The Alabama Kid KO’s Australia

By Daniel Attias on July 20, 2015
The Alabama Kid KO’s Australia
Reeves was often found singing when having his hands wrapped. (Herbert Fishwick)

If the records are correct and we know they rarely are, “The Kid” amassed an amazing 108 knockouts during his 22-year career…

The Alabama Kid wasn’t from Alabama; in fact his record shows he never even fought a single fight in that part of the world. Records aren’t all they’re cracked up to be it seems.

Clarence Reeves never much liked his real name. The story goes that as a young man he spent some time in Alabama and got involved in a street fight that happened to be witnessed by a fight promoter by the name of Les Huffman.

Huffman liked what he saw from the mill and matched Reeves with another youngster. The pair were dubbed “The Gold-dust Kids” but Reeves would have no part in such a name so the ring announcer that night was forced to come up with an alternate and the Alabama Kid was born. He won that night receiving a sum of 75 cents for his work.

If the records are correct and we know they rarely are, “The Kid’”amassed an amazing 108 knockouts during his 22-year career. During his long and storied time in the prize ring he would spend most of his prime years in Australia fighting the best this country had to offer.

Reeves arrived in Australia in 1938 having defeated former world middleweight champion Gorilla Jones just a few months prior. The Coshocton Tribune was glowing in its appraisal of his victory that night.

“Displaying the greatest form of his long fistic career, Alabama Kid last night pounded out a 10-round decision over Gorilla Jones, ex world’s middleweight champion.”

As a young African-American man in the 1930s he was accustomed to being a second-class citizen in his home country so he was somewhat surprised at the reception he was given on the other side of the world, but as he would come to learn he was still a black man in a country that had its own history of racial atrocities.

“The Kid” was a very popular pugilist on these shores; there were always those with a penchant for discriminating a man based on the color of his skin but to most of the Australian fight public he was very well received. He had a very laid back and cool demeanor, was often found singing when having his hands wrapped before a fight, had a great sense of humor, and a love of fine cigars and clothes.

Upon arrival to these shores, Sydney’s leading sporting newspaper The Referee was quick to appraise the young man.

“When the Alabama Kid visited ‘The Referee’ office I was more impressed by his keen, alert brain than I was by his wide shoulders, trim hips and imposing record. One sensed a dangerous quality in his make up. A sort of controlled energy and harnessed power.”

The power sensed by W.J. Ahearne that day was on full display in his first bout in Australia as he made easy work of Victorian Jimmy Starr on the undercard of the Ron Richards vs. Gus Lesnevich fight on October 27, 1938.

Walking to the ring with a cigar in his mouth before dismantling Starr in the first round endeared him to many a fight fan that day.

Another quick stoppage, in the third round, against Billy Wiseman followed before “The Kid” faced one of the best fighters in the world in Australian middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight champion Ron Richards.

Richards was a world-class fighter, rated in the top three at middleweight and light heavyweight by The Ring magazine for 1938 and was considered a big ask for “Alabama.”

A crowd of 14,000 showed up to the Sydney Sports Ground on December 22, 1938 and witnessed an amazing display of punching prowess from both men. Alabama Kid was the bigger man having weighed in at 169 pounds compared to Richards’ 162 but the size disparity played little part in the way in which the contest was fought.

The opening round wasn’t to be an indication of the savagery with which the fight was fought, as both men sized each other up. Richards was uneasy with The Kid’s southpaw style whilst the American showed more respect than he normally did by not engaging like he was prone to, which played into the hands of the Australian, as noted in the post-fight report from The Referee.

“Looking back and knowing know that the negro was suspicious of a trap, I think that ‘The Kid’ missed a trick by not launching a vicious full sweep offensive in the first round.

The Australian was all at sea and his defenses ill prepared.

The fight opened up with Richards flicking nervous left leads and seemingly intent on seeking the clinch and time off to study the situation. “Alabama” played into his hands.

