24/05/2024

Archie Kemp (right) poses with trainer Dave Shine, one of the last men to see him alive. (Photo: National Library of Australia)

Archie Kemp's tragic in-ring death in 1949 has been a cause of learning and reflection for his son Allan, just two years old at the time.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island peoples are advised that the following article contains passages referring to deceased persons.

Like many of us, Allan Kemp has spent his life getting to know his parents. The fact that he is the child of famed boxer, Archie Kemp, has made no difference.

From being attentive to Dad’s achievements, to learning about the values that he stood for and all points in between, the son has been an observant student. Allan has pieced the narrative together to create a deeper understanding of where he comes from.

What has been unique about this journey, though, has been the fashion in which it has unfolded. Newspaper clippings have been relied upon to tell stories. Conversations have given way to anecdotes. Lived experiences replaced by second hand accounts.

On a fateful night in September 1949, one of the most skilled fighters to have ever graced an Australian canvas lost his life. After being on the receiving end of a vicious barrage from Jack Hassen, Archie succumbed to the sport that he loved so dearly.

History tells us that Hassen was never the same fighter after the bout. He is not alone.            

Those that have seen death or life altering injuries caused by their own fists are changed in a way that cannot be reversed. The effect of Archie’s death on his opponent, then, has been placed under the microscope by boxing historians for decades.

Understandably so, too. Many pundits believed Hassen could have been a World champion, but the weight brought on by tragedy never lifted.

Though Hassen is deserving of every accolade given, their bout should not dominate the manner in which Archie Kemp’s story is told.

In 1947, Kemp withdrew from a certain place at the next year’s London Olympics to pursue a professional career. It was hoped that by fighting for lucrative purses that he could set up his family for life.

Then there are amateur titles won in a weight class above his natural Lightweight limit, as well as professional bouts that filled stadiums in Melbourne and Sydney. Archie’s list of triumphs is clearly extensive.

Without question, the tragedy of the Hassen fight was felt most outside of the ring, however.

At home, wife Clare was left to raise a two year old son. Now carrying the weight of a family on her shoulders, she saw both the birth and the death of the dreams of her young husband.

While he was not cognisant of the impact at the time, young Allan was left to cope with the absence of the paternal bond that so many people hold special.

Indeed, he is a fighter whose legacy must be etched into an extensive yet sometimes selective history book. Archie Kemp is more than ‘the fighter that died in the ring.’

This is just a snippet of a portrait painted many years ago for all to see. What followed was a closure of the gallery that is the sport of boxing. It is now time to re-open the exhibit.

Triumphs

By the time he turned professional in 1947, Archie Kemp’s list of amateur title victories was an expansive one.

In actuality, they could only be surmised as pound for pound greatness. No surprise given his pedigree. Whether it be football or cricket, the Kemp family name became synonymous with the greater Brunswick, Fitzroy and Carlton area.

Archie’s only exception was that he found his niche throwing leather, not chasing it around an oval.

“They were all great sportsmen for some reason,” Allan Kemp told The Inner Sanctum.

In 1939, he won the Junior Victorian State Amateur Bantamweight title as a 16-year-old. The following year, he claimed his first senior title, the Victorian State Amateur Featherweight crown.

Just as he was making his ascension up the ranks, the outbreak of war in the Pacific loomed as a greater threat than that of any opponent.

Following the challenges imposed by the fall of Singapore and the bombing of Darwin at the hands of Japan in February 1942, Archie answered the call to join the Australian Infantry Forces in November.

Despite being occupied with National service, he still found time to box.

As reported in The Sporting Globe on April 26 1944 he “fought an American and although 12lb. the lighter, won well on points in three rounds” in New Guinea.

Upon his return to Australia, Archie continued to show his skills in weight classes above his natural frame.

Continuing on from a victory over highly touted British amateur Jimmy Brunt, he won the Australian Amateur Welterweight crown in 1946.

