The First Boxing Kangaroo – from Philadelphia?
You remember the movie in which an underdog fighter gets a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the champion? He loses the fight while winning everyone’s respect?
No, I’m not talkin’ about 1976’s Rocky, the Italian Stallion from Philadelphia; I’m talkin’ about 1978’s Matilda, the boxing kangaroo from Australia, mate.
“I’m fighting for the life of a man, and a marsupial, that I give a damn about” (throw shoe).
Although people naturally associate kangaroos with Australia, it is possible that the first boxing kangaroo, like Rocky, was actually from Philadelphia.
The Boxing Kangaroo Flag
The red-gloved, yellow kangaroo Boxing Kangaroo flag, the revered symbol of Australia’s fighting spirit that flies at international sporting events, originated with the crew of the America’s Cup racing yacht, Australia II, whose winged-keel stripped the United States of the America’s Cup trophy in 1983; the first time that the cup left the United States since the yacht, America, won the cup over fifteen British boats, in front of Queen Victoria in 1851. The Australian Olympic Committee purchased the rights to the image in the late 1980s.
But the image of the boxing kangaroo is much older. During World War II, for example, the boxing kangaroo served as a national symbol, stenciled on some airplanes of the Royal Australian Air Force, and appearing on propaganda posters.
The “Kangaroo” was used as a symbol of Australians in international boxing matches since at least as early as 1891:
The Kangaroo Whops the Eagle.
The long looked-for fight between Joe Goddard, of Australia, and Joe Choynski, of America, took place last week in Melbourne, and it was another case of the Australian showing superiority over the foreigner.
Zehan and Dundas Herald (Tasmania), February 24, 1891, page 3.
Curiously, however, the first public exhibition of an actual boxing kangaroo may have taken place not in Australia, but in the United States, at the Philadelphia Zoo.
“John L.” – Philadelphia’s Boxing Kangaroo
A Boxing Kangaroo.
He Can “Put Up His Dukes” with Some of the Best of ‘Em.
A marked characteristic of many of the animals at the Philadelphia Zoo is their love of play. In fact, most of them seem to have forgotten that they ever had savage instincts. The largest kangaroo in captivity is the big one at the Zoo, which the keepers hav nick-named “John L.” The reason they call him by that name is because he can box almost as well as the famous pugilist [(John L. Sullivan)] himself.
This really clever trick was taught him by his keeper, to whom he is very much attached. One day while going in to clean the cage the keeper noticed that “John L.,” hitherto morose, showed a decided inclination to play. He reared himself on his hind legs and put up his “props” just like a fighter. The keeper put his “dukes” up too, and advanced on “John L.” The result was a rather clumsy exhibition of the manly art.
But this first attempt was enough for a starter, and the big kangaroo proved a willing pupil, so that in a short time he could do almost everything but deliver the knock-out blow.
Headkeeper Byrne had a round or two with “John L.” recently, and he had to hustle around the cage pretty lively to keep the nimble animal from getting in one or two hard punches. When Mr. Byrne entered the cage “John L.” cocked his hat to one side and comically surveyed his visitor.
As soon as Mr. Byrne put himself in a fighting attitude the wily kangaroo did likewise, and began to fiddle his paws up and down, much after the fashion of an old-style pugilistic exponent. He slowly advanced toward the keeper, and every move he made had a suggestion about it of business. When Mr. Byrne finally left the cage “John L.” fairly seemed to smile derisively at the easy manner in which he had vanquished his foe.
Phillipsburg Herald, April 2, 1891, page 2.
The article is, admittedly, ambiguous or at least not clear on a couple of points. It does not specifically state that the boxing match was a public exhibition, and it does not clarify how much earlier before the date of the article, in early April, 1891, the match took place. Determining, with precision, perhaps from newspaper archives from Philadelphia papers, might go a long ways towards settling the question of who was first, because the earliest reports of kangaroo boxing in Australia were published less than two week earlier.
“Jack” – Australia’s First, and Foremost Boxing Kangaroo
Intercolonial Items. [By Telegraph.] Victoria. Melbourne, Friday Afternoon.
The latest thing in side shows is fighting the kangaroo. The animal is trained to box, and to-day fought a man in the city. He is a splendidly trained animal, and a challenge to fight anyone in the world has been thrown out.
Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), Friday March 20, 1891, page 3.
