The legendary Larry Foley took boxing from the back lanes to respectability – when it needed it most.

The great – in more ways than one – Larry Foley. The great – in more ways than one – Larry Foley. Image: Getty Images

In the late 19th century, “civilising” influences caused odd distortions in public opinion. War between nations became all the rage, but bare-knuckle prize-fighting between men came to be seen as a barbaric anachronism. Boxing’s brutal bare-knuckle days in Australia extended from 1814 to 1884. By the time Larry Foley came along, the sport was dying – here and overseas.  Only the efforts of a few men to subsume prize-fighting under the category of science brought it back into popular favour. Three men in particular – the Marquis of Queensberry, who codified boxing’s rules, divided it into rounds and introduced gloves; England’s Jem Mace, the father of modern “scientific” boxing; and Australia’s own Foley – led the sport into the modern era.

Any one of them would be a fit subject for an Innovator, but it was Foley’s underestimated influence that ensured boxing’s survival. Foley introduced the new rules in Australia, which had become an important stopover for the world’s best pugilists. With the encouragement of the Marquis and Mace, Foley was able to overcome powerful social forces in the colonies and begin pugilism’s transformation.

Introducing the new rules, and incorporating the scientific, straight-punching methods he learned during his own brilliant, undefeated career between 1871 and 1879, Foley was a peerless trainer of champions, already greatly respected around the world in pugilistic circles.

Despite influential opposition, Foley’s “saloon” in Sydney became the alma mater of many a great, pioneering Australian prize-fighter. Police, previously mobilised against the likes of Foley, would attend fights at his gym (at the back of the White Horse Hotel in George Street, Sydney) for the purpose referees now serve: to stop bouts if one of the protagonists was taking a beating.

Foley’s endorsement of the new rules was accepted by the Fancy (as fans of pugilism were called) in Australia long before it was accepted in America, where the towering presence of John L. Sullivan, the undisputed world bare-knuckle champion, was a force for conservatism. As far as the “Boston Strongboy” was concerned, the introduction of gloves and time-limited rounds was for sissies.Ironically, Foley was forced to make one last foray into bare-knuckle fighting in order to kill it forever. Jem Mace urged Foley not to take part in his comeback fight against Alex Hicken, who had called Foley out by proclaiming himself the rightful Australian champion.

Hicken was internationally successful. Foley, stung by his insults and inspired by the symbolic possibilities of a victory, ignored Mace’s entreaties. Hicken would have none of Foley’s new rules. He wanted a fight to the finish “with fists, not pillows”. The fight caused quite a buzz in the colonies. Foley easily defeated Hicken in Echuca, just out of reach of the Victorian police, who made a half-hearted attempt to prevent Australia’s Fight of the Century. They stayed to watch and enjoy the revelry.

Pugs were often uneducated, rough men. Foley, an autodidact, was considered in his responses, frugal in his habits and neat and fashionable in his dress. He was also immensely popular. With one symbolic victory under the old, vicious regime, he managed to prove conclusively that he was the right man to introduce the new “scientific” era.

As a teacher and facilitator of talent, Foley also made a deep mark. At his famous “academy”, he trained some of boxing’s biggest names and most skilful practitioners: the marvellous, mercurial Young Griffo; world-rated heavyweights Peter Jackson, Paddy Slavin, Dan Creedon, George Dawson; and future world heavyweight champion Bob Fitzsimmons, a Cornish Kiwi who fought mostly in Australia. Foley’s “Iron Pot” became a nucleus of the fight game. He was shrewd enough to realise that even a regular sparring session at his venue, featuring the best talent in the land, was a drawcard, and held many four and six-round “exhibitions” under Queensberry rules. Though these spectacles were designed to line Foley’s pockets, they appeased many, if not all, moral pacifists.

Foley’s example changed pugilism from a spectator sport to a participation sport, lending dignity to the “Manly Art”. Soon, many parts of the colonies boasted athletic clubs – ancestors of the Police Boys Clubs –featuring boxing tuition. Over time, boxing became somehow commensurate with the “muscular Christianity” espoused in English public schools, and by the end of the 19th century, thanks mainly to the efforts of Larry Foley, boxing in Australia was again in touch with the zeitgeist.

– Robert Drane