Olympian Sumith Liyanage, the Floyd Patterson of Sri Lanka

My memory goes back to 1953. I was in Grade 9 at Nalanda. Our class-teacher was the late W. D. E. Perera, the famous Geography and English teacher. When he was conducting an English class explaining an interesting episode from "Round the World in Eighty Days", he stopped the class for a moment as a pitch- dark boy, pleasant and charming, neatly dressed in white, entered the class room with our late Diyonius – the peon, whom we fondly called ‘vice principal’. We were dead scared of Diyonius. He handed over the chit to our beloved teacher. A strict disciplinarian, W. D. E. Perera gave a hard look to this new entrant.

"What’s your name?" W. D. E. Perera asked him in his inimitable style.

"Sir, Sumith Liyanage", the boy replied.

"From what school?"

"Ananda College, Sir."

Liyanage, we welcome you. Do your studies well. There is a vacant seat in the last row. You sit next to Epasinghe. Look here Epasinghe, look after him and help him. Be friendly with all the boys in this class room. I wish you good luck".

That was our first meeting. Sumith and I became so close and the friendship continues to date. I consider him one of my best friends. I am proud of him. He is an Olympian, champion boxer, ace markmen, with both rifle and pistol, a fine cricketer, boxing administrator, who retired as Deputy Inspector General of Police, after serving the police with distinction for 38 long years.

Sumith and I were great "buddies". We played cricket together. I was so close to him. I took a great liking to him and became one of his close followers and never missed a boxing meet, when Sumith boxed. As he was so close to me, I invited him to join me for cricket practices. That’s how he began his illustrious cricket career. He was one of the best fast bowlers produced by Nalanda.

Floored Adamsky  of Poland

The greatest achievement for any sportsman or sports women is to represent the country in the Olympic Games. My good friend achieved this great honour.

It was the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. Boxer Liyanage, well known to Sri Lankan fans as "Black Panther", met the reigning European featherweight champion Jerzi (Joe) Adamsky of Poland. It was a battle royal. A straight one two punch and right across thundering upper cut had given Liyanage a moment of dominance over Adamsky who was felled. Liyanage was in cloud nine. He had the hats on the air feeling. I still remember what Sumith told me:

‘Premasara, when I dropped Poland’s Adamsky, I became over confident. After that I was not connecting my punches properly. I missed quite a few of them. He fought on. I lost the fight by a mere whisker. I will never forget the referees announcement, "winner red – Adamsky – clap for loser Blue Liyanage". Prema, I cried. I burst into tears in the dressing room, as I could not record a win for my beloved mother Sri Lanka.’

Even today, Sumith Liyanage regrets the moment of exuberance. The Sri Lankan boxing judge, the highly respected late Danton Obeysekera, who was a keen spectator by the ringside, highly complimented Sumith Liyanage on his stunning performance.

Sri Lankan Olympic team – 1960

The Sri Lankan Olympic contingent for the 1960 Rome Olympics consisted of Linus Dias (Captain – athletics – long distance), Maurice Coomaravel (cycling), Tony Williams (swimming), Sumith Liyanage, W. A. Dharmasiri (boxing). The manager of the team was Darley Ingleton.

It should be noted that world champion Muhammad Ali or Cassius Clay, as an amateur, won the gold medal at the Olympics in Rome in 1960, in the light middle weight.

‘Premasara, I had the good fortune and privilege of fighting in Playzat Delo sports complex boxing ring, where Cassius Clay fought. Luckily for me I did not meet him in the ring. It I met him, I would have been reduced to "clay"’, smilingly Sumith stated in lighter vein.

Family background

Sumith was born on June 24, 1936. Samuel Pitigala Liyanage (S. P. Liyanage) and Lilian Witanachchi were his parents. His father, late Sam P. Liyanage, was a man for all seasons. He served in the Postal Department. He was a fine artist, dramatist and actor. In 1920s, he acted in the ‘Sri Wickramarajasinghe’ drama staged at Heneratugoda Gardens, Gampaha W.P. Young D. S. Senanayake, who became the first Prime Minister of Ceylon in 1947, played the lead role as Sri Wickramarajasinghe. Sam Liyanage played the role of a minister. In 1950, he played the lead role in ‘Vessantara’. Sumith’s father, became famous later in 1960 in the film "Saravita" as "Pappamahattaya".

Olympic boxer Sumith Liyanage has four brothers and a sister. They are Dr. Pandu Liyanage, Jay Liyanage (USA), Lakshman Liyanage (UK), Kithsiri Liyanage and sister Rukmani.

Honest, fearless police officer

I was the one who invited him to attend cricket practices in the early 1950s. He opened bowling and was a hard- hitting batsman. I opened batting and kept wickets. Two of us were inseparable. Sumith was a fine team man. He was a true friend.