Jack the Fighting Kangaroo has taken up his position as a public entertainer at the Waxworks, where he gives an exhibition of his warlike instincts every afternoon at three o’clock, and every evening at nine - his antagonist being Professor Lindermann – for whom the kangaroo entertains such a feeling of respect – or admiration – which ever it may be – that he never takes a mean advantage of his opponent – which says a good deal for the kangaroo. Jack’s history is so far remarkable, from his being the first of his species to voluntarily accept a regular course of training, and by so doing upsetting all the theories formulated by naturalists, who state that kangaroos cannot be educated. Jack, the Fighting Kangaroo, is a native of the Upper Goulburn district, and has been trained during his three years of life by Mr. R. S. Mayne,[i] of Jamieson, who seeing that the animal showed signs of intelligence beyond his fellows, set to work to teach him a number of accomplishments, never yet attempted by animals of his kind.
Table Talk (Melbourne, Victoria), March 26, 1891, page 13.
|Melbourne Punch, April 16, 1891|
The question of who was first is certainly moot at this point, and probably pointless too. But when kangaroo boxing became a worldwide phenomenon, it came out of Australia, not Philadelphia. Although Philadelphia’s fighting kangaroo, "John L." never inspired imitators, Philadelphia's Rocky inspired 1978’s forgotten classic, Matilda, the Boxing Kangaroo – perhaps Elliott Gould’s and Robert Mitchum’s best performances ever – in a boxing-animal movie.
(For an even older image of a boxing kangaroo, see my Update: Kangaroo Boxing Too - the First "Boxing" Kangaroo)
Kangaroo Boxing Circles the Globe
Professor Lindermann and Jack the Fighting Kangaroo attained local celebrity in very quick order:
“Jack,” the fighting kangaroo, keeps up his reputation as an unique pugilist, and his popularity appropriately advances by leaps and bounds.
The Prahran Telegraph, May 2, 1891, page 3.
After several weeks in and around Melbourne, “Jack” the Fighting Kangaroo moved on to Adelaide by mid-May, and Sydney by the end of June.
In Sydney, the Kangaroo took up “acting”:
“Evangeline” was witnessed by a crowded house on Saturday, when a decided novelty was the introduction in the second act of Jack, the boxing kangaroo. The antics of this well-trained animal kept the audience in laughter. The brute “dodges” the blows of the Lone Fisherman by throwing back its head, and when the “rally” gets a little too severe it stands upon its tail, and, quick as lightning, gives “one-two” with both its hind legs in a way that one might imagine would rather astonish J. L. Sullivan. The Lone Fisherman, better instructed in the ethics of kangaroo warfare, at such times throws himself on the ground as a hint that the “round” is at an end, and the four-legged brute then fondles the biped with comic demonstrations of affection. The new feature was received with great applause.
The Sydney Morning Herald, July 20, 1891, page 4.
The great success which marked the introduction of the fighting kangaroo in “Evangeline” has induced the management to include him in the cast of “The Corsair.” The cleverly trained animal was in good fighting trim last evening, and had a lively sparring match with his attendant.
The Queenslander (Brisbane), August 29, 1891, page 399.
But the good times did not last forever:
The kangaroo fulfilled his engagement for 10 weeks, appearing with the Evangeline Company in Melbourne and Sydney. “Jack” was then taken to the Northern district, where, on the 30th October treated the residents of Newcastle to a matinee and performance. Next day he appeared at Wallsend, but, unfortunately, died on the following Monday.”
Wagga Wagga Express (NSW), March 12, 1892, page 6.
The owner accused the promoters of poisoning the kangaroo. But a “veterinary surgeon declared it had died from influenza.”[ii]
But not even death could stop fighting “Jack.” A second Kangaroo named “Jack” continued performing through the end of 1891 and into 1892.
In mid-1892, Jack’s wrangler, Professor Linderman, was performing with a third kangaroo, who like Philly’s boxing kangaroo, went by the name “John L.”:
On Tuesday evening Professor Linderman exhibited in the shire hall his fighting kangaroo “John L. Sullivan,” so named after the celebrated American champion by reason of the size of the animal, which is truly a grand specimen . . . standing fully eight feet high when in an upright posture, and towering well above his little and agile opponent, the professor, when boxing. . . .
Like the kangaroo which Professor Linderman previously exhibited in the principal cities of Australia, and which died a short time back, the present animal was trained in this district, and the present tour, which opened in Doon on Saturday last, is only a preliminary canter for the purpose of enuring “John L” to the stage and strange audiences and surroundings. Considering that the Alexandra exhibition was his third appearances in public, and that the large stage and hall and music scenery somewhat attracted the animal’s attention, Mr. Linderman may be credited with high praise on the success of his tutelage, for although not quite so active or self-possessed as his predecessor, “John L.” displays good science, while his commanding presence makes him appear a far more dangerous adversary, and this fact, coupled with the extra training he will receive ere he opens in the metropolis, will doubtless command in the large centres of population a greater measure of encores in the matter of attendances than was the case with the first fighting kangaroo.