The second round was more of the same from both men before The Kid set forth a barrage of power punches in a manner that would frighten many a man, a snarling, thrashing beast, winging hook after hook with vicious intent was “The Kid,” but Richards was more than up to the challenge.

Through five rounds the fight was either man’s, as Richards had to weather multiple storms of fury from “Alabama.” The next seven rounds were all action with both men landing hard shots but it was Richards who displayed the cleaner and more effective blows despite “The Kid” displaying a ferocity not often seen.

After the fight “Alabama” was in good spirits despite not getting the decision. W.J. Ahearne entered the dressing room and “The Kid” was quick to say, “Well, Mr. Bill you said you didn’t think I would take it. What do you think about me now?” to which the writer replied, “You are a game kid, Alabama!”

Game was an understatement; “The Kid” was a tough customer but also prone to a poor performance at times. Just three weeks later he took on another world-class fighter in fellow American Gus Lesnevich. Lesnevich was too good for him that day and The Sydney Morning Herald labeled his performance a “weak display.”

The next year was spent travelling around the country fighting some of the best talent Australia had to offer in the middleweight, light heavyweight and heavyweight divisions, with a plethora of knockouts coming along the way. “The Kid” fought in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Hobart, Launceston and Adelaide in a total of 25 bouts over 18 months.

In June of 1940, he boarded the British trans-Pacific liner, the Niagara bound for Canada but the ship struck a mine off the coast of New Zealand in the early hours of the morning and the 13,145 ton liner sank within half an hour of its 146 passengers and 203 crew abandoning ship.

The calm seas that night meant that not a single life was lost. A cargo steamer picked up the passengers and took them to Auckland. Whilst in New Zealand “The Kid” took part in three bouts, winning two and losing a points decision to New Zealand heavyweight champion Maurice Strickland, who held a 20-pound weight advantage. 

A return to Australia followed and a run of six impressive victories had “Alabama” back in the headlines. He had always wanted a rematch with Ron Richards and the public did too. On January 26th, 1941, he had what was arguably one of the best wins of his career stopping Richards in the eighth round of the contest.

“Alabama” dominated the fight with The Sydney Morning Herald observing that “he was always aggressive in every round and compelled Richards to back-move. He had a substantial lead in points when the contest ended.” The Daily Mirror likened it to a sheepdog herding sheep. “He penned the Australian like a sheep dog working in showground trials and hit him with every punch known and practiced since Cain stoushed Abel.”

The big wins kept piling up for “The Kid,”victories over Jack McNamee, heavyweight Billy “Wokko” Britt and even a knockout victory over Les McNabb, who scaled a whopping 278 pounds. Between fights it wasn’t uncommon to hear “Alabama” on the radio impersonating Stepin’ Fetchit, a noted American comedian and actor of the time, such was his appeal in Australia.

It was a glorious ride but one that came to an abrupt and sad end. Fistic remembrance wasn’t the only thing the “Alabama Kid” left behind from his time here. Sadly, he was deported in 1948 under the White Australia policy and left behind a wife and three children. A large contingent of people opposed his deportation, including some of the major newspapers, but he was never allowed to reenter the country.

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  1. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:28pm, 07/24/2015

    Fair enough.

  2. Daniel Attias 06:24pm, 07/24/2015

    I’m grateful for all the men who fought for my country, I attend the ANZAC service just about every year so I’m well aware of the sacrifices the many Aussie soldiers made for the freedoms I enjoy today and I have no intention of forgetting or letting my children forget those who fought.

    Is it just Alabama Kid that should be ridiculed for boxing instead of fighting when the war was on or should the thousands of others both in Australia and the United States, to name but two countries, be ridiculed too?

    Whether or not the sport should have been postponed completely whilst the war raged on is a question I’m not prepared to answer as I lack the depth of knowledge required to do so.

