The wild boar turned bull in the ring-BY ALLAAM OUSMAN
Sumith Liyanage (extreme left) at Rome’s Leonarda Da Vinci on their arrival for the 1960 Olympics. The five-man team also included Linus Diaz (athletics), Tony Williams (swimming), Maurice Coomeravel (cycling), Dharmasiri Weerakoon (boxing) with Darley Ingleton as manager
Sri Lanka’s oldest living Olympian mistakenly shot for an animal in the jungle had the commitment and qualities that are still unsurpassed inside or outside the sporting arena
One of the proudest boasts of Sri Lanka’s oldest living Olympian, boxer Sumith Liyanage, is that he fought in the same ring as Muhammad Ali then known as Cassius Clay at the Pallazzo Dello Sport in Rome 1960.
Ali dazzled both in and out of the ring to win the light heavyweight gold medal and went on to become heavyweight champion of the world. Johnny Wakelin released what became a popular hit single called the ‘Black Superman’ in 1974 idolising Ali after his epoch ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ triumph against George Foreman.
It is a coincidence that Ceylon’s ‘Black Panther’ as Sumith Liyanage came to be known in the local press because of his dusky complexion and pugilistic skills, achieved his dream of going to the Olympics just like the young Clay. Liyanage, a young Sub Inspector of Police at the time, may not have ‘floated like a butterfly’ but he certainly packed sting in his two fists which sent shivers down the spine of his rivals.
Sri Lanka’s national featherweight champion fought like a gladiator to Pole-axe three-time European champion of Poland Jerzi Adamski with a vicious right in the first round though losing on points to his more experienced adversary. One can only imagine how Ceylon as Sri Lanka was then known would have shaken up the boxing world if Liyanage had beaten Adamski who went onto win the silver medal, just as Ali ‘shook up the world’ a few years later when he stunned Liston against all odds to become world champion.
This is the story of Sri Lanka’s own ‘Black Superman’ Sumith Mohandas Pitigala Liyanage who had the courage of conviction to pursue his dream of representing the country in boxing at the Olympics despite losing his first bout as a schoolboy.
One of his regrets was not being able to go for the 1962 Asian Championships in Thailand after being injured in a shooting incident by ‘friendly fire’ in the jungles of Galigamuwa off Anuradhapura.
“I got shot by my friend who thought it was a wild boar and shot a tame one,” guffawed Liyanage, regaling the incident in which he escaped being shot in the head.
“The SG (shot gun) has nine pellets. Six of them hit my body while the seventh went through the brim of my hat. Fortunately, it missed my head. I was conscious but had to be carried four miles through the jungle. I still have two slugs with me as a souvenir,” said Liyanage who was hospitalised in Kurunegala and moved to Skinner’s ward at the General Hospital in Colombo.
His powerful right was never the same again after the freak incident.
“I have a hole in the collar bone where one pellet got embedded in my shoulder blade. I continued fighting because I like the sport a lot,” said Liyanage who laughed off this hunting incident which would have made lesser mortals freeze out of fear.
In fact, he went on to become a sharpshooter, winning a silver medal in pistol shooting at the 2007 World Police and Fire Games in Adelaide, South Australia. and indulged in the sport of shooting seriously after his retirement from boxing. Liyanage was manager of the Sri Lanka team which won medals at the 1993 SAF Games in Bangladesh, 1994 Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, Canada where Pushpamalie Ramanayake won a gold medal, 1995 Commonwealth Championship in New Delhi and 1995 SAF Games Madras, also serving as vice president of the National Rifle Association.
An outstanding medium pace bowler who represented Nalanda College in the ‘big match’ against his former school Ananda, Sumith could have chosen the easier path to success. But the adventurous streak inside him and his tough character drew him to the combat sport of boxing becoming one of the finest Sri Lanka ever produced. The fifth in a family of seven, he was street smart than his older brothers and never ducked a challenge both inside or outside the ring. He is an embodiment of discipline and dedication to achieve excellence through sheer hard work and determination.
