This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007
Elliott (Elley) Bennett (1924-1981), boxer, was born probably on 3 April 1924 in south-east Queensland, son of Aboriginal parents Roger Bennett, bullock driver and athlete, and his wife Dolly, née Mitchell. `Elley’ was raised at Barambah (later Cherbourg) Aboriginal Settlement, near Murgon, and at Mary-borough, where he attended primary school. At 13 he left school and became a rural labourer, cutting timber and sugar cane, digging vegetables and peanuts, and working with stock. He played football at first, but his shortness pushed him into boxing. From punching a bag of sawdust dangling from a mango tree, he graduated to tent bouts and preliminaries at Maryborough. Showing promise, he trained with `Snowy’ Hill in Brisbane and fought there from September 1946.
Bennett’s eight-year career as a professional boxer, mostly as a bantamweight, spanned 59 fights for 44 wins (40 by knockout), 1 draw, 13 losses and 1 no-contest. During his busiest years (1947-51) he fought 33 times in east-coast capital cities. In April 1948 in Melbourne he won the Australian bantamweight title with a third-round knockout over Mickey Francis. Next year he knocked out the top French fighters Emile Famechon (twice) and Jean Jouas, and the leading world-title contender Cecil Schoonmaker, from the United States of America, before failing against Harold Dade, another American. In 1950 he twice defeated both Vic Eisen from the USA and Chai Sitphol from Thailand, but lost against Ernesto Aguilar from Mexico. He won the national featherweight title from Ray Coleman in a thrilling bout in April 1951, becoming a dual title holder. Next month he lost his bantamweight title to Jimmy Carruthers after a tough fifteen rounds, and told Hill `Thank heaven that’s over. No more bantamweight starving for me. I feel like a free man’. He defended his featherweight title three times as a bantam, twice against `Bluey’ Wilkins. From December 1953 he fought as a featherweight, retiring in September 1954 with the crown.
An `explosive’ boxer, Bennett had lightning fists, strong counters and a big punch. His fights against Eisen, Wilkins and Coleman were rated as among the best ever between `little men’ by Australian Ring Digest and by the referee and sportswriter Ray Mitchell. Ring, an American magazine, rated him as pound for pound the hardest hitter in the world in his time. Local supporters lauded him as the best Australian fighter not to win a world title; he was unable to negotiate a world-title bout with the champion Manuel Ortiz of Mexico or, later, with Vic Toweel of South Africa. Many wins were tense and exciting as he reversed looming points losses with one punch. He won and defended his featherweight title against Coleman and Wilkins with last-round knockouts; Schoonmaker fell to one punch in the sixth round. Carruthers survived the fifteenth, but had to be led to his corner by a courteous and smiling Bennett. Bennett’s power punching, however, was never accompanied by great evasive skills and he took punishment in his willing fights.
Journalists ascribed Bennett’s decline after 1952 to an aversion to hard work, but weight increase, growing indifference and a lack of fitness were largely responsible. The boxing commentator Merv Williams claimed that he `fought only as hard as he had to’. Bennett, noted for his sportsmanship in the ring and for his flashing smile, confirmed this in 1973 when he stated, `I never liked hurting anyone’. He retired, he said, because he was `sick of it’. His career had netted at least £20,000 and in the late 1950s he worked as a railwayman, and then a carpenter’s labourer, and owned his own home. Revered by his Aboriginal peers, he was a founding member in 1969 of the National Aboriginal Sports Foundation. He reportedly had a long battle with alcohol, and by 1973 was living on an invalid pension in a rented flat in Brisbane. Attributing his financial losses to gambling, he declared himself happy and remarked: `I don’t have any cauliflower ears or other effects from fighting. I’m fit but for my wonky leg’.
In the late 1970s Bennett moved to Bundaberg. He had never married but had had several relationships. Survived by his de facto wife Sheila Little and his two sons and two daughters, he died of pneumonia on 10 December 1981 at Bundaberg and was buried with Anglican rites in the local cemetery. In 1993 the boxing fraternity placed on his grave a plaque displaying the Aboriginal flag and his ring record. His elder son, Roger (1948-1997), commemorated his father’s world in Up the Ladder (1995), a play about tent boxing.
Richard Broome, 'Bennett, Elliott (Elley) (1924–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bennett-elliott-elley-12195/text21865, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 October 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007