December 16, 2011
Sonny Bill Williams will fight for the New Zealand heavyweight title in 2012 © Getty Images
When Sonny Bill Williams fights for the New Zealand heavyweight title against Richard Tutaki in Hamilton on February 8, it will further mark him out as a distinctive figure in a sporting world that increasingly drives its practitioners towards specialisation.
If Tony Mundine - the father of Sonny Bill's trainer, Anthony Mundine - is to be believed, the All Blacks centre - currently rated fifth among New Zealand heavyweights by the boxrec.com website - has more than novelty value when he enters the ring. The Australian offered him a mix of endorsement and burden earlier this year when he said that he had the potential to be the next Muhammad Ali.
Spotting boxing potential in performers from other sports is nothing new. Dai Curvis, father of a Swansea boxing dynasty, was so struck in the 1940s by the possibilities of a local youngster named John Charles that he offered to adopt him. Charles was not at this stage the footballing colossus he became, but a slight lad of below average height.
What Curvis saw - and what after his late teenage growth spurt was to make him a truly remarkable footballer - was the balance, footwork, reactions and spatial awareness that are essential to boxers.
Mundine, of course, knows that rugby players can become decent boxers. His son played rugby league for Cronulla and New South Wales before turning to boxing and a career that has seen him in or around the world rankings for the different middleweight divisions for most of the past decade.
One of Anthony's main positions in league was centre and there certainly seems to be a link between playing centre and being a decent boxer, perhaps because it is the position likeliest to combine physical power with the balance and reactions essential to back play.
Wales' Dr Jack Matthews famously entered a wartime ring - and held his own - with an obscure American serviceman who later became famous as Rocky Marciano. A predecessor of Dr Jack's in the Wales midfield anticipated Sonny Bill's range of achievement - international caps at league and union - while also putting together a boxing career of some note.
Jerry Shea had one of the greatest ever single days enjoyed by a player in January 1920 when he dominated the Wales v England match at Swansea, becoming the first man in international history to 'go through the card' of possible means of scoring with a try, conversion, penalty and two drop goals. Unsurprisingly he was picked for the next match, against Scotland. The ultra-conservatives of the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) threatened to call the match off in protest against Wales picking Shea, on the grounds that he was a professional boxer.
Where Sonny Bill does his boxing in the off season, Shea, a middleweight, mixed his two sporting pursuits. He fought once in the three weeks between the England and Scotland matches - after which the SRU may have been grateful for calling off its threat as the individualism that had wrecked England this time served to ruin Wales' chances - then three times more in the following three weeks, culminating in a one-round defeat by Ted 'Kid' Lewis, rated by some experts as the greatest of all British boxers.
That result may have shown Shea short of the very best, but he had a decent run, winning more than 50 of his 69 fights in a career that lasted until 1924. He finished with a victory over the splendidly-named former champion Johnny Basham, a fellow Newport hero. By then he was out of rugby union, having signed for Wigan in 1921, and won Welsh caps the following year.
If Sonny Bill wins, he will be following in something of an All Black tradition in being heavyweight champion of New Zealand, although his predecessors with this label have been winners of the amateur title awarded every year, like British ABA titles, after a knock-out tournament.
It has a decent lineage, with champions including members of the prodigious Fitzsimmons clan of Timaru - although not world champion Bob, who had long gone on to bigger things before brother Jack won the first title in 1902 - and David Tua, a serious world contender in the past decade.
It was a step too far for one of the greatest All Black locks, Maurice Brownlie, who was beaten in the final in 1920, but back rower Morrie McHugh enjoyed greater success, winning the title in 1938 then reaching the final in 1946, the year that saw him win the first two of his three All Black caps. McHugh was to enjoy a long-term impact - Colin Meads recently said that as a youngster he was inspired by the All Black visiting his school at Te Kuiti - and he lived well into his 90s, becoming the oldest living All Black until his death last year.
The most famous boxing All Black of all was a man McHugh beat in the heavyweight tournament in 1946 and who was prop when he played his final Test in South Africa in 1949, Kevin Skinner. The Otagoan won the 1947 title and had offers to turn professional, but recalled when I interviewed him in 2003 that, "There were hardly any other heavyweights in New Zealand, so I would have to have gone to Australia for contests. It was never an alternative to rugby, but only a means of getting and keeping fit. The gym work for boxing helped quite a bit, but when I started chucking weights around the boxing trainer got crook at me because he said it was making me too muscle-bound."
So that amateur title was the end of his boxing career, whatever South Africans who remember his demolition of their previously dominant front-row in the charged 1956 series in New Zealand will tell you. That ferocious coda should not obscure the brilliance of his career as a member of the fearsome Otago teams of the late 1940s and early 1950s, and an All Black hugely respected by the greatest of his team-mates.
Fullback Bob Scott recalled him as "a great player with a great mental attitude" while lock Tiny White remembered that "he was without a doubt the best prop I ever met - a very strong player who could take all the pressure that I could apply….He was also very astute, a good thinker and talker about the game."
Skinner captained the All Blacks in 1952 and might well have led their tour of Britain the following year, but for a deep distaste for public speaking. Now the 14th oldest living All Black - with both White and Scott among the small number ahead of him - he ranks still higher when their best front-rowers are discussed. Sonny Bill has every chance of exceeding his exploits in the ring, but getting anywhere near his achievements on the rugby field will be a much stiffer challenge.
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