Updated: Oct 13
It was their third bout against each other. In a way you could say that they were competing rivals, but the endurance that one boxer had gained from his rugby league successes, also allowed for an unmatched endurance in the boxing ring.
This man didn't start off life as a boxer. He gained fame as a professional and representative rugby league player, and has often been described as "almost unstoppable from 20 metres out, a grim tackler and a player of great endurance."
"He would break from a scrum, the halfback would have the ball, and they just pass it to Herb, and he would just take three or four blokes over the line with him."
Born in Glebe on 19 August, 1912, Hermann Olaf 'Herb' Narvo (Surname was of German origin and actually 'Narwoe'), played rugby league for the Newtown Bluebags, internationally for Australia, as well as New South Wales, City and Country sides. He also played for Northern Suburbs (Image from: Newcastle RLFC Club) and adopted Newcastle as his place of residence. Narvo wasn't picked to represent Australia, he didn't make the list. To everyone's unexpectedness, Sid 'Big Joe' Pearce who was classified as "undoubtedly the greatest Rugby League forward in the world", broke his left leg after tackling a player in 1937 during the Australian Kangaroos tour of New Zealand. Since 'Big Joe' was now unavailable for the rest of the tour, a call was made to Narvo for the opportunity to represent in the Australian Kangaroos. A chance that only became available due to the injury of another, and a change that would reshape Narvo's career trajectory. After arriving belatedly on the Kangaroos Tour, without wasting any time, he played and starred in four tests, scored 10 tour tries, and he became a major player in the successes of the team. Narvo was talented in a range of sports, from cricket to cycling, but apart from professional league, he was an avid boxer, and he was about to challenge a rival for the third and final time.
Narvo's competitor was Billy 'Wokko' Britt. During their first bout, Britt had fallen to his knees, due to a vicious swing from Narvo's left glove. However, having not 'finished' him, and instead of waiting, Narvo struck again resulting in an immediate disqualification. Britt becoming victor number one.
Their second meeting resulted in a win for Narvo after, underwhelmingly, three rounds into the 12 round contest. Just before the second bell sounded, Britt was already defeated in stature and had slumped to the floor, so much so that he required the help of his team to drag him across the ring to his corner, sliding in the sweat of his soon-to-be defeat. From head blows to rib hooks, he was being barraged, blow after blow. He fell to the floor. However, upon trying to regain the strength to stand, his feet buckled and he collapsed with a disqualification being enforced ‘going down without being hit.’
In just two contests, Narvo had successfully knocked out Britt eight times. But a win wasn't all that he wanted, so he kept challenging Britt to put the 'Australian Title' on the line.
A confident Narvo stated, "The title of champion is meaningless, unless the holder is willing to keep demonstrating that he is worthy of it.. Britt should be prepared to defend his title every time he steps in to the ring."
Billy 'Wokko' Britt could no longer stall the opportunity for the a Heavyweight title match, and was given 14 days to accept a fight or lose the title to Herb Narvo. Time was running out, so Britt accepted the title bout, and the date was set for 3 April 1943.
Greater Newcastle Stadium, two hours north of Sydney, was the location for this Australian Heavyweight Title match. Two other title matches had been planned previously, but fell through due to Britt's demands for monetary gain, being too high. Yet, money wasn't on the mind of Narvo, his mind was focused on THE TITLE. He acknowledged that his opponent would gain most of the profits at the gates, except he was more satisfied that the title was finally on the table. They had already competed against each other twice, and the two bouts had both been won through disqualification. It was one all, one a piece. The bell sounded, and the referee acknowledged the fight had commenced. It was match three; all or nothing, and it only took 6 strikes into a 13 round fight, and the match was over. Newspapers declared,
"There were only about six wallops. The fifth was a left to the stomach that opened Britt's mouth. The sixth was a right to the chin that shut it. The referee did the rest with the count."
