Indigenous boxing legend Dave Sands is celebrated 70 years after his triumph as his family carries on his story

Dave Sands’ family granted the ABC permission to use photographs of him. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article also contains images and names of other deceased people.

Aboriginal boxer Dave Sands was brought up at Burnt Bridge Mission on the NSW north coast and, from humble beginnings, became an Australian boxing legend, achieving remarkable success in the 1940s and 50s.

Her family are working hard to keep her story alive and now, decades later, say a “wrong has been righted”.

Dave Sands became a boxing legend in the 1940s.(Provided: Chad Ritchie)

A Dunghutti man, born Dave Ritchie, Sands comes from one of Australia’s greatest sporting families. His brothers, Clem, Percy, George, Alfie and Russell were also all successful boxers known as “The Fighting Sands”.

Sands became a rising star and went from success to success before his tragic death in a car accident in Dungog in 1952 at the age of 26.

He held three national titles at once, in the middle, light and heavyweight divisions, as well as the Australasian light heavyweight title.

Sands also achieved great success overseas, defeating Englishman Dick Turpin to win the British Empire Middleweight Championship in 1949.

Indigenous boxer Dave Sands stands by his brothers.
Dave Sands (second from right) stands with his brothers, circa 1940s.(Provided: Richard Broome)

Long-awaited recognition for boxing ‘hero’

At this time champions were usually given their own belt to keep, but after winning the British Championship Sands was not given one – the exact reason is unclear.

Now, 73 years later, he has finally received full recognition for his achievement.

The Commonwealth Boxing Council sent a replica Commonwealth Championship belt to recognize Sands’ achievement.

The sash was recently presented to his relatives in NSW parliament, including his nephew Phillip Dotti and grandson Chad Ritchie.

A group of men and women stand in the NSW Parliament with a replica boxing belt.
Phillip Dotti (left) and Dave Sands’ grandson Chad Ritchie (third from left) with the replica belt.(Provided: Chad Ritchie)

“It also gives a platform for young Indigenous boxers to really look at something they can accomplish.”

Mr Ritchie said his grandfather’s achievements also inspired him throughout his life.

“Growing up, I heard stories from the family about how great my grandfather was, not just as a boxer but as a person, as a family man.

“It gives me the belief that, not just in sport but in life itself, if you put your mind to it, you can achieve anything… and that’s something I’ve always been proud of.

A black and white image of a boxer in gloves playing with a toddler, also in boxing gloves.
Dave Sands with his young son.(Provided: Chad Ritchie)

The presentation of the replica belt came after a long quest by Mr. Dotti to set the record straight.

Mr Dotti said he eventually contacted the UK boxing authorities, who were “very cooperative”.

“Sands was the first aboriginal [person] go overseas and win a boxing title and come back with that title. But [he] never received full recognition for such an achievement,” Mr. Dotti said.

A black and white photo from the 1940s showing a young man next to a smiling young woman.
Dave Sands with his wife Bessie.(Provided: Chad Ritchie)

Prior to Sands’ death, negotiations to challenge world champion Sugar Ray Robinson had begun.

“He was ranked number one for Sugar Ray Robinson’s world middleweight title then,” Mr Ritchie said.

“And Sugar Ray Robinson is considered the number one boxer of all time, so being number one behind him at 26 is something not many will realize.”

The boxing legend will be honored in his hometown

A black and white image of a young boxer with his arm in the air, next to a trainer.
Dave Sands at a tournament in Singapore.(Provided: Chad Ritchie)

Sands was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1998, and his family wants to keep the memory of his accomplishments in Australia alive.

Mr Dotti said he hoped to hold a display at some point of Sands’ replica belt and other boxing memorabilia in his home town of Kempsey.

The Kempsey Shire Council is also working with the family to create “ongoing and appropriate local commemoration” for Sands and his fellow champions, and is considering a bust or statue.

A group of men and women standing in the NSW parliament holding a replica boxing belt.
Mayor of Kempsey, Leo Hauville (right) and MP for Oxley Melinda Pavey during the presentation of the replica sash in NSW Parliament.(Provided: Chad Ritchie)

Mr Ritchie said recognition at Kempsey was “long overdue”.

“We’re talking about an aboriginal family in the 1940s when times were tough,” he said.

“You couldn’t leave the mission without permission…and being able to do what they did is something that no other family has yet achieved,” he said.