Before there was MMA in the United States there was Vale Tudo in Brazil. And before that? Well there was boxing legend Sam McVea taking part in "all-in fighting" in Australia.
This article is an exclusive Bloody Elbow Features Guest Column by: John S. Nash
Author's Note: Some contemporary sources contain terms in reference to various ethnic groups, which some may find derogatory and/or offensive. While neither I, nor this site, condone the viewpoints expressed with their use, we also do not condone pretending such sentiments did not exist. For that reason, they have been left in. Hopefully, they will not detract from your reading experience.
For Sam McVea's earlier foray into mixed martial arts against "Tano Matsuda, Japanese World's Champion of Ju-jitsu" see our previous installment, The Martial Chronicles: L'Idole de Paris Versus the Fraud of London.
On the Thursday evening of November 6th, 1913, boxer Sam McVea (alternately spelled McVey, MacVea, or MacVey) found himself at the Rink Hall in Lismore, Australia taking part in one of the most challenging - and oddest - matches of his storied career. He had come to the Commonwealth for a chance at Jack Johnson and the world's heavyweight title, but found neither down under. Instead, that night, he faced a different champion, the so-called "jiu-jitsu champion of Australia", in one of the greatest "all-in fighting" contests of the era. A contest which has been almost completely forgotten by history.
That is, until now.
McVea had arrived in Australia in August of 1911, along with fellow African-American boxers Jack Johnson, the current world's heavyweight champion (which he had won in Australia two years earlier), and Sam Langford, the current "colored" heavyweight champion. The party had been assembled by promoter and manager D. McIntish, who's plan consisted of a seasonal tour of the country before finishing up with first a Johnson title defense against McVea, to be followed by a match between the winner and Sam Langford. [EN1]
During the previous four years he'd spent in Eurupe, McVea had been practically unstoppable, recording 29 wins (not including his victory over Tano Matsuda in a mixed fight), 2 draws, and 1 defeat. His single loss had come on April 17th, 1909 against Joe Jeannette, in a match that was reported to have been "the greatest fight witnessed in France since John L. Sullivan fought Charley Mitchell". [EN2] In an earlier match that year, McVea had defeated Joe to claim the "colored" heavyweight crown. The rematch was a grueling affair with some sources reporting 38 knockdowns, 27 of which were by McVea against Jeannette. Eventually balloons full of oxygen had to be given to the competitors for them to continue.
By virtue of oxygen pumped into them by their seconds, Jeannette and MacVey reeled and staggered through forty-eight rounds of a brutal and plucky fight here tonight. At the opening of the forty-ninth round MacVey, his face utterly dehumanized save for an expression of helpless agony that distorted what remained of his features, signified that he was unable to continue, whereupon the referee declared Jeannette the winner.[EN3]
The two met for a third time on December 11, 1909, the match ending in a draw after "only" 20 rounds, allowing Jeannette to retain the championship. Even with his failure to recapture the title, McVea's resume during this time made him the most obvious contender for Johnson.
Sam McVea, known as "'The Idol of Paris,' is considered by the leading experts of America to be the next world's champion. He has already met Johnson three times. Twice the contests between the two went the full number of rounds, the decision going to Johnson only after a severe struggle in each case. On the third occasion, after winning 19 rounds, Mc Vea was caught an unlucky blow in the last minute of the 20th round, and-was counted out. Since then he has met and defeated all the best boxers in the world, and his last contest with Langford in Paris resulted in a draw, after 20 rounds.[EN4]
Unfortunately, for McVea, audiences weren't that enthusiastic to pay to see two African-Americans fight for the title. Unable to draw a large enough crowd to cover the promised purses - £18,000 a fight for Johnson, £6,000 for McVea, and £1,000 for Langford, in addition to their percentages - the fight was abandoned. Instead, Johnson returned to the States to meet another "white hope", the role being filled this time by Fireman Jim Flynn.
As McVea and Langford watched their opportunity to meet Johnson, and the money that came with it, pass from within their grasps, they tried to make the best of their situation. They booked a series of matches against each other in Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth for the "colored" heavyweight championship, now held by Langford. While McVea won the first fight on December 26,1911, reclaiming the title, the next year he lost four straight to the "Boston Tar Baby". Their final contest on March 24,1913 ended in a draw, but the damage to McVea's drawing power was done. While Langford could thereafter tour Australia screening and narrating the film of his victories, McVea ended up returning to a style of fighting he had sworn off: "all-in".[EN5]
"All-in" fighting was another name for "anything goes" and "no holds barred"; or "vale tudo", as it later become known in Brazil. As for Australia, it was, at the time of McVea's visit, probably the world's center for all-in fighting. [EN6]
It had become popular a few years earlier thanks mostly to a pair of feuding jujutsuka, Ryugoro Fukishima and Professor P.W. Stevenson. Besides a highly publicized series of matches between the two, they both actively engaged in contests with wrestler and boxers, sparking the craze for the new "sport" of "all-in" fighting. [EN7]
By the time McVea and his companions showed up, bouts between jujutsuka, wrestlers, and boxers were common occurrences. In fact, in early 1911 a "champion wrestler, weight-lifter, and physical culturist" by the name of Clarence Weber "challenge to fight Jack Johnson ‘all in,' and thus prove the, physical supremacy of the white race."[EN8]
This "all-in" contest, according to Weber, was to be under the ancient rules of Pancratium, (the Latin name for the Ancient Greek sport of Pankration).