Alexandra and Yea Standard, Gobur, Thornton and Acheron Express (Vic.), June 18, 1892, page 2.
Professor Linderman had conquered Australia and spawned imitators. There were boxing kangaroos performing in Australia even after Professor Linderman left the country for England.
In late 1892 (more than seventy years before Woody Allen boxed a kangaroo on British Television), Professor Lindermann and “John L.” played to packed houses at the Westminster Aquarium:
[T]he British stage has been both enriched and enlivened by the advent of a boxing kangaroo which stands seven feet in height and boxes five fierce rounds with its keeper amid the howls of the delighted crowd. The brute is named John L. It pays great attention to shaking hands, stops when time is called, and handles the gloves as if born with them on.
The Anaconda Standard, November 27, 1892, page 1.
A Kangaroo Boxer.
An exhibition of boxing of an unusual character has been secured by the management of the royal Aquarium. Professor Landerman, and Australian pugilist, will box a kangaroo seven feet high. It is said that the kangaroo boxes scientifically and hits harder than the ordinary pugilist. . . .
There will never have been such a novel exhibition of boxing. John L. Sullivan, though challenged, refused to fight, and Mme. Sarah Bernhardt was so amused and taken with the exhibition at the Criterion, Sydney, as to offer £1000 for the animal.
The Morning Call, December 14, 1892, page 4.
|Punch, Volume 104, May 27, 1893, page 242|
If kangaroos could box, could they also race?
|Punch, volume 103, December 31, 1892, page 301|
|Judge's Library, Number 167, 1903|
The boxing kangaroo may have outstayed his welcome, and was soon outdrawn by a wrestling lion:
|Salt Lake Herald, July 9, 1893, Page 14|
Roused to emulation by the instantaneous success of the boxing kangaroo, London variety managers have been hustling to unearth a rival athletic novelty. The Oxford Theatre of Varieties believes it has at length filled the bill, and now expends its display type on a wrestling lion. . . . He has been two years under the care of Amousa, who is a West Indian and black as ebony, with gleaming eyes and teeth as white as the driven snow. Standing 5 feet 10 1-1 inches, and weighing close on 15 stone, he loks like the personification of strength and courage. Quietly he entered the lion’s cage, and, at a sign from Alex, the brute reared himself up and the pair “took hold” in the Cumberland fashion, only neither could clasp hands around the body. The first fall was given in favor of his majesty the lion (whose name, by the way, is Prince), who simply, by superior weight in the upper part of his body, bored his opponent down flat on his back. Again the couple got into grips, the lion apparently very unwillingly this time. After a little manoeuvring Alex attempted to twist the king of beasts on his back, but failed lamentably, both falling side by side. . . . For a while the lion rested on his haunches until in a catch-hold bout Alex threw him very cleverly by a singularly well-executed twist. The fourth and last fall went to the sable champion, who very adroitly back-hurled the leonine hero of the wrestling arena, and fell plump on him. At the close of the wrestling Alex opened the jaws of the lion, and, while holding them apart, placed his head in the animal’s mouth and took a survey of the contents of his stomach. After that Prince fired a pistol which was suspended from the roof of the cage, and then Alex and the lion lay down on the floor together and positively cuddled each other.
The Times (Richmond, Virginia), March 26, 1893, page 23.
|Salt Lake Herald, July 9, 1893, Page 14|
The trainer was born in the island of St. Vincent, and till the age of 15 he had never seen a traveling menagerie.
Taken to Morocco by a party of English gentlemen bent on a great hunting expedition, he obtained a certain amount of experience in wild-beast hunting, and later his fine physique procured him an engagement in Sanger’s celebrated English circus, but he there had nothing to do with the show, and was considered more ornamental than useful by his employers.
One fine day the official lion tamer felt his nerve give way; he refused to go into the cage, and the performance would have had to come to an end had not Alicamousa offered to take his place, and there it was that he found to his surprise that he had a remarkable ascendancy over animals.
This is how he found his vocation. During the last twelve years he had tamed and trained over fifty tigers, leopards, bears, wolves and elephants. It was Alicamousa who first introduced the trick of making a lion fire off a pistol in the presence of other wild animals, and he soon became famed throughout Europe as a trainer.