“I used to get involved in fights at school. I was a naughty schoolboy. I had no fear in me to fight another fellow. I used to get thrashed and fight back. I thought for a person like me, boxing is the only way I could represent the country,” said Sumith Liyanage, who celebrated his 85th birthday on June 24.
His Olympic dream was fuelled when he lost to Annesley Soysa of St. Sylvester’s College, Kandy at the Stubbs Shield meet held at Zahira College in 1952.
“I made my decision at that time. I decided that I have the necessary build and reach. When I lost, I decided to go to the Olympics one day because he (opponent) has two hands and I have two hands. It is a matter of practice that you need,” said Liyanage who had his primary education at Ananda College.
“I started boxing when I was 14 or 15 at Ananda. St. Sylvester’s had a fairly good boxing team. They were the favourites in the Stubbs and won their weights and became champions. After losing to Annesley Soysa, I thought to myself ‘if these boxers are doing well, I could do well with a little bit more training’,” said Liyanage who joined Singha Amateur Boxing Club (SABC) and trained under legendary boxing coach D.C.A. Wickremasinghe who had coached the Jayasuriya brothers CP and HP, Mahasen Welivitigoda and a host of champions.
Sumith joined Nalanda in 1953 and went on to win the Stubbs Shield from 1955-57. He also won the ABA Junior Championship in 1952 and 53, and while still a schoolboy the Novices and Intermediate meets.
“Nalanda did not have boxing at the time. Thanks to the Prefect of Games P. Kandasamy I boxed in the Stubbs Shield representing Nalanda,” recalled Liyanage. His classmate and teammate in the Nalanda cricket team Premasara Epasinghe was also responsible for urging him to continue boxing. “My dear friend Premasara Epasinghe was seated next to me in 4B. He pushed me into boxing and cricket at Nalanda,” said Liyanage who had career best figures of 6-36. “In 1955 I got 55 wickets with three five-wicket hauls against St. Peter’s, Prince of Wales and Zahira,” said Liyanage who also represented SSC in the Daily News Trophy tournament.
But his first love was boxing following in the footsteps of his elder brothers Pandu and Jay. In fact, they used to be in the corner for all of his fights. “Both were boxers at Ananda. They encouraged me. They did not take part in Open meets. Pandu even seconded me for the Olympics, at his own expense,” he recalled fondly. “Boxing was ingrained in my family. I took it up seriously for the simple reason that I must go for the Olympics.”
Liyanage’s one ambition was to go for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and took part in the trials to knock out bantamweight champion T.J. Martyn in the third round.
“He was a short, muscular man. We feared the fellow but I knocked him out thanks to my brother who was in the corner. Both of us traded punches in the first two rounds. At the interval my brother told me ‘Sumith you must go all out, otherwise you will lose the fight’. I went all out in the third round and knocked him out. He was carried off the ring. I had a hard punch those days,” bragged Liyanage.
However, he was not selected for the Melbourne Games. “I showed that I was a competent boxer. Unfortunately, maybe I was young. Both CP and HP Jayasuriya were selected for the Olympics. I was definitely sure of what I wanted to do in boxing… to go to the Olympics,” said Liyanage who went on to win the National featherweight title in 1957 and represented Ceylon for the first time at the South East Asian Boxing Championship in Rangoon, Burma.
He was adjudged Best Boxer at the Govt Services meet which served as the first trial for the 1960 Olympics but nearly missed out on going to Rome as well since there was no contestant in his weight at the final trial.
“I had to get hold of PC Subramaniam because nobody was there to fight, otherwise, I wouldn’t get a chance to go. I conceded about 15 pounds and knocked him out in the second round,” he said.
He was selected as number one choice along with fellow Police team mate Sub Inspector Dharmasiri Weerakoon. He still vividly remembers going for the weigh-in on August 10 morning and topping his weight class.
“I was exactly 124lbs and under in the featherweight. I was top of my weight,” he said, recollecting the advice given by Cambridge ‘Blue’ Danton Obeyesekere who was officiating in Rome when he went back to his flat.
