Remembering Hemingway's Heavyweight Bromance with a Kiwi Plumber
Tom Heeney, the only New Zealand-born boxer ever to fight for the World Heavyweight Title, also fought Papi on a beach one time.
Illustration by Michael Dockery
It was on the beach in front of the Compleat Angler Hotel on Bimini Island, where the two old cobbers stripped off their shirts, put up their dukes and went at it.
It was the summer of 1935 in the Bahamas, and a heavyweight duel like few others in history was about to take place.
One combatant was Tom Heeney; a Kiwi boxer they called 'the Hard Rock from Down Under.' Just seven years before, he'd fought Gene Tunney for the world heavyweight title in front of 46,000 people at Yankee Stadium.
The other was Ernest Hemingway; an American writer on his way to becoming, perhaps, the twentieth century's finest. As a boxer he was full of bravado—he'd once challenged Tunney for a fight, himself—but strictly an amateur.
They traded blows for a while and drew a crowd, before Hemingway was heard to say, before they headed back to the hotel: "we've got to quit now, Tommy; any charity would give anything to pass the hat here."
It's a story retold countless times by Hemingway—allegedly growing more hyperbolic by each telling—and also by Kiwi author Lydia Monin in her 2008 biography on Heeney; the only New Zealand-born boxer to have ever fought for the heavyweight title.
Hemingway would say he held his own but in From Poverty Bay to Broadway, Monin wrote that George Brown, a New York gym owner who knew 'Papa' said the only way the writer could land a punch was if Heeney got bogged down in the sand.
Literary figures have been drawn to boxers since the sport began. Charles Dickens was a spectator at the world's first ever title fight, in England, in 1860, while the likes of Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joyce Carol Oates and Norman Mailer, famously in The Fight, all wrote about the brutal lyricism of the sport.
Why the fascination? When the bell rings in boxing, the fighter is out there on their own against their opponent. It can be an exciting but lonely place to be. Only the perfect mix of hard work, application, and sheer luck gives you a chance at success. Great writing can be the same.
"Boxing was going through a golden period and people wanted to read it about—so it attracted the big writers," Ron Palenski, distinguished Kiwi sportswriter, told VICE Sports of Heeney's famous friend.
"But I think the human drama of professional boxing attracted these guys. They liked observing life, and writing about life."
Hemingway first heard about Heeney when the writer tuned into the wireless for his title challenge on July 28, 1928. If he'd known the Kiwi's background at that point, the notoriously macho writer would have likely been thrilled by it.
Born in 1898, Heeney learned to box from his Irish father Hugh in a tin shed in the family's back garden, according to Monin.
A plumber and ex-soldier, Heeney won a bravery medal for rescuing two women out of the surf at Gisborne's Waikanae Beach. In 1921, he represented his province in rugby against the touring South African national team.
His boxing ability shone early, and he rose up the Kiwi ranks, winning the NZBA heavyweight title in 1920 in only his third pro fight. He fought, and lost, title bouts for both the Australian and British Empire belts, before ending up in the States.
There he fought a creditable draw against future heavyweight challenger Jack Sharkey, before beating Canadian Jack Delany at Madison Square Garden in March 1928. It secured the Kiwi a top-five international ranking, putting him in title challenger discussion.
Title holder Gene Tunney had beaten former champion Jack Dempsey in two of the decade's most famed fights the previous two years, but, as Monin noted, had promised his new wife, New York socialite Polly Lauder, he would leave boxing once they married in October 1928.
Tunney was interested in an easier fight to go out on, so he chose Heeney.
For the first time since Bob Fitzsimmons—the Irish-born former champion from late 1890s who grew up in New Zealand—Tunney's decision thrust a Kiwi into the American press spotlight, creating attention rare for the laconic Antipodean.
Heeney prepared for the fight by sparring with future heavyweight champ James J. Braddock. Dempsey, now Heeney's corner-man, told reporters, according to Jeremy Schaap's Braddock biography Cinderella Man, that "only a superman can beat him."
Famed boxing writer Paul Gallico described Heeney's boxing much differently in The Daily News: "a triumph of mediocrity, hooked to deep earnestness, rare courage and iron-shod durability."
Back in New Zealand, radios around the country were tuned in for a crackly delayed commentary of the fight. Government was even suspended so parliament members could listen. "He was New Zealand's first radio sports star," Palenski says.
Though Heeney lasted eleven rounds at Yankee Stadium. His only bright moment came in the second when he landed an impressive left hook on Tunney, who eventually won by TKO.
Along with Fitzsimmons and the Samoan-born David Tua, Heeney is one of only three boxers with Kiwi links to fight for the heavyweight crown. Sentimentality for that fact, mixed with time, has created the mythology that he was only one decent punch away from the title.
However, property magnate Sir Bob Jones, who also one of New Zealand's leading boxing historians, says the Kiwi was "just a solid plugger."
"[Heeney's] place in boxing history, in general, is utterly insignificant," Sir Bob says. "He wouldn't rank in the top thousand of the tens of thousands of unsuccessful challengers for the heavyweight title."
"[Heeney] was tailor-made for Tunney to jab him silly—he was out of his depth," he added.
Hemingway was impressed, though. The two met in New York in the early 30s, and a deep friendship grew with Heeney, who left boxing in 1933.
Hemingway would be a regular visitor to a bar that Heeney opened on Miami Beach in 1937. The pair would often fish in the Florida Keys together, and made secret trips to Cuba to drink, according to Monin.
Hemingway also liked to impress women by bringing them to meet the former boxer. Martha Gellhorn, the well-known war journalist, and 'Papa's' third wife, was amongst visitors.
"Now that fellow is a real man, and he's a writer too," Heeney once said of his pal, according to Monin. "He always comes straight here when he's over from Cuba."
Sir Bob sees Hemingway's friendship with Heeney as a fatuous attempt to be macho.
"Hemingway was a braggart," Sir Bob said. "He liked to fancy himself as a boxing character, although he made a fool of himself.
"The whole macho thing that Hemingway surrounded himself with in his later years—he made a fool of himself, in my opinion. I can see him hanging around with Heeney, by all means."
Though Hemingway would still often write of Heeney in letters to friends, the two saw less of each other as the 50s began.
"The world breaks everyone, and afterward many are strong at the broken places," Hemingway once wrote, in A Sun Also Rises. "But those that will not break, it kills."
Hemingway never grew strong enough in the places he really needed to. The writer took his own life in 1961.
Heeney's lasted, in Florida, until 1984, and was, by all accounts, a happy one. He was made a member of the NZ Sports Hall of Fame in 1996.
Posters of former prize fighters hung on the walls of Heeney's Miami Beach bar for decades, including a big one of one the far wall of himself; young and shirtless, fists raised.
There were two small photos on either side of the big poster; signed pictures of Hemingway, holding fishing rods and tuna aloft.
Who knows where all the pictures have gone now; the former bar is a now late-night hot wings joint that gets ungenerous Yelp reviews.
But according to Monin, while Heeney was alive, the pictures of 'Papa' were amongst the most cherished things the old boxer owned.