The first idea Alicamousa ever had of training a lion to wrestle was from seeing the Boxing Kangaroo. He said to himself: “If a kangaroo can box, surely one of my lions can wrestle,” and he immediately began looking out for a likely one to teach.
The Salt Lake Herald, July 9, 1893, page 14.
With the English public’s thirst for boxing kangaroos having been slaked, “John L.” (or several facsimiles thereof) jumped across the pond for greener pastures in the United States.
The United States
In May of 1893, the United States was invaded by several boxing kangaroos:
A Boxing Kangaroo:
The celebrated, much talked of, boxing Kangaroo will be on the Monowai enroute to the World’s Fair [(in Chicago)]. Some of our local professionals purpose trying to bout with the animal if the steamer stays long enough.
The Hawaiian Star (Honolulu), May 3, 1893, page 2.
For the World’s Fair.
Siva-Siva Dancing Girls and Boxing Kangaroos.
On the Monowai yesterday was quite motley assortment of freaks from the Southern Hemisphere, designed for show at the World’s Fair. Chief amongst them were four Siva-Siva dancing girls who, under the guidance of Manager Stevenson of Apia [(Somoa)], will open as a tropical attraction in songs and dances in Chicago upon their arrival there. Three boxing kangaroos were also on exhibition, in large wooden cages on the upper deck and hardly look the sloggers that they really are. J. Tait of Sydney is manager of this attraction and shows with especial pride the Australian wonder “Jack,” who has boxed every other kangaroo into smithereens in Australia. The animals stand, on an average, six and a half feet high and are marvels of strength and agility. They box with gloves on and soon knock out the best of professional sparrers.
The Hawaiian Star (Honolulu), May 6, 1893, page 4.
The Australian Boxing Kangaroos at the Meyer’s Wigwam Theater.
Manager Meyer has secured at an enormous expense the greatest novelty attraction every brought to this city. It is the pair of Australian Boxing Kangaroos, of whom the press of this city has given columns of praise and write-ups during the past two weeks. They will appear in a glove contest, which will be amusing and interesting. This is the first exhibition of its kind ever introduced in this country. They will appear May 22.
The Morning Call, May 15, 1893, page 8.
When the Morning Call called the boxing kangaroo in San Francisco, “the first exhibition of its kind ever introduced in this country,” it was not entirely true. Two circuses had advertised their own boxing kangaroos earlier that same month:
This great feature of the show is the one great novelty, but such rare things as the boxing Kangaroo; Earl the trotting dog; Basis and Baby Ruth, the largest and smallest female elephants in the world . . . .
The Hocking Sentinel (Logan, Ohio), May 4, 1893, page 2.
|People's Voice (Wellington, Kansas), May 5, 1893, page 8|
May 5, 1893.
And another boxing kangaroo died in Chicago, where he was in training for the Chicago World’s Fair:
A Boxing Kangaroo Dead.
Chicago, May 17. – The boxing kangaroo died yesterday in the barn which had been her quarters since her arrival. It was seized with a chill Saturday. It continued to grow worse, and Sunday morning Messrs. Allen and Harris, her owners, called a veterinary surgeon, but he could do nothing. The kangaroo cost Allen and Harris $5,000, including the expense of bringing it to this country. As it was as proficient in boxing as the one that earned a fortune at the London aquarium, her owners expected to reap a rich harvest by exhibiting it here during the world’s fair.
The Kinsley Graphic, May 19, 1893, page 1.
Kangaroo boxing came to Madison Square Garden in New York City in June 1893:
A Kangaroo Boxing and Boxed.
The Unusual Pugilistic Contest at the Garden Yesterday.
A most remarkable exhibition of pugilism was given t the Madison Square Garden yesterday afternoon before a small company of invited guests. Three rounds were fought between “Big Frank” and “Tom” Tully, otherwise known as “Black Jack.” “Black Jack” is a California man who is said to be celebrated as a pugilist, and “Big Frank” is a kangaroo. Frank is a five-year-old; Jack is considerably older and also heavier. He looks stronger too, Frank’s arms being no larger than a small child’s, but Frank is more vicious and less careful about observing the rules.
New York Tribune, June 2, 1893, page 4.
And a kangaroo did, eventually, perform at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The kangaroos that came direct from Australia, via Hawaii and San Francisco, appear to have had the honors:
Jack is Happy.
The Kangaroo Boxer’s Wife Arrives.
Kangaroos, Indians, prize-fighters and racehorses came to town yesterday morning on the steamer Alameda, from Sdney, Apia and Honolulu.