A certain buzz was beginning to attach to his name, and many writers began calling for his place in the Olympic team for London in 1948. Their only caveat was that he should compete at Lightweight, where they believed he belonged.

Regardless, the theories of the commentators proved to be just that. In March 1947, Archie turned down his place atop the amateur ranks in pursuit of a professional career.

As Allan understands, it was a decision based purely on financial incentive.

“The reason he decided to do that was because money was pretty scarce at the time,” he said.

“They were living in Fitzroy and they weren’t the best conditions. It wasn’t slums at that stage, but it wasn’t far off them.

“After the war, there wasn’t a lot around and there was money being offered to him to go. Mum said he didn’t particularly want to fight as a professional, but the money was too good.”

With the hype surrounding his transition from amateur to professional came genuine interest from boxing fans. People turned out in droves to watch Archie ply his trade at West Melbourne Stadium.

More eyes meant more lucrative purses. As the dollars piled up, so too did the wins.

Archie Kemp poses with fists up, ready to represent Victoria in the ring. (Photo: Allan Kemp)

Starting off with a knockout win over Jimmy Coombs, he had amassed a record of eight wins, one loss and two draws by Christmas in 1948.

His lone blemish in the ledger, a decision loss to Les Fuller was avenged three fights later.

Despite only fighting for just over a year and a half, Archie Kemp could make a claim at being the best professional Lightweight in Australia, even if he was not afforded the chance to prove so.

The Australian champion in 1948 was Vic Patrick, a powerful southpaw with over 50 fights to his name.

A clash between the grace of Archie, who danced with his opponents in true amateur style, and the hard hitting Patrick might have been written into the annals of history.

Moreover, it would have rocked West Melbourne Stadium to the ground, setting turn styles ablaze.

The fight never materialised however as Patrick called time on his decorated career.

Archie was afforded a chance at the Australian title, but only after a tough start to 1949.

A points decision loss to Frenchman Pierre Montane in February was compounded by a draw against Andre Famechon in March. The latter being a fight that many thought Archie won.

In May he would again lose on points, this time to Mexican-American Rudy Cruz.

The records do not tell the full story in this case. So much so that despite the run of form, he was still considered one of the two worthy contenders for the now vacant Australian Lightweight title.

Standing opposite would be the knockout artist Jack Hassen.

In 32 fights to that point, Hassen boasted an impressive record of 30 wins and two losses. More specifically, 24 of those wins had come from a finish.

With both fighters eager to prove they were the best the country had to offer in the wake of Patrick’s career, contracts were signed for a highly anticipated clash in Sydney on September 19.

What followed though was a meeting of circumstances in what would prove to be a fatal storm.

“They put the fight on very quickly, they didn’t want to muck around. Jack Hassen and my dad were the only two worthy of fighting but it probably come on too quickly for my dad,” Allan said.

The cork had popped from the bottle and lightning made its presence felt.

Tragedy

Up until the 10th round, Archie was putting on an incredibly technical display.

Merv Williams of The Sporting Globe wrote that at that point of the bout, “Kemp had fought magnificently” and that he “gave no indication that at any time he had been badly hurt by any of Hassen’s blows.”

Archie’s trainer, Dave Shine was apparently much more bullish about his pupil’s performance.

“I met with his trainer Dave Shine. Dave nearly fainted when he seen me because he hadn’t seen me in 55 years,” Allan said.

“I remember him telling me he was winning the fight on points up until the ninth round. He was outboxing Hassen.

“He certainly wasn’t disgraced in the fight, that’s for sure.”

Things had taken a turn in the tenth round, though and when Archie returned to the corner, questions were immediately asked of his condition.

“He went out in the tenth round and he didn’t look right, Hassen hit him a few times. Then he came in and Shine said ‘are you alright?’ and the ref came in and checked on him, but dad said ‘I’ll keep fighting,’” Allan told.

“Dave Shine said ‘well he told me he was alright’, though something was not quite right.”

