Published: 10:22 | 19/3/21

Doc: From Poverty Bay to Broadway

This is the story of Tom Heeney, New Zealand's first global sports star, who fought for the world heavyweight title in 1928 and helped put his country on the map. eir sport 2, Mon, March 22nd 9.55pm.

Heeney led a colourful life. Not only did he fight for the world heavyweight championship, he also went fishing with Ernest Hemingway and regularly fraternised with both Manhattan high society and Mafia gangsters alike in the nightclubs of Broadway.

He entered the ring at New York’s Yankee Stadium on 26th July 1928 in front of 46,000 spectators wearing a Maori cloak. Guaranteed $100,000, he was about to fight legendary world heavyweight champion Gene Tunney. There are sporting events that transcend the world of sports, and this fight was certainly one of them.

Just as Black Tuesday killed off the Roaring Twenties, boxing had its own Black Thursday on July 26th 1928. And fittingly it was two sons of Irishmen, the race that had made boxing the first truly global sport, who slugged it out at the wake for prizefighting’s halcyon days. 

Golden age

From Poverty Bay to Broadway is the story of how two sons of Irish emigrants, one from Manhattan and the other from a small town in New Zealand, came together at New York's Yankee Stadium in a fight that ended boxing’s Golden Age.

Emigration, gold rushes, pioneering days in New Zealand and two world wars all play a part in a saga that sweeps from 1870s New Zealand into jazz age New York, ending in 1980s Miami.

Featuring a wealth of archive material, this documentary goes far beyond the ropes to capture the primal ethos of the sport, the larger social canvas this particular fight was drawn on, and the remarkable cast of personalities involved.

It all started in July 1919 when Jack Dempsey beat Jess Willard for the heavyweight championship after which the ‘Manassa Mauler’ became the most famous athlete in the world.

Dempsey’s victory also heralded the arrival of sport as big business in a prosperous post-war United States. This was when the ‘celebrity’ was invented and sports heroes were among the first to be idolized.

This coincided with the golden era of American boxing where fighters earned hundreds of thousands of dollars and their exploits in the ring were written about by the likes of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ring Lardner.

Nicknamed ‘The Hard Rock from Down Under’ for his determination and stamina, a moniker given to him by the writer Damon Runyon, Heeney fought his way up the ladder and into the public eye. 

Through his fight with Tunney, he became a well known face on the thriving New York scene and, in doing so, introduced New Zealand, its people and its culture to the masses.

End of an era

On that fateful July night in 1928 crowds in Heeney’s hometown of Gisborne cheered him on in what was described as ‘the most ambitious radio station hook-up in history’. It looked like a new beginning but, sadly, it was the end of an era.

The Heeney-Tunney fight marked the end of the golden age of boxing. Tunney retired after the fight and it sparked another corrupt scramble to find a new champion.

What followed was an epidemic of fixed fights and foul fiascos that threatened to kill off the sport. It took many years for the sport to recover its reputation. The Heeney-Tunney fight really was the end of an era.

After retiring from boxing, Heeney opened a bar in Miami. It was here he became friends with Hemingway and the pair often went fishing together. 

He served with the United States Navy Civil Engineer Corps in World War II, and later coached boxing and refereed armed forces bouts in the South Pacific. 

Heeney died in June 1984 in Miami at the age of 86. 

Image: Getty

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