The kangaroos attracted more attention than all, for one of the party is the wife of Gentleman Jack, the champion kangaroo boxer of the world [(who had arrived on the Molowai a few weeks earlier)]. . . .
“My protégé, Jack, is going to spar with Corbett. Jim treats the proposition lightly, but he will find that Jack is no mean opponent, and though he does not fight with tooth, he can with nail. His hind toe will make any pugilist tremble.
“I have Manager Brady’s contract in my pocket.” Said Mr. McMahon, reaching after the document and handling it fondly. “Jack will box with Jim and give him a good set-to I guess.” . . .
After her cage was lowered Jack’s wife was hurried away to her husband’s training quarters on First street.
The Morning Call, June 9, 1893, page 10.
When Jack finally boxed at the World’s Fair in Chicago (in a ring built over the empty swimming pool at the Fleischmann’s Yeast restaurant), he appeared on the same bill as Jim Corbett, but only as a novelty exhibit – he did not get his shot at the champ.[iii]
The French actress and dancer, Polaire, insisted on having a no-kangaroo clause written into her contract. "The kangaroo was specifically mentioned because once when Polaire was playing at a German vaudeville theatre where there was a boxing kangaroo on the bill, the creature put on its gloves and frightened Napoleon [(her pet pig)] half to death by chasing him all over the stage." The Times Dispatch, August 17, 1913, page 38.
The German film-makers, Max and Emil Skladanowsky, filmed a kangaroo-boxing match in in 1895.
Through the miracle of YouTube, we can see what all the fuss was about:
Skladanowski Brothers: Mr. Delaware and the Boxing Kangaroo.
A boxing kangaroo performed at the Folies Bergere:
|Gallica.bnf.fr (Biblioteque nationale de France)|
And my personal favorite (you gotta see this one):
Boom to Bust
All good (?) things must come to an end. As was the case in London, in early 1893, the lure of the boxing kangaroo eventually wore thin:[iv]
There was a boom in kangaroos some years ago. It will be remembered that a boxing kangaroo was exhibited in London at the Aquarium. It drew such crowds that every other place of entertainment had to have its boxing kangaroo; but kangaroos were not to be had in such numbers, and some resorted to the clumsy expedient of clothing a man in a kangaroo skin. Even so, the demand remained unsatisfied, and cables were sent out to Australia to agents and the Captains of ships lying there to bring over as many kangaroos as they could find. Kangaroos consequently, which before were practically unsalable, bounded up to 100 apiece; now they are again unsalable, and are heard of only in connection with a rather rich soup that is made out of their tails.
The New York Times, April 28, 1901.
The Bruce Herald (New Zealand), volume 28, issue 2849, April 30, 1897, page 3.
The image of the Boxing Kangaroo is as popular as ever today in Australia. But despite its success, the boxing kangaroo is not without controversy. The International Olympic Committee tried to ban the Boxing Kangaroo Flag from the Olympic village at the Vancouver Olympics. And in Florida, when PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) asked the state boxing commission to ban actual kangaroo boxing, they refused to take any action; they only deal with human boxing. A petition on Change.Org, however seeks to do what the Florida boxing commission was powerless (and perhaps uninterested) to stop.
In the meantime, you can still see kangaroo boxing whenever “Jack” (he’s still called “Jack”) the Boxing Kangaroo comes to your town - Boxing Kangaroo Draws Crowds and Critics.
Other Boxing Kangaroos:
Killer’s Nocturne (1987) – Chin Siu-ho vs. The Kangaroo
Matilda the Boxing Kangaroo (1978)
Kick Boxing Kangaroos – in the wild
Anime Boxing Kangaroos – Naruto Shippūden Episode #185
UPDATE: 6/11/2015 - Sarah Kurchak mentions this article in her fine editorial piece, The Prolific and Upsetting History of Humans Boxing Kangaroos, posted on Vice Magazine's Mixed Martial Arts website, Fightland.
[i] Although this article credits Mr. Mayne, the kangaroo had apparently actually been purchased and trained by his wife, Olivia Sabina Mayne, who purchased the kangaroo as a pet with money she earned making and selling “fancy articles.” Her marital status was an issue at trial, because women had only recently been given the right to own property in her own right. Wagga Wagga Express (NSW), March 12, 1892, page 6. Musta’ been a kangaroo court. Her husband held an “official position in the Government service” and did not want his name associated with the kangaroo. Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW), March 8, 1892, page 5.
[ii] Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate (NSW), March 8, 1892, page 5.
[iii] Sol Bloom, The Autobiography of Sol Bloom, New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1948, page 139.