If you happened to miss the Beau Champion-Luke Burgess stoush recently, count yourself lucky. Champion, who played 107 games as an outside back for four NRL clubs, was almost unrecognisable in his new incarnation as a heavyweight boxer. Burgess, eldest of the famed quartet of brothers, was also making his ring debut.
Their bout lasted precisely one round. Burgess floored Champion with a jab. Champion regained his feet and landed a crude right that Burges withstood well. To say their handiwork lacked polish is like saying Damien Cook lacks speed.
The entertainment, such as it was, ended after three minutes when Champion threw another wild right and ruptured his bicep. Credit to them for having a go, but it was a reminder that boxing is a supremely tough sport to master, even for athletes good enough to play top-level league.
Champion and Burgess are just the latest of a string of NRL luminaries who have had a go inside the squared circle. Justin Hodges, Manu Vatuvei, Mark Geyer and the late Lance Thompson have all tried their pugilistic luck with mixed results.
On the flip side, champion Australian boxers of the past Wally Carr and Tony Mundine were regarded as fine rugby league prospects. Mundine’s son Anthony went on to become one of the great cross-sport success stories. Carr’s grandson Josh Addo-Carr is a Storm wing sensation and, judging from footage that came out of the NSW Origin camp, highly adept at throwing leather himself.
The legendary Jeff Fenech was already a world champion when he turned out for Parramatta in a handful of reserve grade matches. (Contrary to rumour, Souths legend Mario Fenech is no relation.)
None of these men quite make it to our prestigious rugby league-boxing XIII, which looks like this:
1. Jimmy Sharman Junior. A legend of tent boxing, Sharman also played for the Western Suburbs Magpies from 1934-40. He was a custodian in the 1934 premiership side and captained the club in his last two seasons.
2. Garth Wood. Twenty-five games for Souths and Balmain. Inaugural winner of The Contender Australia, and KOed Anthony Mundine in 2010. (Choc avenged the loss on two subsequent occasions.)
3. Paul Hayward. A complex, tragic figure who excelled as a halfback for Newtown in the 1970s. As a boxer, he was reputedly under consideration for Olympic selection when he quit the amateurs and joined the punch-for-pay ranks. Undefeated in his brief pro career.
4. Monty Betham. The son of a famed New Zealand slugger, Monty was a great rugby league player for the Warriors and New Zealand. Scratching his boxing itch he compiled a tidy 8-1 record, claiming the NZ cruiserweight crown in his final bout.
5. John Hopoate. Mainly remembered in rugby league for the wrong reasons, Hoppa at his peak was one of the most brutally effective wingers in the game. He played 209 club matches and represented both Australia and Tonga. He made 18 ring appearances for a dozen victories, highlighted by winning the national heavyweight title, albeit in predictably controversial circumstances – his opponent Bob Mirovic claimed Hoppa used illegal tactics to break his arm.
6. Anthony Mundine. You may have heard of him. Talked and duked his way to notoriety on the field and in the ring. As a footballer, he was very good indeed – even if he wasn’t quite as good as he said he was. Likewise as a fighter; knockers will pick holes in his record, but he notched 48 wins from 57 outings and squared off against very credible international opponents en route to IBF and WBA world titles.
7. Joey Williams. Thoughtful playmaker for the Rabbitohs (and briefly the Panthers and Bulldogs). Compiled a 12-3-1 ring record and won the lightly-regarded WBF junior welterweight world title. Has achieved far greater things outside sport; if you haven’t read his book The Enemy Within, get a copy now.
8. Willis Meehan. Rugby league’s loss has been boxing’s gain. The gifted prop with the wild off-field reputation played a solitary game for the Roosters but is currently 8-0 in the ring, with seven KOs. Another son of a boxing father – Kali ‘Checkmate’ Meehan was a champion heavyweight.
9. Billy Johnstone. Long a byword for supreme sporting fitness, Billy was hooker for Canterbury-Bankstown’s 1985 premiership side, gave stout service in one season with the Dragons, then became inaugural captain of the Gold Coast Giants. As a fighter, he had 28 outings for 22 wins and won Queensland titles in two weight classes.
10. Solomon Haumono. A hard-running, athletic backrower for a slew of Sydney clubs, Haumono also represented Australia (in the Super League era) and Tonga. Switching to boxing he won his first 15 fights, then secured national and minor international titles as he moved up in class. More of a wrecking machine than a pleasure machine.
11. Sonny Bill Williams. Remember when SBW was the shining light of our sport, before he wandered off to the kick-and-clap brigade? A scintillating backrower for the Bulldogs and Roosters, he has augmented his union career with a 7-0 boxing resume. Won the New Zealand heavyweight title, and fought the seasoned Francois Botha to a 10-round unanimous decision win. Could go a long way in boxing if he made it his sole focus.
12. Herb Narvo. Played prop and second-row for Newtown, St George, New South Wales and Australia. Won, lost and reclaimed the Australian Heavyweight strap. In 1946 he lost his national title to Jack Johnson, then ran out the next day to skipper the Dragons. Tough.
13. Paul Gallen. The long-serving skipper of the Sharks is often accused of single-handedly ending Origin biff with his brutal attack on Nate Myles in 2013. Has proved adept inside the ring ropes, with a 9-0 record, but yet to face a quality opponent. Perhaps Myles might be interested in a rematch.