In it nothing is barred except biting, eyegouging, and attacks on certain vital spots. Everything else is admissible. The kidney punch, the strangle hold, the double Nelson, and other methods of offence ruled out under different codes, may all be brought into action.
After the Melbourne promoter E. F. Baker promised the champion at least £5000, Johnson "signified his willingness by cable to meet Weber in a match of this sort." [EN9] For whatever reasons though, (perhaps Weber came to his senses) the match never took place. [EN10]
Another, more serious, proposition came soon after from the previously mentioned Professor P.W. Stevenson. With the departure of Johnson back to the states, his challenge was directed at McVea and Langford.
"I reckon I can beat either 'Sam' McVea or 'Sam' Langford in an hour." The professor is very keen on meeting one of the two colored boxers, as he is convinced of his ability to show that boxing, even in the hands of such capable exponents, is not the equal of the Japanese art as a means of self-defence. He is prepared to wager either McVea or Langford a modest £150 that in 12 bouts of five minutes each he can compel his opponent to cry enough seven times.
"They are great men at their own game, but I have maintained all along, and am of the same opinion still, that with ju-jitsu I can beat any boxer living... I will place no restrictions on them or make any impossible stipulations. The boxer will appear after his custom, wearing the police regulation gloves. I will come forward in ordinary costume....As a matter of fact, I don't care what gloves the boxer wears. He need not wear any at all if the police will permit him."[EN11]
This was no idle challenge, for unlike the boastful Weber, or fraudulent Tano Matsuda, the "Professor" was a very accomplished fighter, even if his credentials were somewhat suspect. Born in Scone in New South Wales, Australia, he claimed to have traveled to Japan in order to study ju-jitsu...
...but the Japs refused to impart any knowledge of it to the white race. However, a Japanese named Katama Agusia [sic Katsukuma Higashi] , who was forced to leave Japan, taught him the art in return for Professor Stevenson having saved his life when he was being worried by a bulldog in an hotel in Madison Square Gardens, New York. [EN12]
He also claimed to have won at Madison Square Garden the ""Champion Gold Medal of the World for White Jiu Jitsu", along with numerous other awards. [EN13] Regardless of his absurd resume, he proved accomplished enough to have been "appointed by Lieut.-Colonel Gordos to instruct the military, and after a great deal of worry he was appointed by the late inspector General Gervan to instruct the N.S. Wales police." [EN14] On top of being an able teacher, he was also probably the most experienced all-in combatant in all of Australia, perhaps even in all the world.
For the last several years he had engaged in numerous matches against jiu-jitsuka, wrestlers, and even boxers, and with the exception of his series against his rival Fukishima, he seemed to always come out on top.
Professor stevenson defeated "Son" Reynolds the heavyweightboxing champion of Broken Hill. The conditions were "all in" the best out of nine bouts of three-minutes each. The second bout was no fall, but Stevenson took the first in 2 min 6 sec, third in 30 sec, fourth in 2 min 30 sec, the fifth in 50 sec, and the sixth by an "arm-grip" which put Reynolds left elbow out of joint, in 17 sec. [EN15]
Nothing came of Professor Stevenson's original challenge, as it was ignored by both McVea and Langford, who were preoccupied with their own series of matches at the time. But by the Fall of 1913 another opportunity presented itself, when Sam McVea arrived in Lismore, New South Wales along with his trainer Peter Felix and a troupe of vaudeville artists for an engagement at the Rink Hall. On the stage both McVea and Felix would give demonstrations and meet local boxers in exhibition matches.[EN16} As fate would have it, Professor Stevenson was also in town at that time, giving performances at that very same theatre. [EN17] On October 28 he publicly renewed his challenge.
