuttings’, p. 78.
‘How good is George Barnes?‘, Sports Novels Ring Review, Jan. 1950, p. 43.
Kieza, Australian Boxing, p. 162.
Cited in Pramberg, ‘Barnes’.
Kieza, Australian Boxing, p. 164.
Barnes. interview, 29 Apr. 1995; Corris, Lords of the Ring, p. 173; Pat Tennison
‘Barnes Glorious in Flying Fists Title Loss’, in Barnes, Cuttings’, p. 85.
Ray Mitchell, ‘What Happens When a Fighter Softens Up’, Sports Novels, April
21. Barnes, interviewed by Barbara Erskine at Ashmore, 4 Sept. 1994.
22. Kieza, Australian Boxing, p. 163.
23. Barnes, ‘Cuttings Book’, pp. 77-8.
24. Barnes, interview, 4 Nov. 1994; Barnes, 'Cuttings’, p. 75.
Pramberg, ‘Barnes'; ‘How good is George Barnes?', Sports Novels, Ring Review,
Jan. 1950. ---
25 Barnes. interview, 29 Apr. 1995; Casey, Confessions, p. 74.
26 Corris, Lords of the Ring, p. 174.
27 Barnes, interview, 29 Apr. 1995.
28 Barnes, ‘Cuttings’, p. 77.
29 Barnes, interview, 29 Jan. 1994; Barnes, ‘Cuttings’, p. 40.
30 Vamplew, ‘Boxing’, p. 43.
31 Barnes, ‘Cuttings’, pp. 33,50.
32 Barnes, ‘Cuttings’, pp. 37,51.
33 Barnes, ‘Cuttings', p. 49.
34 Barnes, ‘Cuttings’, pp. 33, 36, 41, 43, 69, 75.
35 Oates, ‘The Cruellest Sport’, p. 3.
Barnes, interviewed by Barbara Erskine at Ashmore, 4 Sept. 1994.
Kieza, Australian Boxing, p. 163.
Barnes, ‘Cuttings Book’, pp. 77-8.
Barnes, interview, 4 Nov. 1994; Barnes, 'Cuttings’, p. 75.
Pramberg, ‘Barnes'; ‘How good is George Barnes?', Sports Novels, Ring Review,
Gee, hows that for a good read, there used to be a decent amount of film of George Barnes, and he was a hell of a fighter and really gutsy and was in some incredible wars with guys like Freddie Dawson and some other real good fighters. A fighter well worth looking into.... the epitome of an Australian boxer.
Going through my threads, I saw this one and noticed I did this one for our dear departed Mate G.J.C..... I remember some chats he and I had, and GJC had a high opinion of ex Commonwealth Champion George Barnes for his style which was certainly exciting and his courageous never say die attitude in the ring, Barnes was one of the most popular Aussie fighters of his time and GJC said that he saw Barnes fight in England,,,, so anyway,, this is a Bump dedicated to to of boxings legends,,, George Barnes & GJC,..................... ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Long live GJC.
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