Hindsight is an invaluable concept, but it is just that – a concept. If those in Archie’s corner had been able to connect the dots with knowledge that something fatal was awaiting, he would not have left his stool for the 11th round.

“I was talking to him [Shine] about it, he said ‘the day he fought Jack Hassen he’d been complaining of headaches three or four weeks before,’” Allan said.

“He also had a broken rib three or four weeks before and they weren’t even certain it had healed. I actually think he had broken ribs, not from boxing but from driving. He was a truck driver, unloading something and it hit him on the side.

“He couldn’t turn the fight down. He’d been waiting for two years to get into it, even though there was what he thought were minor issues.

“I’d suggest he had a brain haemorrhage before that and certainly his broken ribs wouldn’t have helped.

“He went down in the 11th round and didn’t get back up. That’s when it all turned on its head and must’ve caught up with him.”

Jack Hassen lands a big right hand on the fateful September night in 1949. (Photo: National Library of Australia)

Controversy reigned in the days after the fight which ended in Archie suffering a cerebral haemorrhage.

Specifically, pundits and critics alike pointed to the fact that Hassen had complained to the referee that his opponent had seen enough action.

Instead, he was waived on by the official, an order to continue doing his job. Similarly, Dave Shine received backlash for not reading the signs, per se.

Upon reflection, Allan takes a much more philosophical approach. Complicit in his own actions was his father, who may have been too tough for his own sake.

“They always said ‘you should’ve stopped the fight because he wasn’t well’ but he said ‘no, keep fighting,’” he said.

History shows that death is an element of boxing, regardless of who is at fault. There is no other way of putting it. Repeated blows to the head can, on occasion, seriously alter a person’s life if not claim it altogether.

The injuries sustained in the ring live on long after death occurs, survived through the fighter whose hands have dealt a fatal blow.

Such is the danger that no fighter is immune to the power of boxing.

The most righteous fighter, who lives a noble life outside the ring can be left disfigured by the harshest of emotional scars.

Take Ireland’s Barry McGuigan, for instance.

‘The Clones Cyclone’ as he was known used his platform to promote unity in an Ireland so politically divided.

Rather than fly the flags of the North or the Republic, he fought under the UN Flag of Peace. He would not have a national anthem sung before his fights either. Instead, his father – equipped with a voice that echoed in a way that forces one to listen – would sing ‘Danny Boy.’

Even a man so committed to peace could not escape the harsh realities of the sport.

Mere moments after his victory over Eusebio Pedroza for the WBA Featherweight title in 1985, a visibly elated McGuigan soon became overwhelmed with sorrow before being comforted by his father.

Almost three years earlier, he emerged the victor in a bout in which a Nigerian fighter named Young Ali lost his life. In what might have been the greatest moment of his career, death occupied a significant space in his mind.

“I’ve been thinking about it all week. I said if I won this World title, I would dedicate it to the young lad that died when he fought me in 1982. I said at the start that I would like it to be not just an ordinary fighter that beat him, but a World champion,” McGuigan said post fight.

It is clear that seeing death within the confines of the ropes and canvas stays with the victorious fighter. While McGuigan was fuelled to fight for his opponent’s honour, some are not so lucky and never recover from the emotional toll exuded.

Hassen falls into the latter category, but he was not alone in the realm of devastation.

Devastation

An old adage suggests that ‘time heals everything.’ That, through the passing of years, we as people mature and can let go of the imposter that is the things we cannot control. How to apply this to death though, is a question that remains unanswered.

In his seven fights after the bout with Archie, Hassen was defeated six times. More worrying is the fact that he was stopped on five occasions.

Without question, he had understandably become a shadow of the fighter that had once dominated the Australian Lightweight ranks.

In Allan’s eyes, time did not heal but instead it exacerbated. The pain of the event was too raw to speak about.

“I met Jack Hassen many years ago when he was living up in Sydney. He was a lovely person, the most gracious person I’ve ever met,” he recalled.

