Kiwi boxer fights for world heavyweight title

26 July 1928

Tom Heeney (right) versus Gene Tunney, 1928 (Auckland Libraries, AWNS-19280906-41-1)

In the midst of boxing’s golden age, Gisborne-born Tom Heeney took on Gene Tunney for the world heavyweight title in front of 46,000 spectators at Yankee Stadium, New York. Although he was defeated, his title bid had aroused tremendous interest in both New Zealand and the USA.

A plumber by trade, Heeney showed early promise at boxing; he was also a representative rugby player and a powerful swimmer. He turned professional in 1920 and soon won the New Zealand heavyweight title. After fighting with considerable success in Australia, Britain, South Africa and Ireland, he sailed for New York in 1926.

A series of victories against leading boxers saw Heeney ranked fourth among the world’s heavyweights. He then emerged victorious from an elimination series to find an opponent for world champion Gene Tunney. He was popular with American crowds, and earned the nickname ‘The Hard Rock from Down Under’ because of his non-stop style and refusal to back away from an opponent.

On 26 July 1928 Heeney met Tunney at Yankee Stadium in New York. He entered the ring wearing a Māori cloak that had been sent to him by Hēni Materoa, Sir James Carroll’s widow. He was guaranteed $100,000 (equivalent to more than US$1.4 million in 2017) for the bout. Heeney fought bravely and did well early on, but had little chance against the talented Tunney, whose thumb accidentally injured Heeney’s eye in the eighth round. The bout was stopped three rounds later to save the New Zealander from further punishment.

During a visit to New Zealand the following month, Tom and his new wife were welcomed by huge crowds, especially in Gisborne. After returning to the USA, Heeney took out American citizenship and continued to box until 1933. He revisited New Zealand in 1947 and again shortly before his death in Miami in 1984. Until Joseph Parker won the World Boxing Organization title in 2016, Tom Heeney was the only New Zealand-born heavyweight boxer to have fought for a world title.