Boxing tent banner, 'Les McNabb Boxing Troupe', oil and acrylic paint and varnish on canvas, artist unknown, Australia, 1952-1955
'I could hear the caller throwing out challenges to "any mug brave enough to step into the ring with my fighters" and promising ten dollars if he could last three rounds. I could feel the drum they pounded to get your attention - "Boom, boom, boom" - long before I reached the tent, long before I saw the fighters standing on a raised platform stripped to the waist, arms folded, glaring down at the audience. Behind the boxers, stretching the length of the tent, hung a two-metre-high canvas mural painted with hard, strong colours. Dave Sands, Les Darcy, Ron Richards, George Barnes, Vic Patrick, Jimmy Carruthers, all the greats of Australian boxing, stared down at you smiling, arms raised in victory or with gloved hands shaped up, ready to fight.
As I reached the tent, I came against a thick crowd of people, mostly men: milling, listening, building up courage. The caller was working hard, introducing his boxers one by one. The heavier men were mostly old fighters, white men with thick middles and faces that had worked often - past their best, but still good enough to take on local boys, the yokels from the bush. Heavier men always last longer in the boxing game. The strength that comes with their heavy bodies gives them longevity even after their other skills have diminished; speed and technique are less important to a big man, but he still has to have courage. The lighter fighters were younger, and except for one round-shouldered boy with a long appendix scar running across his belly, all were Aboriginal, coal-black, coffee and bush-honey coloured men with strong thin legs' (Wayne McLennan, 'The Tent', 2002).
Boxing tent banners were a central feature of one of popular entertainment's most arresting tableaus. The banners were arrayed behind the elevated spruiking platform erected in front of the boxing tent. The tent entrance and ticket booth was placed below the platform. Between bouts, the troupe's fighters would stand before the banners while the tent spruiker sought potential challengers from the crowd below. A bass drum was usually beaten at a funereal tempo. This dignified advertisement was in total contrast to the riotous mayhem enacted within the tent.
The banners depicted international and local stars, often including Australian fighters who had fought with the troupe during their career. The fighters' depictions are a striking record of the former popularity of boxing, for most of the twentieth century the richest professional sport in Australia, with a complexity of venues from vagrant boxing tents to suburban and city stadiums.
Boxing tents were a feature of country and city shows until 1971, when most Australian states introduced protective laws which banned boxers from fighting more than once a week, and imposed a mandatory one month sabbatical on any fighter knocked down for the count. Only the Northern Territory continues to permit boxing tents.
The depiction of a gallery of Australian champions of the 1940s and 1950s - the heyday of Australian boxing - adds substantially to the value of the banners. The mid-century decades saw boxing gain unparalleled popularity, based in part on regular visits by US champions plus the exploits of an outstanding generation of local fighters such as Dave Sands and Vic Patrick, who gained household name status. The success of Sands and other fighters of indigenous background was a breakthrough moment in the history of Australian sport and society; indigenous sports people were routinely disadvantaged in previous times.
Charles Pickett, curator Design & Society.
Les McNabb was a heavyweight fighter from Adelaide. Billed as 'The Human Himalaya', McNabb was active in the professional ring during the early 1940s, but had already founded one of the most successful and long-lived boxing troupes.
The banner appears to date from the early-mid 1950s. Vic Patrick, described as 'retired' on the banner, gave the fight game away in 1948, while 'the late' Dave Sands died in 1952.