“He didn’t want to talk about the fight, he just wanted to talk about life. I was really glad I met him.

“He didn’t apologise, but he said he didn’t want to fight my dad. He liked my dad and they used to get on.

“It absolutely devastated his life as well.”

‘As well’ is the operative phrase from Allan. Many people felt a seismic change in their lives following the incident.  

The City of Melbourne went in to mourning for one of their first post-war sporting heroes. While reports differ, it can be estimated that over 6000 people attended Archie’s funeral.

Former opponents, administrators and fans alike, packed into Melbourne General Cemetery following a service at Sleight’s Chapel. One of the most important members of the throng, though, was two year old Allan.

The sight of his father’s funeral is one of the many archival pieces in Allan Kemp’s collection. (Photo: Allan Kemp)

His seat was formed by the loving arms of his young mother Clare, herself dealt a cruel blow by the fight.

She had witnessed the hopes and dreams of her husband cut short in the course of a night.

Clare was one of the select few people that knew that Archie was going to retire from boxing in the wake of the Hassen fight. Having made enough money from the sport, he was set to make investments that would hold his young family in good fortune.

“One of the deals when he turned professional was that he wanted to buy a house to set up the family and he also was going into a partnership with Jack Moriarty, who was a champion footballer with Fitzroy,” Allan told.

“He was friends with all of Fitzroy and he was going to open a service station.

“That was his dream – own a service station, set up a family.”

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Instead, Clare was now left to carry the responsibility of providing for their son at a time of economic uncertainty. Although a fund was set up in Archie’s name and his widow received a share of attendance revenue, the monetary assistance only eased stresses in the interim.

Absence, it can be said, has been more of a normality in Allan’s life than a recurring theme then. Dealing with this has not been easy.

He is of the belief that Archie’s passing marred his formative years.

“The biggest thing is the disappointment of the father. A lost father. I just didn’t have that. A step-father’s never the same,” he said.

“One of the things personally, because I’ve been without a father is the discipline to concentrate. I don’t concentrate too well in sport.

“I went to Melbourne under 19s to train but I didn’t have the discipline or concentration to see it through and looked for the easy way out, because I had no one behind me to say ‘don’t do that.’ It was all left up to me.

“That’s where the father, especially someone whose achieved a lot in sport, would’ve said ‘well hang on, if you want to achieve you stick in there, I’ll stick behind you.’

“So I’ve lost that part of my life I suppose.”

Then the ‘what if’ questions arise. About how things might have panned out if his father had made it to the final bell to have his hand raised.

All of these hypotheticals lead to one conclusion. Allan Kemp is still satisfied with how his journey has been undertaken.

“If he’d have stayed, what would’ve happened to me? I’d be a different person, wouldn’t have gone to the school I went to. I wouldn’t have done the things I’ve done and lived in a different place. Would have changed my life completely,” he said.

Ultimately though, the loss of an integral link in the family chain has been a destructive force. One in which the damage created has only been addressed by a long rebuilding processes.

Pain is still evident.

“With the father, I lost a family as well. The Kemps and my mum separated, they didn’t have a lot to do with each other. So I’ve lost a father and a family, the Kemp family, in all of that,” Allan candidly told.

“Now I’m rediscovering them it’s great, but it’s 40 years too late. I’ve missed out on 40 years.”

Still, a silver lining of sorts has emerged in that period.

While trawling through archives cannot replace the physical and emotional elements of a father-son relationship, Allan’s search has led to a deep understanding of the amazing legacy that Archie left.

Legacy

On May 5, 1879, the wedding of a Chinese tin miner, Charles Wah Sing and the daughter of English convicts, Mary Munting took place in Launceston. Following their union, the pair gave birth to three daughters.

After graduating from a convent school in Tasmania, their youngest child Florence made her way to Melbourne where she met Robert Henry Bateman Kemp of Fitzroy. Their son Archibald went on to captivate Australia’s boxing fans.

