The 100 Days Project: Day 51 [50]

Boxing Kangaroos

From the Melbourne Punch (April 16, 1891)

You could well envisage many a young human buck, fortunate enough to witness male kangaroos in their ‘boxing’ ritual, imagining themselves taking on a kangaroo in such a way, from well before white settlement, let alone from almost the dawn thereof. Perhaps the only thing that surprises one about the organisation of such bouts for public entertainment (and private gain) is that it took so long.

It was not, it seems, until 1891 that human/kangaroo boxing exhibitions were first advertised, but then, in a bizarre conceptual synchronicity, they appear to have popped up in several places at once. On March 20th of that year the Barrier Miner (Broken Hill) reported that just that afternoon, in Melbourne, one ‘Jack’, a kangaroo, had fought a man in an exhibition bout. (‘Jack’ was the protégé – I use the term ironically – of one ‘Professor’ Lendermann, who subsequently toured the country with a succession of ‘Jack’s.)

Then, on April 2nd (perhaps they had been intended for April 1st), almost before news of Jack could have spread around Australia, let alone overseas, pieces began to appear in journals in the United States concerning a keeper’s discovery that one of his charges, the largest macropod in the Philadelphia Zoo, had displayed an interest in fisticuffs. The zoo’s head keeper, a Mr Byrne, had fought him. The kangaroo was dubbed ‘John L.’, after the boxer John L. Sullivan, and, you guessed it, it wasn’t long before ‘John L.’ was on the road.

Kangaroo boxing had arrived. Before the 1890s had reached their half-way point you could find travelling human/kangaroo exhibitions in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and many other countries in which kangaroos had no other reason, and presumably no earthly desire, to appear. The live exhibition craze died down soon enough, but (especially once Walt Disney had got a hold of it) the concept of the Boxing kangaroo was on its way to becoming universally established. If it flagged for a time it was refreshed by the widespread use of kangaroos as mascots for Australian troops during the First World War (a post forthcoming about that), or the practice, during the Second, of painting boxing kangaroos on the sides of Australian aircraft and navy vessels, as more recently its use, by Alan Bond, during the 1988 America’s Cup, and its subsequent adoption by the Australian Olympic Committee.

Such a paradox – but we should be used to it by now: wave kangaroos about everywhere as symbols of your military or sporting prowess, and slaughter them in the background.

Woody Allen – you can see it on YouTube – ‘fought’ a bemused kangaroo on an American television variety show (Hippodrome) in 1966. In one of his lesser movies (Matilda) Elliott Gould plays a promoter who discovers an amazing boxing kangaroo (female). Thankfully the kangaroo is played by a human in a kangaroo costume.

In Paris, at a date I have not yet been able to establish, a kangaroo named Lester apparently boxed a human at the Folies Bergère. The details of the story seem to have been lost in time. The posters, on the other hand, are everywhere.

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