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As Empire Day, 24th May, approaches it is timely that we remember one of Australia’s greatest and mostly forgotten sporting heroes. Les Darcy, The Maitland Wonder.

Les Darcy is a name that will not ring a bell for most of you unless you are a keen follower of boxing or you have your roots in the Maitland, NSW, area.

Briefly, Les Darcy was the greatest fighter who ever pulled on a glove. That is only my opinion because I never saw him fight but never saw any of the other great legends fight either so my opinion is based on my reading and watching video clips of many of them. The greatest names in boxing lived in the era before I was old enough to take much notice of who was who in the zoo.

Les Darcy became the victim of bias and bigotry who died at the age of 21 and whose funeral in 1917 is reputed to have been the biggest funeral ever seen in Sydney.

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Les came from Maitland in NSW of Irish parentage. He left school at the age of 12 and became apprenticed to a blacksmith in East Maitland. His work as a blacksmith’s striker is said to be the basis of his powerful punching. Even at this young age he started a career in boxing fighting in tournaments in the Newcastle and Maitland areas.

As a welterweight, he was beaten for the Australian championship in 1913 but drew the attention of Sydney boxing promotors fighting many opponents at Rushcutters Bay Stadium.

His record of success was outstanding and he was a crowd favourite with his ready smiling countenance. He beat all comers from Australia to the point where he virtually ran out of opponents. He graduated to middleweight class and with the lack of local opponents the promotors arranged a succession of top class American boxers and he beat them all too. He was made offers to go to America to fight but he was reluctant to leave Australia and said that if any Americans thought they could beat him he was happy to fight them in Australia.

 

It was commonplace that when he was fighting in Sydney, the collieries around Cessnock would shut down so that their workers could attend the fight.

In 1916, as a middleweight, he fought and won the Australian heavyweight title when he defeated Harry Hardwick. Although he won the fight, Hardwick succeeded in knocking his two front teeth out. These were replaced by an implant process used at the time but which would have fatal consequences later in life. Later the same year he defeated the American George Chip to claim the world middle weight title

 

When WW1 broke out he was approached by the government to join the army and use his fame as a recruiting tool. He refused and stated that he did not want to use his fame to lure young men to enlist when they might otherwise have decided not to. For this he was pilloried and accused of cowardice. White feathers were received in the post and his home in Maitland was subjected to vandalise attacks.

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From May 1946 the Sydney Daily Mirror ran two hundred and twenty two instalments of the comic strip ‘The Life of Les Darcy’ created by the artist Peter James.

His motive was to earn enough money from prize fighting to buy his mother a house and after that was done he would enlist quietly but refused to become involved in recruitment.

In 1917, after rejecting repeated offers to come to the USA to fight, he decided to go and leave the demonization behind him but the law of the land then was that able bodied men of recruitable age were not permitted to leave Australia. He overcame this restriction by stowing away on a tramp steamer to New York.

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postcard to his mother, sent from Pittsburgh

To be able to fight in the USA one must have a licence. In America he was vilified by the press and officialdom for his illegal departure from Australia and was refused a licence. He was under the tutelage of the leading boxing promotor in the USA, Tex Rickard who had arranged a six month tour of bouts using different names but with little success. He was able to overcome these restrictions by becoming a US citizen and joining their armed forces on condition that he was able to take leave to engage in boxing bouts.

 

 However, the respite was short lived when he contracted septicaemia and mercury poisoning while in Memphis, Tennessee and died on 24th May, 1917. The septicaemia and mercury poisoning was caused by the dental implants he received in the bout against Harry Hardwick.

He was 21 years old.

His funeral was held before a very large crowd in San Francisco, his body was embalmed and then shipped back to Sydney where it was received as that of a hero. His funeral took place before a crowd of 35,000 on 26th.June, 1917. His body lay in state in an open coffin at the funeral parlour in George Street, Sydney where thousands of people filed past to pay their respects. It was estimated that over 500,000 attended the viewing.

This was followed by a procession to Maitland where another huge crowd of people followed. He was buried in the Catholic section of the East Maitland cemetery.

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In 1993 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame and in 1998 into the World Boxing Hall of Fame.

My personal recollections of Les Darcy are firstly that my grandfather used to describe people to me as being “as game as Les Darcy”. He was normally describing some budding Collingwood footballer. A common description in those days was to say some bloke was “as game as Ned Kelly” but my grandfather deferred to Les Darcy.

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My other recollection of him was that quite often in a lively discussion between the older members of my family somebody would admonish the Americans as “those bloody Yanks. They killed Les Darcy and Phar Lap”. A very sore point said with much venom.

In today’s world we lack national heroes like Les Darcy. There was a time, well within my living memory, when we produced sporting heroes on a regular basis but not anymore. The last one I recall was Shane Warne. Before that there was Dennis Lillie, Dawn Fraser and Ken Rosewall and, of course, Don Bradman.

The nature of modern sport, I think, precludes the emergence of champions like these. These national heroes emerged through their own sheer skill and tenacity against all odds and frequently on their own. I, for one, do not object to our current champions harvesting the fruits of their talents and labours unlike the days when being an amateur was mandatory for success in international sport.

Could anybody today countenance the prospect of a young Don Bradman at the height of his career, giving cricket away because he could not afford to play for Australia? Well that is what nearly happened until he was made the offer that tempted him to move from NSW to South Australia.

Bradman and Phar Lap were the icons that kept our country together during the depression years. For a turnout of 500,000+ people in a country of, at the time, of about 5 million is a feat that could not be replicated today for any living soul be it a sportsman, politician or other noteworthy identity.

Boxing today is a sport that is frowned upon in many quarters and sterilised by rules and regulations to prevent permanent injury to the contestants. In Les Darcy’s day 20 x 3 minute round fights were the norm. Of the 52 fights he had in Australia, 34 of them were 20 rounders. 11 went the full distance. The others were won either by a KO or a TKO. His record was that in his whole Australian career he lost only 4 times.

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