During Sam McVea's entertalnment at the Rink Hall last night the dusky boxer was publicly challenged to a contest -Ju jitsu and boxing-by the Ju jitsu champion, Professor Stevenson, who is well known locally. The challenge was laid for £25 aside, but this was declined, and the sum was eventually increased to £100 and accepted.[EN18]
McVea's manager, Mr. Albert Morrow, met wth Stevenson at the Royal Hotel at eleven o'clock that night to hammer out the details for the match, which they agreed to hold the first week of next month. It would be contested on a "jiu-jitsu carpet" (mat) and would be made up of ten five-minute rounds divided by three minute rest periods between them. Each round would be treated as an individual bout and the winner of the contest was to be determined by who took the majority of the rounds. It was agreed that each combatant "should adhere to the rules of their respective sciences": for the the Professor that meant wearing a gi, while McVea would be sporting gloves.
McVea will be entitled to hit Stevenson In any position that he may assume for aggressive purposes, whether it be standing, kneeling, lying down or otherwise. Stevenson Is debarred kicking for the heart and the straight body kick. [EN19]
The £100 side bet, a large amount to most working people at this time but a paltry sum to a prizefighter like McVea, was a common ruse among wrestlers and boxers at the time to drum up interest. The real money in such a match would be from the gate, which led some to suggest that the contest wouldn't be on the up-and-up. As one newspaper put it
This scribe tips that there will be more than £ioo in the house, and a drawn contest.[EN20]
The contest between the two champions of boxing and jiu-jitsu took place at the Rink Hall on November 6th, a Thursday evening. A pair of exhibition boxing matches involving local Lismore fighters preceded the main event which commenced shortly after 9 o'clock. Stevenson, who weighed less than 11 stones, was cornered by his assistant and pupil, Jack Ross. McVea, who had more than 50 pounds on the jiu-jitsu exponent, was attended by his trainer Peter Felix. A Mr. Jerry Mahony acted as the timekeeper, while the referee was an ex-champion of Swiss wrestling and Lismore engineer by the name of Gus Hillman.
Thankfully, the local papers were present to give a thorough account. [EN 21]
At the signal to commence the first round Stevenson threw a somersault across the ring and landed prone. He grasped McVea's ankle... McVea looked as though he could have banged away at any portion of Stevenson's anatomy, but close watchers could observe McVea's ankle gradually being twisted round. Not only could he not hit his opponent, but found It impossible even to stand up. He fell eventually and Stevenson worked his hold right up the body, grabbed the right arm, and McVea tapped.
Stevenson had taken the first round in less than 2 minutes. The next few rounds would follow a similar pattern: Stevenson would work to drag McVea to the ground where he would then gain the submission around the 2 minute mark. In the second round, Stevenson tripped McVea to the ground where they rolled around before "Stevenson got the neck hold and seemed to be in a position in which he could have throttled McVea. McVea tapped once more." In the third, Stevenson fell back and dragged McVea down with him where he secured a "severe arm hold" and "Eventually McVea gave way once more". In the fourth, "Stevenson dropped to the ground and lay there, inviting an attack. McVea lunged at him, and Stevenson grabbed his arm and ragged his opponent down" where he secured a scissors hold on McVea's head, forcing him to surrender yet again.
Now down four rounds to none and on the brink of losing the match, many spectators began to question if McVea was giving it his all. It was obvious that the Professor was doing almost all the hard work: where he was perspiring heavily and breathing hard, McVea looked about as fresh as he did when the match began.The boxer had managed some offense, landing some lefts and uppercuts in rounds two and three, and ramming some hard blows to Stevenson's midsection when trapped in the scissors hold in the fourth, but nothing too meaningful or threatening.
During the bout the work of neither man was received very well. The sporadic applause was always downed by cries of dissatisfaction. However, It appeared to some that McVea missed many occasions when he could easily have despatched his opponent
Some, perhaps more astute, witnesses were more forgiving of McVea's seemingly poor showing.
McVea, however, was justified in being cautious,however,as to be caught off his guard for a second meant defeat against so skillful an exponent of jiu-jitsu.
Whatever criticisms there were of McVea were disregarded in the "sensational" fifth round.
Stevenson easily got hold of McVea's neck. The latter, however, seemed to be prepared for this. He straightened up and swung Stevenson off his feet, and whilst he clung there McVea drove solid blows to tbe stomach They were very sold blows, and they eventually drove Stevenson off. Then M'Vea got to work in earnest, and at long range attacked Stevenson's head. He sent in heavy lefts to the jaw. Three times in succession he sent Stevenson to the boards for four seconds, four seconds, and eight seconds. Stevenson got up very groggy, and McVea went In to finish him. Stevenson, however, dragged his man In agaln, and both fell on the floor. McVea continued to send In solid punches to the body and face. Stevenson turned over, and McVea Immediately drove In three powerful blows to the back of the neck and Stevenson was out.
Stevenson's corner, unable to revive him in time for the next round, decided to throw in the towel. This was met by hooting from the crowd, mostly from Stevenson supporters upset that he was about to be declared the loser even though he was up four rounds to one.