Britt was first to meet glove with skin, as he achieved a light straight left to the face. But that would be all he would achieve, as he was knocked down due to left rips into the body. He managed to make it to his feet again after nine seconds, before Narvo went on the attack a second time, the sixth blow resulted in a knockout. Britt lay on the outskirts of the ring, having fallen through the ropes, and landed metres from the crowded stadium. Like a coliseum, sections of the crowd 'hooted' in what could only be described as both amazement and shock, they were "too stunned to roar" in disapproval of the outcome.
After 12 seconds of unconsciousness, Britt awoke, only to see his belt in the hands of the new Australian heavyweight Champion. Billy Teale, the referee, then announced a name that wasn't his and the realisation was imminent, that his crown had finally been removed. It took hours, weeks and months of training, days and nights to refine jabs, hooks and uppercuts. Yet the fight only lasted a measly 25 seconds. Britt was down for 19 of those fleeting moments, and it had all ended on a threatening sixth swing to the head.
He won the title and the record. Ever since 1927, when George Thompson knocked out Era Sheppard in 35 seconds at Leichhardt stadium, the record of 'fastest fight' stood confidently in the history books. But, just like the punch that took the title from Britt, so did Narvo take the title from Thompson.
Narvo won two championship 'bouts' in 1943, but only one was in boxing, the other was from rugby league. Earlier in 1943, "Narvo would receive the highest fee ever paid to a Rugby League player in Australia", and it paid off for his employers, the Newtown Bluebags, as his team won the Premiership.
Two years later, whilst watching from the Sydney Cricket Ground, fans could witness a proud Narvo leading his team out to battle, as he had become the Captain of the NSW Rugby League squad. Before the game commenced, they stood in formation awaiting the arrival of royalty, for they were to meet the new Governor General, the Duke of Gloucester - Prince Henry. Narvo was waiting patiently and proudly for his handshake, when he heard a remark booming across the faces of his team mates. Frank 'Bumper' Farrell, who he played with in his Newtown squad, had called out and left his teammates in a fit of laughter, within moments of meeting royalty.
Bumper said, "Hey Herb, you've forgotten to take out your false teeth."
Narvo decided that for this match, the risk of losing his teeth outweighed keeping them intact, for he was meeting important guests and he had to make an impression. Narvo turned and looked directly at Farrell and with great earnest and with his dignity beaming, he replied, "Frank, when you meet royalty, you are obliged to look your best."
Standing two positions up from Bumper was a young Noel White, who slightly leaned in, with his eyes locked piercing on Bumper. Moments earlier, Bumper had turned to his fellow team mates and said, "I am going to give this bloke a handshake he will never forget."
As Prince Henry made his way down the line, he reached his right hand out towards Bumper, as Narvo introduced his team to the Prince. The veins in both Bumper's and Prince Henry's hands became prominent. Noel White kept his gaze firmly locked to see if Bumper's witty remark about a strong unforgettable handshake was a bluff. It was not. Herb was wearing jersey number three, and Frank was wearing number four. Narvo didn't let his teeth stop his commitment on the field, as he scored one try out of his team's seven tries. With a determined outlook and strong leadership skills, Herb successfully captained his team to a 37 to 12 victory against the 'Queensland Firsts'.
During this time, Narvo was also serving in the Royal Australian Air Force, in which he juggled both his professional sporting careers with that of service throughout World War II. By 1947, Narvo was ranked as the fifth best heavyweight boxer in the world.
In 2008, Herb Narvo was inducted into the National Rugby League's Hall of Fame, for his sporting achievements in local (Newcastle, Newtown, St George), State (NSW, Country and City) and for his international representative career. He has been named in the Top 100 Rugby League Players of the Century (1908-2008), and in the Newtown Jets 18-Man Team of the Century. Herb Narvo became one of the greatest boxers and Rugby League second-row forwards, Australia and the world, has ever known.
Herb Narvo's size and stature, paired with his 'great endurance' and unequivocal strength, made him one of Australia's finest sportsman, evident by his professional league performances and his successful boxing bouts.
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