After leaving school, Sumith joined the police as a sub-inspector and retired as a Deputy Inspector General on June 24, 1996. He was an honest, bold, fearless and respected police officer. He was always on the look out for action. Once, he raided a gambling den at Maligawatta. He rushed to the scene with four constables. Sumith stood by the main entrance and growled, ‘stop – all of you are under arrest’. The scene was somewhat like John Kotalawala’s "Nainage Suduwa". The leader of the gambling den, picked a crowbar and rushed to attack Sumith. "You bloody young brat. You do not know who I am". For Sumith it was a matter of life and death. Sumith went into action. Before the bar was brought down, Sumith gave him a powerful straight punch and an upper cut. The victim was floored and all arrested.

Sumith Liyanage represented Ananda in the Stubs Shield for the first time as a junior boxer. His first bout was against a Sylvestrian – Annesley Soysa. He lost to him. He recollected this bout for two reasons. It was the first fight, and a good experience. After this inauspicious start, he had a string of successes. He boxed in the Stubbs shield from 1955-1957 and won his bouts.

His "Boxing Guru" was D. C. A. Wickramasinghe. He represented Sinha Amateur Boxing Club, which was started in the 1940s by three Anandians – M. A. G. de Silva, M. E. Chandrapala, M. Welivitigoda.

In the 1960s, Sumith Liyanage was awarded the Caltex sponsored Sportsman of the Year award for his outstanding performances in boxing.

The best win

Sumith considers his win over Percy Khatau of India, as the most memorable victory. In the second round Percy floored Sumith. With guts and courage, he stood up, and fought gallantly and won the bout. This was a tri-nation contest – India, Pakistan, Ceylon. In this contest Pakistan annexed the trophy.

SEAB championship

In 1957, Sumith was selected to represent Sri Lanka, in the South East Asian Boxing Championship. The team comprised of H. P. Jayasuriya, C. P. Jayasuriya, T. J. Martyn, P. C. Fernando, P. Wijesooriya. It was a moment of glory for D. C. A. Wickramasinghe. All of them were coached by this great boxing coach Wickremasinghe.

Constable humbles Olympic rival

I must mention here a memorable incident in my journalistic career which was woven around my good friend Sumith. At that time in the early 1960s, I was a university undergraduate and a cub-reporter attached to the ‘Daily News’ Sports Desk. I had my "Baptism in sports journalism", under such great men as the late M. M. Thowfeeq, Carlton Seneviratna and Christie Seneviratne. One day Carlton assigned me to cover the Clifford Cup Boxing meet. "Epa, your friend is meeting Mahagedara today at YMCA, cover it". I was thrilled to cover this boxing meet as I was seeing my good friend after the Olympics. I got a ring side view.

Sumith walked among cheers all around. As an Olympian he deserved it. He got into the ring majestically. On the back of his white dressing gown, ‘Sumith Liyanage – Olympic Games – Rome 1960’ was printed in bold letters in black.

Red corner – Sumith Liyanage.

Blue Corner – P. C. Mahagedera.

The fight commenced. Bear-footed P. C. Mahagedera attacked Liyanage from the word go. Sumith was tired. He was not connecting his punches. Later, Sumith picked on. At the end of the gruelling battle, police constable Mahagedera won by points, beating Olympic boxer Sumith Liyanage. All credit should go to novice Mahagedera. This was news of the highest order. I rushed to Lake House. My close friend was beaten. But that’s what sports means.

I wrote the copy and gave it to Carlton Seneviratne – Sports Editor. He discussed with me for a catchy headline. I gave a headline and it was the lead news on the sports page, "Constable humbles Olympic rival."

This was the lead in the sports page with a superb picture of the bout captured by the famous photographer Vincent Weerasekera.

After two weeks, Liyanage – Mahagedera return bout took place. It was held at Bambalapitiya stadium in the vacant land between the present Majestic City and Alban Place. Indian and Pakistani boxers also took part. Carnival atmosphere prevailed. In the preliminary round Liyanage met Mahagedera.

In the return bout, Sumith Liyanage the most scientific boxer, with all his experience, boxing skills and craft out boxed Mahagedera and beat him convincingly.

Fine administrator

After hanging his boots, he took up to boxing administration. He served as vice president of the ABA. Further, Sumith served as a manager.

Today, Sumith functions as the General Manager of Security at Paints and General Industries Limited.

Versatile sportsman

He was a versatile sportsman. During his career at the police, he played cricket, boxing and pistol- shooting. He won a silver medal in pistol -shooting at the World Police and Fire Games held in Adelaide, Australia.

Behind every successful public personality or sportsman, there is a woman. In the case of Sumith, the wind behind his wings is his charming, dutiful, beloved wife Clementine. She was a tower of inspiration to my beloved friend Sumith. They have a son and two daughters.

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