Afterwards, McVea explained his strategy (Stevenson was reported to have not been in any condition to speak to the press): being familiar with jiu-jitsu, he had intentionally been overly cautious, wanting to force the smaller Stevenson to tire himself out while not risking injury himself. Eventually in the fifth round an opening appeared and he took full advantage of it, proving that his strategy had been sound.
Sam McVea never again faced a ju-jitsu exponent, instead focusing the rest of his days on boxing. He ended his Hall of Fame career with a record of 65-16-12 in the sport.
And 2-0 in "all-in".
Ticket to a reception for Sam McVea via champspandp.jalbum.net
"ALL IN." and other newspaper clipping from the Wanganui Chronicle, Volume L, Issue 12734, April 21, 1911, via paperspast.natlib.govt.nz
"Sam McVea" via www.joejennette.com
EN 5: Clay Moyle, "Sam Langford: Boxing's Greatest Uncrowned Champion" (2008)
Sam would describe the action to the audience, demonstrate his training methods and spar with friend and sparring partner, John "Liver" Davis. The vaudeville tour, which included appearances by a ju-jitsu expert known as "Professor" Stevenson and films of additional fights was well received and provided Sam with lucrative employment while awaiting his next bout.
EN 6: An example of one such "all-in" is when "'Jack' Howard, a Sydney heavyweight boxer, met Ryugoro Shhima, the Japanese jiu-jitsu expert.""BOXER V. WRESTLER." The West Australian (Perth), July 13, 1911. As for the origins of Vale Tudo in Brazil, that was covered in two previous Martial Chronicles: Jiu-Jitsu Brings Mixed Martial Arts to Brazil and The Origins of MMA - the Brazilian Connection.
EN 7: For a more in-depth look at the early days of jujutsu and "all-in" fighting in Australia see The Martial Chronicles: Jiu-Jitsu Conquers Australia.
EN 8: "Webber's Challenge to Johnson." Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), April 13, 1911 The article also includes a description of "all-in" match:
At the annual demonstration of Mr. Weber's Health and Strength College at the Athenaeum last week the item that secured the closest attention was a bout between a boxer and a wrestler, Mr. W. Meeske and Mr. Warrington, given so that those present might form some idea of which was the better method of self-defence. The boxer, who was only allowed to hit, and not to hold, got all the worst of the bout. Once only did he make much impression on the wrestler, who succeeded in getting hold, and throwing him heavily several times.
EN 10: As for how the match would have gone, we can only guess, but a wrestling match that Johnson took part in later offers a suggestion. "Jack Johnson Knocks Out Wrestler." New York Times, November 30, 1913
EN 13: During his career he collected numerous other awards.
Flrst there is the Australian jiu jitsu championship belt. It is handsomely made of Australian crocodile skin with adornments of Broken Hill silver. The centre piece represents a map of Australia, finely chased, and set with a valuable ruby to represent Broken Hill. It was gained by the Professor in three contests against St. Cry (Canadian champion), Panther Dick (South African champion), and Kamada ( Japanese champion) at Broken Hill in 1910. Then there is the Canadian jiu Jitsu championship belt, the only replica of Tom Sayors', English boxing championship belt. It lhass seven pieces of silver, and was won by the Professor in a contest against St. Cry in 1910. Then there are two, handsoma gold medals -one presented to him by H. Ninkey on the occasion of his defeating Panther Dick, and the other presented by Wlrth Bros, on the occasion of his defeating Monier, the French strongman, in 1909. There is also a photograph of other trophies which he holds, including the Sedina Challenge Cup, presented by Seppelta, of Seppeltfields (S.A.), on the occasion of his defeating Professor Hill at Tununds.
EN 14: Examples of his work with the police and military was reported in "Jiu Jitsu at Victoria Barracks" Australian Town and Country Journal, March 7, 1906, "PROFESSOR STEVENSON AND HIS POLICE PUPILS" from Chronicle (Adelaide, SA), January 22, 1910, "JU-JITSU" Northern Star (Lismore, NSW), August 25th, 1913, and "JU-JITSU" Northern Star (Lismore, NSW), October 1, 1913.
The barring of the "front kick to the body" is often seen in all-in fights of this era. This most likely comes from savate, where the coup de pied de front is banned from competition, where it was viewed as too dangerous. (Although this was partly because of the use of hard-tipped boots in savate.)
EN 21: "McVEA AND STEVENSON." Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), November 11, 1913, "BOXING. McVEA v. STEVENSON" Northern Star (Lismore, NSW), November 7, 1913, "BOXING." Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW), November 8, 1913, and "McVEA BEATS STEVENSON." The Northern Miner (Charters Towers, Qld.), November 25, 1913.