Dave Sands’ family has given the ABC permission to use photos of him. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article also contains images and names of other people who have died.
Growing up at Burnt Bridge Mission on the NSW Mid North Coast, native boxer Dave Sands grew from humble beginnings into an Australian boxing legend, achieving remarkable success in the 1940s and 1950s.
His family strives to keep his story alive and now, many decades later, he says a “wrong has been corrected”.
Sands, a Dunghutti man born Dave Ritchie, came from one of Australia’s largest sporting families. His brothers, Clem, Percy, George, Alfie and Russell were also all highly successful boxers who became known as “The Fighting Sands”.
Sands emerged as a rising star, going from success to success before his tragic death in a car accident in Dungog in 1952 at the age of 26.
He held three national titles simultaneously, in the middle, light heavy and heavyweight divisions, as well as the Australasian light heavyweight title.
Sands also achieved great success abroad, beating Englishman Dick Turpin to win the British Empire Middleweight Championship in 1949.
Long-awaited recognition for boxing hero
At the time, champions were usually given their own belts to keep, but after winning the British Championship, Sands did not receive one – the exact reason is unclear.
Now, 73 years later, he has finally received full recognition for the achievement.
The Commonwealth Boxing Council has sent a replica of the Commonwealth Championship Belt to recognize Sands’ achievement.
The belt was recently presented to his family members in NSW Parliament, including his cousin Phillip Dotti and grandson Chad Ritchie.
“It also gives a platform for young Aboriginal boxers to really look at something they can achieve.”
Mr. Ritchie said his grandfather’s achievements had also inspired him throughout his life.
“Growing up, I heard stories from the family about how wonderful my grandfather was, not only as a boxer, but also as a person, as a family man.
“It makes me believe that, not just in sport, but in life itself, you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it, and that’s something I’ve always been proud of.
The presentation of the replica belt came after a lengthy quest by Mr. Dotti to set things right.
Dotti said he eventually contacted UK boxing authorities, who were “very cooperative”.
“Sands was the first Aboriginal [person] to go abroad and win a boxing title and come back with that title. But [he] never received the full recognition of such an achievement,” said Dotti.
Before Sands died, negotiations had begun to challenge world champion Sugar Ray Robinson.
“He was Sugar Ray Robinson’s number one candidate for the world middleweight title at the time,” said Mr. Ritchie.
“And Sugar Ray Robinson is considered the number one boxer ever, so to be number one behind him at 26 years old isn’t going to get a lot of people.”
Boxing legend honored in his own city
Sands was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998 and his family wants to keep the memory of his achievements in Australia alive.
Dotti said he hoped to host an exhibition at some point of Sands’ replica belt and other boxing memorabilia in his hometown of Kempsey.
The Kempsey Shire Council is also working with the family to create an “ongoing and appropriate local memorial” for Sands and his champion brothers, and is considering a bust or statue.
Mr Ritchie said the recognition in Kempsey was “long overdue”.
“We’re talking about an Aboriginal family in the 1940s, when times were tough,” he said.
“You weren’t able to leave the mission without permission…and to be able to do what they did is something that no other family has achieved,” he said.