Why is boxing in Asia now a neglected sport?

By Gamini Perera
Boxing, not so long ago commanded the respect of many an Asian nation by sheer performances in the ring. Sadly, today, comparatively boxing remains a far cry from the strong and healthy position it so proudly held.

From the beginning of this century to almost the early sixties, boxing in Sri Lanka reached and maintained a high standard. Albert Perera, the Obeysekeras, the Deraniyagalas, the Henricus brothers, the Jayasuriyas, were almost peerless in the sport and their contributions would be hard to equal. Those old stagers of the boxing firmament still talk about the Albert Perera vs. O’Sullivan bantam weight final in the British Boxing championships in London in the late forties. Albert Perera was a clear winner, until that unfortunate disqualification in the final round, alleging a waist-low. To all who followed this bout, Albert Perera was leading in the previous two rounds and was heading for a comfortable win over the then British National champions when the referee made that farcical decision amidst the roar of dissent and disapproval from a very sportive English audience.

Another unforgettable encounter, some years later, was when Albert Perera had to box three times against H. P. Jayasuriya for a berth in the Empire Games. Finally Jayasuriya, comparatively the young pugilist, got the verdict in his favour, with 2 wins against one. In later years, ‘HP’ speaking about this fight remembered the painful blows he received from the ageing master.

Obeysekeras the most illustrious

Coming to the growth and the development of boxing in this country, a family name reigns supreme. For, two consecutive generations, the Obeysekera, could be called the most illustrious of all the local pugilists. It started with J. P. Obeysekera, the maha mudaliyar. He excelled at boxing both at school and later in the national championships. His two brothers, Donald and Stanley, continued in his footsteps. In fact, Donald was the first to win at the local novices meet and was involved in the sport for a considerable time.

Then came the four sons of Donald, Danton, Asoka, Fredrick, and Alexander, all of whom donned the gloves with distinction. Daton and Fredrick went into win the boxing ‘blues’ at Cambridge University, while, Alexander, popularly knows as Alex, won the national welter weight title for a number of years. He climaxed his career by representing Ceylon at the London Olympics in 1948. The eldest, Danton, was one of the most scientific boxers ever produced in our country. After wining the Freshman’s final meet at Cambridge, he went onto represent the University at the annual Oxford-Cambridge championships with instant success.

In the first year, Danton scored a facile win over the then Oxford champion, which made London Times and the Daily Telegraph splash his name in bold print across their sports pages. In his second year, he repeated this feat, this time on a TKO (technical knock-out) in the light welter weight. This great performance made Danton the first Asian to captain Cambridge University at boxing. After passing out as a barrister-of-law, Danton continued his boxing career in Ceylon. To the day he retired from the ring, he never lost a single fight, and this included a heavy line-up of British and other foreign boxers who came his way.

Danton shares his knowledge

Since hanging up his gloves, this legend gave his experience and expertise to the younger boxers. In fact, to Danton’s credit that Royal College for many years won the Stubs Shield, the highest in inter-college boxing. He served for 55 long years as Royal‘s honorary boxing coach. Alex, Danton’s younger brother continued from where the latter left. He was the king in the welter weight category for years and represented the country both here and abroad.

Along with Albert Perera and Eddie Gray, Alex showed glimpses of his prowess at the London Olympics.

Once fighting the Indian national champions, who represented the Rangers Boxing Club of Bombay (now Mumbai), against the Amateur Boxing Association of Ceylon, Alex was in such devastating form that he played almost a cat and mouse game with his opponent. His technique, matched with tremendous skills made him far superior in this bout. Alex cornered the Indian champ and pummelled him with a barrage of superbly executed straights to his head, to come out a decisive victor in the end. The bout completed, the Indian manager walked up to Alex and presented him with a large silver plated leather belt, for his superb performance in the ring. Amongst other trophies and presentations, this lovely belt had a special place of honour at his modest home in Rajagiriya.

In those grand old days, most of the major boxing bouts were held on the top floor of the Town Hall, Colombo. A very large and enthusiastic audience watched these memorable fights, particularly, those which our boxers won against many heavy foreign odds by a combination of science, skills and inherent guts.

Barney Henricus shines at Empire Games

In those early formative years, other boxers of equal stature, such as Paul E. Deraniyagala, Justin Deraniyagala, F. C. Jayawardene, L. V. Jayaweera and Sgt. Selvadurai, to name a few, were second to none. They too, held their own against foreign opposition which came their way.

The Henricus brothers, Basil, Barney and Allen were also excellent fighters. Barney, went onto win a medal at the Empire Games. Down the years between 1935 and 1945, we produced other great exponents such as A. D. V. Perera, Albert Perera, Eddie Gray, Leslie Handunge, Derrick Raymond, K. Edwin and brothers, H. P. and C. P. Jayasuriyas. Then within the next decade, another fine crop of pugilists dominated the local boxing scene. They were Mahesh Welvitigoda, Anton John, Zavaheer. D. G. Labrooy, P. Wijesuriya, Dharmasiri Weerakoon, D. Ekanayake, and Akbar Ali, to name a few.

Of these, the late Dharmasiri Weerakoon had the best physical and mental attributes to reach even greater heights, if only he had pursued with the sport. Thereafter, between 1955 and 1965, another batch of excellent boxers came into focus. They were Winston Vancuylenberg, Malcom Bulner, Sumith Liyanage, H. K. Karunarathne, M. H. Jaharoof, and L. Hope. They were, too, rich in technique and tactics.

The late H. K. Karunarathne won the gold at the Asian championship. Then followed M. Y. Joharan, I. Ismail, S. Wijetunge, R. D. W. N. Perera and D. W. Weerasinghe, all of whom shone in the mid-seventies. They were followed by: H. S. Caldera, T. J. Nethikumara, K. A. D. Bandulasena. P. L. J. Ratnasooriya, R. A. Gunaratne, E. A.. P. Soysa, S. Prasanna and S. N. Gunasekera.

It is indeed sad to note that with in the last two decades, science, skills and techniques in boxing has somewhat given way to a ’fire and fury’ approach. Whatever the case be, the high technical standards displayed for nearly six decades are seen no more. Danton, Barney, Alex, Albert, Eddie, Edwin, Leslie, H. P. and C. P. Jayasuriyas, Mahesan and Malcom in action left over fond memories in the local boxing firmament.

Will the likes of these boxer appears in our boxing rings and when will it happen is our cherished dream.