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Initially taking the form of bare-fisted prizefights, boxing quickly spread from Sydney to Melbourne. An early bout was staged at the Salt Water (Maribyrnong) River in 1848. Later fights were held in secluded outer suburbs or in paddocks outside Melbourne, often in great secrecy, to evade police action. 'Moral improvers' sought the end of prize fighting as they deemed it a 'blood sport'.

Boxing flourished once gloves and regulations were introduced. The Marquis of Queensberry rules were first used when Bill Farnam knocked out Peter Jackson for the heavyweight title in three rounds at the Victoria Hall in July 1884. Gloved fights were soon held also at the Apollo Hall in Bourke Street, and several suburban venues. Big fights were staged in the open air. Hugh D. McIntosh erected a temporary structure in South Melbourne to seat 12 000 for the Bill Lang-Tommy Burns fight in 1908. 'Snowy' Baker, sportsman and promoter, built the West Melbourne Stadium on swampy land in Dudley Street in 1912, before selling it to John Wren in 1915. Baker standardised boxing weights and divisions in 1913.

Under the management of Dick Lean, Wren's Stadiums Ltd dominated boxing thereafter, often upholding its monopoly by leasing premises to new promoters until they folded. Challenges by boxers to Stadiums' power were met by 'lock-outs' until the boxers succumbed and accepted a paltry 25% of the gate money. When the Royal Exhibition Building trustees included boxing among the attractions of the oval, a campaign in which Labor parliamentarian W.P. 'Bill' Barry was prominent drew attention to anomalies in legislation, which supposedly guaranteed free public access. A subsequent court decision brought commercial boxing contests there to an end. Stadiums Ltd was the only beneficiary.

During the depression, boxing shifted to smaller stadiums at Brunswick and the Liberty Theatre in Fitzroy. After the West Melbourne Stadium burnt down in 1954, Festival Hall was built on the same site in 1956. But its biggest crowds were rock music fans, as boxing was declining. In Sydney, boxing retreated to suburban sports clubs, flush with poker-machine money. In Melbourne boxing vanished, save for fights at the local gym or occasional big events.

Richard Broome

Corris, Peter, Lords of the ring, Cassell Australia, Sydney, 1980. Details