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Remembering Hemingway’s Heavyweight Bromance with a Kiwi Plumber

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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 ….View full article