Hitters, Grapplers and Strongmen
28th February – 24th March 2018
In their own way, they were unlikely heroes of their time. Boxers, wrestlers, and circus strongmen of the early 1900s were famous, mysterious showmen – albeit on a brutal and often unforgiving stage.
From Australian Olympic boxer (and pride of the Victorian town of Shepparton) Max Carlos through to Russia’s ‘King of the Kettlebells’ Pyotr Kryloff – each portrait reveals something of the man behind the muscles.
Oliver explains the initial idea for the series came to him after discovering a photo of boxer Kid Lavigne.
“In 1894 he killed a man in the ring. By beating him to death, he took on that man’s title - US Lightweight Champion. I looked again at the photo. There’s none of that story in his face, so I thought I’d try and expand that image as a portrait on canvas. And that developed into Hitters, Grapplers and Strongmen.
There’s a story in each of these portraits of fighters, underdogs and champions. All of these men led tough and often tragic lives, and I wanted to show some of their stories in their faces.
“For the tent boxers, their trade meant facing all comers in
an untidy, brutal contest, usually as part of a travelling carnival. Meanwhile, ‘professional’ boxing at that time involved bare-fisted bouts with unlimited rounds. The winner was the one left standing.
“These were athletes of the early twentieth century - the tent boxers, the professional fighters, the showmen.”
A story sure to capture the imagination as much today as it did when it was unfolding, is that of Kwementyaye (Max) Stuart, who in 1956 was an occasional tent boxer and general hand around fairgrounds in South Australia.
His life was thrust into the spotlight after he was arrested following the brutal murder of a nine-year-old girl from Ceduna. Even though Stuart spoke hardly any English and couldn’t read or write, police produced a detailed typed confession from him. Many people believed the confession was highly suspect and the case caused great public concern. Despite that, Stuart was found guilty and sentenced to death.
After unsuccessful appeals in court, the media took up Stuart’s cause led by Rupert Murdoch as publisher of the Adelaide Times.
Stuart’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was finally
released in 1984 and became an important elder and spiritual leader in Alice Springs.
There’s a story in each of these portraits of fighters, underdogs and champions.
Joe Gans was a talented boxer but fought in an era when being black meant he could never be his own man. He started boxing young, around seventeen and over the next 18 years fought 196 times for a total of 1475 rounds. In 1902 he won the world lightweight championship.
A hero then ? Well maybe. The forces that surrounded him were often malevolent. Even his obituary is uncertain how to remember him.
‘There is no telling what Gans might have accomplished, but he was early led astray by evil associations and up to the time when he fought that historic battle with Nelson in Goldfield four years ago, but few of the followers of the boxing game would trust Gans. He had been fighting to orders too long.
His first real, great stand was against Jimmy Britt in 1904, when he "lost on a foul" in the fifth round. This was one of the, most barefaced "frames" ever put over, and later Gans confessed the part he played.. It was shortly after that Gans was taken hold of by Benny Sellig, a manager who made money for him and gave him a reputation and the ambition to be honest. ‘
San Francisco Call (newspaper).
He died young of TB, fighting until the end.
Born in Moscow, he grew up with a love of the circus, being particularly obsessed with the wrestlers and strongmen. He started training young and continued building his feats of strength while he was in the Russian navy. His chosen piece of equipment was the kettlebelll - basically a cannonball with a handle.
In 1895 Pyotr joined the circus as a strongman. He was quickly dubbed ‘King of the Kettlebells’. No one was better or stronger than him. Famous throughout Russia, he performed until he was 60 and died a few years later. A heroically hard life.
There are still folk stories told about Georg Lurich, such was the mythology that attached to this man. Born in Estonia he started his career wrestling and giving public displays of weightlifting around 1895. Just before the first world war , he and fellow wrestler (and brother in law ) Aleksander Aberg tried their luck in the USA. He was popular there too, even being given a shot at the world title. Returning to Estonia in 1917 Lurich and Aberg got caught up in the fighting during the Russian Civil War. They became trapped in Armavir,a front line town and survived the fighting but couldn’t escape the outbreak of typhoid there. Georg Lurich died from the disease in January 1920 and his friend died a month later. They were buried in the same grave.
Born in Michigan in the USA, he tested his resolve to be a boxer by bare knuckle boxing the local hard men in the nearby logging camps. He turned professional in 1886.
In 1894 he fought one of the legends of his era, Andy Bowen, who had the record of the longest fight in boxing history - 110 rounds, or just over seven hours. In the 18th round of their bout, Lavigne knocked him down. He
never regained consciousness and died next day. Lavigne was arrested for the death but then released and , as the winner of the bout, recognised as US lightweight champion. The kid continued to fight. It’s hard for any fighter to come back after a beating - even if they win - and in 1895 he took a hiding from Joe Walcott over 15 rounds. the match should have been stopped but Lavigne came back and won the bout.
By 1896 he was in England, winning another brutal encounter with Dick Burge. That victory made him World Lightweight Champion. He kept fighting for another 13 years but as he got older he slowed down and took a few wins but mostly heavy defeats. Towards the end of his career he took on a few exhibition matches but was by then an alcoholic. He was 58 when he died of a heart attack.
A Swiss catch wrestler. It’s worth remembering that the earliest reference for the use of anabolic steroids was around1937.
1935 - 1996
Australian Olympian in 1956, the pride of Shepparton.
Max was the son of a rescued Spanish merchant whose ship was wrecked off the Australian coast in the 1920s. He was an Australian national lightweight champion, expected to win at least a silver if not gold, at the Melbourne Olympics. The other favourite was USA fighter Joe Shaw. As luck would have it, they were drawn to fight each other in the opening bout of the Olympics. Shaw narrowly won but a few bouts later was out of the tournament with broken ribs. Shaw and Carlos sat side by side watching the final. At one point Shaw leant over and said ‘these two are fighting for our medals Maxie.’ Max turned professional and later won another national title before retiring from boxing and running a menswear store back in Shepparton from 1979.
He died in 1996, aged 60
Kwementyaye (Max) Stuart
In 1958 Max was an occasional tent boxer and general hand around fairgrounds in South Australia. He was arrested after the brutal murder of a nine year old girl from Ceduna. A typed confession after a beating by police was enough to see him convicted. He was sentenced to death. Many people thought the confession was highly suspect. Max had hardly any English yet the police insisted it was a verbatim transcript.
After unsuccessful appeals the media took up Max’s cause. Due to great public concern - led by Rupert Murdoch as publisher of the Adelaide Times, Max’s sentence was commuted to life in prison. He was finally released in 1984 and became an important elder and spiritual leader in Alice Springs.