  3. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 04:53pm, 07/24/2015

    June 1942, BATTLE of MIDWAY, the battle that literally saved Australia from invasion. 4/8/42 Alabama Kid/Ron Richards NC 10/12. November 1943, BATTLE of TARAWA: 1,696 KIA, 2,101 Wounded. 10/30/43 Alabama Kid/Al Hoosman L Pts. 12 and 12/11/43 Billy Britt W KO 3. June 1944, BATTLE of SAIPAN: 3,426 KIA, 10,364 wounded. 6/10/44 Alabama KId/Les McNabb W TKO 8. September-November 1944, BATTLE of PELELIU: 1,508 KIA, 6,635 Wounded. February 1945, BATTLE of IWO JIMA: 6,821 KIA, 19,217 Wounded. April 1945, BATTLE of OKINAWA: 12,250 KIA, 55,162 Wounded. 2/17/45 Alabama Kid/Jack Johnson L TKO 6 and 7/14/45 L TKO 11. If these men hadn’t fought and died Alabama Kid would have had to hightail it for the bush and you’d be typing out your articles in Japanese….guaranteed.

  4. Daniel Attias 09:12pm, 07/23/2015

    Irish, what is the basis for such vitriol? Is it not conceivable that Alabama, who came to Australia in 1938, a year before the war began, had actually made a good life for himself in Australia and his motives weren’t to avoid the war or to screw some Aussie soldiers woman but that he genuinely enjoyed the country and his new found life?

  5. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 08:32am, 07/23/2015

    So that ex-Pat Alabama Kid could spend the duration KOing hopeless/hapless wartime Aussie fighters (aside from Richards and Sands) and screwing the “girl back home” of some “Dear John” of an Aussie soldier who was off fighting in some Godforsaken jungle.

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:41pm, 07/22/2015

    From December of 1941 until April 1945 Americans were fighting and dying in the South Pacific….

  7. KB 07:57am, 07/21/2015

    Daniel. nice to see you back up your work with rare footage. It validates your writing.

  8. oldschool 06:57am, 07/21/2015

    Daniel, thank you for another wonderful trip down memory lane. It’s nice to see that fighters like the Alabama Kid are still remembered. Ron Richards is another somewhat forgotten fighter from the past who was dangerous to the core.

  9. Clarence George 02:13am, 07/21/2015

    Now that’s what I call mixing it up.  What a contrast to McJoe Arroyo-Arthur Villanueva of this past Saturday, what with Arroyo clinching his way to a robbery, er, win.  One of the worst fights in recent memory, and that’s saying something.

    Boxing should follow the example set by tennis, where players are allowed only so many challenges.  In the same way, boxers should be permitted only so many clinches.  Think of it, an end to the jab, jab, clinch school of boxing, to pugilisticus interruptus.

    Anyway, Daniel, I look forward to more on Alabama Kid, another in a long line of Clarences who have brought blood and honor to the ring.

    I wonder, for example, if his wife is still alive.  She’d be around 90, so it’s conceivable.  And the kids would only be in their late 60s.  Did they follow their husband/father to the States?  They certainly should have, though perhaps they remained in Australia.  There’s a very poignant quote of Mrs. Reeves, pleading for her husband not to be deported:  “We are without a breadwinner in a strange city and I do not want to die.”

  10. Daniel Attias 12:48am, 07/21/2015

    Thank you, Clarence. This was a very enjoyable research piece and I feel as though I may very well write another article on the Alabama Kid at some point, such was the appeal of his story.

    For those interested, here is some rare footage of Alabama Kid’s first fight with Ron Richards in 1938.

    http://www.t3licensing.com/license/clip/48050044_1100.do?assetId=clip_8856627&keywords=boxing,australia

  11. Clarence George 05:47pm, 07/20/2015

    Characteristically good work, Daniel, in seeking to generate interest in an impressive boxer who deserves to be (but isn’t) remembered.  In fact, it left me hungry for more.

    The only two fighters I know of who fought from fly to heavy are Alabama Kid and his contemporary, Freddie Fiducia.  He, too, is forgotten.

    And wonderful that Stepin Fetchit got mentioned.  That is most definitely a name one doesn’t come across much anymore.

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