With that, the legend of Archie grows further so many years after his death. Let the record books show that he was the first fighter of Chinese heritage to win an Australian amateur title.

The family’s heritage is just another facet of Allan’s life story that was only found in documents.

“I didn’t know until I read in the paper that we had a Chinese heritage,” he told.

“My grandfather married a Chinese lady who came from Tasmania. Her father was a miner and her mother was an English woman who was the child of two convicts.

“My dad used to train in a loft above a stable. Chinese people owned it, Lee Sinh was their name.

“My grandmother, she actually knew them from Tasmania. They moved over here and my great grandfather knew them because they were miners too.”

Of course, we are left to wonder what could have been had he continued on to Olympic competition. At the time of writing, Lightweight Harry Garside has recently won Australia’s fourth ever Olympic boxing medal with bronze at Tokyo 2020.  

If Archie was a fighter in 2021, he could have chosen to pursue both an amateur and professional career. Olympic rules now allow a boxer to have five professional bouts before representing their country at a Games.

Famously, Justis Huni was set to do so this year until a pair of hand injuries ruined his Olympic dreams. Had he been afforded such a rule set, Archie might not have had to make such a fateful decision.

Australia has never brought home a gold at a games. It is unfortunate that we will never know if he could have been the first.

Archie Kemp poses with one of his many trophies he collected during his career. We are left to ponder his Olympic medal chances. (Photo: Allan Kemp)

In 1947, he was selected to represent Australia on an International boxing tour to South Africa. A year later, that nation brought home four medals from the London Games, one of which being Lightweight Gold medallist Gerald Dreyer.

Had Archie not turned professional, we might have at least been treated to a litmus test of how he would have fared against the best competition of the time.

It is his professional career, though, that gives a glimpse of just how special Archie was as a boxer. In terms of both pound-for-pound skill rankings and box office drawing power, he was among the best in Australia during the years immediately after World War Two.

From showing his technical ability against the likes of Leo Berry to slugging it out against Frank Flannery in a thrilling back and forth draw, he showed that he had the adaptability required to be great.

Moreover, Kemp plied his trade against very good International competition. In bouts with Cruz, Montane and Famechon, he was applauded for his toughness and tactical gamesmanship.

No matter where opponents were from, people turned up to watch Archie fight. On occasions such as his first bouts with Fuller and Famechon, West Melbourne Stadium reached its capacity of 10,000 people.

The significance of such contests have stood the test of time as Archie has still found ways to entertain years after passing.

Not too long ago, Allan made his way to the residence of a man who had also been the darling of the Australian sporting public’s eye, former World Featherweight champion Johnny ‘Fammo’ Famechon.

In a special meeting, the relatives of two opponents shared the story of fights that captured the imagination of the Australian public.

“I had a contact for Lionel Rose and I said, ‘do you know Johnny Famechon?’ and he said ‘I go down and see him once every couple of weeks, come down with us,’” he recalled.

“So we went down, I did a big folder up for him with all the stuff from dad’s fights with the Famechons – photos, history and all that.

“Famechon wasn’t well and he sat there and looked at it, he was there for about 15 minutes and he come back and said, ‘I didn’t know any of this, I’ve never been told any of it.’ His family didn’t know any of it either.”

With this, it can be said that perhaps his greatest achievement is in fact a posthumous one.

That is, having his family and those that loved and supported him most show an immense amount of pride in knowing the person.

Father and son may not have shared a bond in which deeds, words and actions help the other grow, but Allan has been enriched by his journey in learning about his dad.

He is well aware of the man he was and the impact he had.

“You’d have to be proud,” he said.

“All those amateur championships so close together at such a young age, fighting out of his weight division. The poorness, the poverty that went around in those years and the things you’d have to give up to even go boxing.

“All my mum said was that ‘he was loved by all. Never had an enemy in the world. The biggest turn out in Melbourne cemetery – right through the streets of Carlton and Fitzroy the streets were full.’

“What he’s done is amazing to me.”

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