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Sands, Russell Peter (1937–1977)

by Richard Broome

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Russell Peter Sands is a minor entry in this article

David Sands (1926-1952), boxer, was born on 24 February 1926 at Burnt Bridge, near Kempsey, New South Wales, fifth of eight children of George Ritchie, a rodeo-rider and timber-cutter of mixed Aboriginal and European descent, and his Aboriginal wife Mabel, née Russell, both of whom were born in New South Wales. Dave's brothers Clement, Percival, George, Alfred and Russell also boxed, emulating their father and their maternal great-uncle Bailey Russell, a noted bare-knuckle fighter. Ray Mitchell recorded that, between them, the brothers contested 494 official fights, with 301 wins (209 by knockouts), 27 draws and 163 losses. Colin Tatz claimed that they fought 607 bouts in all. They also toured with boxing troupes.

In 1939 Percy travelled to Newcastle to train with Tom Maguire. He adopted the ring-name of Ritchie Sands, after 'Snowy' Sands, a local railway guard and boxing fan. All six Ritchie brothers fought under the name Sands and wore green satin shorts with a white star. At the age of 15 Dave joined Percy; both lived at Maguire's gym. Maguire also trained Clem, George and Alfie. Clem was to hold the New South Wales welterweight title in 1947-51 and Alfie the middleweight title in 1952-54. Without Maguire's knowledge, Dave fought a four-round preliminary bout in August 1941 at Newcastle Stadium, swinging his way to victory in the first round. Maguire disapproved, but quickly transformed him into a skilled boxer. By the end of 1942 he had knocked out a dozen opponents at Newcastle. On 11 August 1945 he married 18-year-old Bessie Emma Burns at St Paul's Church of England, Stockton.

Sands was soon boxing in twelve-round matches before excited crowds of up to ten thousand people in Brisbane and Sydney. In May 1946 he defeated Jack Kirkham for the Australian middleweight title. Three months later he knocked out Jack Johnson in four rounds to become national light-heavyweight champion. The rematches were even more one-sided: Kirkham was defeated in five rounds and Johnson fell after 2½ minutes of furious punching. By 1948 Sands had beaten all his local opponents and most American 'imports'. His mauling of a French fighter Tony Toniolo in less than two minutes in February 1949 led the English promoter Jack Solomons to take an interest in him.

Despite an enthusiastic reception from the British press, Sands began his campaign for a world title disastrously. In London on 4 April 1949, while suffering from a swollen, recently vaccinated arm, he was outpointed by Tommy Yarosz. Fifteen days later Sands won, dismally, against a spoiler, Lucien Caboche. Maguire then moved him to Newcastle upon Tyne, where friendly locals and a promoter Joe Shepherd restored his confidence. After two solid victories, he returned to London and in July thrashed the much fancied Robert Villemain in the 'fight of the year'. On 6 September Sands demolished Dick Turpin in 2 minutes 35 seconds for the British Empire middleweight title.

Shortly after his triumphal return to Australia in November 1949, Sands survived a serious accident when the steering on his motorcar failed and the vehicle somersaulted into a creek. Over the next eighteen months he contested and won nine fights, one of them a fifteen-rounder in September 1950 in which he took the Australian heavyweight championship from Alf Gallagher. Sands had become a leading contender for the world middleweight title and Maguire vainly sought to arrange a bout with the American champion 'Sugar' Ray Robinson. In the tricky maze of international boxing-promotion, his efforts were marked by a 'paper-chase' of offers and counter-offers. Sands defeated Mel Brown in London in July 1951 in a preliminary to a title-fight between Robinson and another contender Randolph Turpin. Had Maguire's negotiations succeeded, Sands would have been in Turpin's place and probably would have beaten an unfit Robinson, as did Turpin.

In October Sands won two fights in the United States of America. Back home, he hoped for a world title-bout, but he was estranged from Maguire. A new manager Bede Kerr reopened discussions with Robinson's connexions, but 'the chance never came'. On 11 August 1952 the truck Sands was driving overturned at roadworks near Dungog, New South Wales; he died of his injuries that evening in the local hospital and was buried in Sandgate cemetery, Newcastle. His wife, and their son and two daughters survived him; their third daughter was born in November. Sands had earned about £30,000, but it went on manager's fees, travel costs, tax, family expenses and generosity to his kin. A public appeal raised more than £2500, sufficient to pay off his Stockton home and create a trust fund for his family.

Dave Sands was a consummate fighter-boxer. The most gifted of the Sands brothers, he was fast and quick-thinking, full of front-foot aggression and fierce counter-punching. He had the best left hook of his peers, and could punch heavily with both hands while absorbing the blows of the hardest hitters. Overseas commentators and boxers thought that he could beat the best. Robinson wanted 'a lot of money to fight that guy [Sands]'. When Carl 'Bobo' Olson (whom Sands had defeated twice) took the crown on Robinson's retirement, he remarked: 'this title should have belonged to Dave Sands. It would have been his had he lived'. According to Mitchell, Sands fought 104 bouts: 60 won by knockouts, 33 won on points, one drawn, seven lost on points, one lost by a knockout, and two no-contests. According to Tatz, he was defeated only ten times in 110 fights.

The dark-eyed, snubbed-nosed Sands, whose skills kept his handsome features unscathed, was widely respected for his quiet manliness and dedication. Despite his devastating ability in the ring, he was modest and shy. To his family he was fun-loving and a good provider, even helping with domestic tasks such as sewing. He was extremely close to his brothers, with whom he shared a timber-cutting business. Bessie recalled in 1997: 'he was a gentle soul, a gentleman. We only had seven years together'.

Dave's death spurred on his youngest brother Russell Peter (1937-1977). Born on 20 February 1937 at Burnt Bridge, Russell became a featherweight and fought as a southpaw due to his withered left leg. Lacking mobility and a big punch, he developed excellent timing and ringcraft, and an uncanny ability to duck and weave. He enjoyed a reputation for courage, and showed that it was well earned in his twelve-round battle (1957) with Ray Riojas. In May 1954 he won the New South Wales featherweight title on points; in December that year he—uncharacteristically—knocked out Young Layton in two rounds for the vacant Australian featherweight title. He surrendered it to Bobby Sinn in November 1955. After breaking his leg in a motorcar accident, he retired in 1959. Russell Sands had 48 fights; he won 26 (mostly on points), drew three and lost 19. He died of bilateral pneumonia on Christmas Eve 1977 at Mayfield East, Newcastle, and was buried in Sandgate cemetery with the forms of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Mitchell, The Fighting Sands
  • R. Mitchell, Great Australian Fights (Melb, 1965)
  • P. Corris, Lords of the Ring (Syd, 1980)
  • C. Tatz, Obstacle Race (Syd, 1994)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Aug 1952, 26 Dec 1977, 11 Jan 1997
  • Sporting Globe, 28 Sept 1955.

Citation details

Richard Broome, 'Sands, Russell Peter (1937–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sands-russell-peter-12103/text20733, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 July 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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