“He said ‘Sumith you are fighting tonight and have drawn the European champion for three years, Jersi Adamski from Poland. Don’t get frightened. I have seen you fighting and training. He is slightly shorter than you. Don’t worry about it. He is very good but you can easily beat him.’ He gave me a lot of encouragement,” said Liyanage.
“When I was in the warming up room Jersi Adamski came with his trainer. I was with my brother (Pandu) and Dharmasiri warming up on the side. When I entered the ring and shook hands, I realised that he was slightly shorter than me. I thought my reach is going to help me a lot. I didn’t fear one bit. In the first round I went after him. I thought I will get the better of him. I managed to drop him for a count with a left and right. But in the second and third round he came back. I fought well. I knew I had done well but he was a skilled fighter,” said Liyanage.
“I went back to my room and started crying. I got a chance of putting Sri Lanka on top. Adamski won three more fights and got the silver medal losing to an Italian boxer in the final. There were 38 fighters in my weight mind you. It was very competitive.”
His other memory of the Rome Olympics was seeing Cassius Clay. “He was in our same building. We used to see Cassius bragging about himself all the time. Everybody thought he was a mad fellow. We never took him seriously at that time. I watched his three fights. He won easily. Zbigniew Peitryzkowski fought very well in the final. I thought the first two rounds Cassius Clay was going to lose but in the third round he hammered his Polish opponent to win the gold medal. I wanted to take a picture with him but I could not find him,” said Liyanage.
Despite many years in the fight game beating local and international opponents, knocking out and bouncing back after being knocked down, Liyanage has a well-chiselled jaw and hardly any scars to show that he was a boxer.
“In boxing you are also defending yourself. I defended myself well. I never had scars though I fought very hard,” he said.
His bout in the Olympics was memorable but he treasures the one when he beat Indian champion Percy Kathau during the Indo-Ceylon duel in Bombay in 1963.
“My best fight was not that one (Olympic bout). It was the one I won against Percy Kathau from India. I beat him well and truly but he dropped me in the second round. I got up and fought back and beat him. It was one of the hardest fights,” Liyanage said.
The lessons he learnt through boxing and distinguishing himself as a police officer before retiring as DIG North Central Range, is relevant in today’s context when indiscipline is rampant in society.
“Boxing is a game where you have to be disciplined. Discipline is number one. I have not smoked a cigarette in my life. Up to today I have not touched a cigarette. That shows why even now I am fit enough. You have to discipline yourself. Apart from that, when you learn boxing from somebody, you have to respect the person who put you on the path of victory. I can’t forget D.C.A. Wickremasinghe, particularly my brothers Pandu and Jay,” he said.
SSP T.H. Kelaart in charge of the Police Field Force Headquarters was another person who gave Liyanage all the help to do well in the ring.
“Boxing is a game where you get hit. Win or lose you get thrashed. You are bound to get hurt,” says Liyanage, who accepted victory and defeat with equal magnanimity.
Before he hung up his gloves, he featured in three epic duels with schoolboy sensation Malcolm Bulner of St. Sylvester’s, who won the 1964 Olympic Trials.
He reeled the names of Olympics boxers Basil Henricus, Albert Perera, Eddie Gray, Leslie Handunge (1948), Leslie and HP Jayasuriya (1952), CP and HP Jayasuriya (1956), himself and Dharmasiri Weerakoon (1960), Malcolm Bulner and Winston Vancuylenberg (1964) and H.K. Karunaratne (1968) like a roll of honour but was appalled to see there were no boxers in the Olympics from 1968 till Anuruddha Ratnayake fought in 2008.
“We had a drop in the standards of boxing and nobody took interest. With Eddie Gray (later ABA secretary), boxers were there for six consecutive Olympics. That is because of the high standard we maintained at that time. Trainers were good and the interest of officials was there. That died down,” said Liyanage while praising Dian Gomes for reviving interest in boxing.
“He (Gomes) took a lot of interest being a former schoolboy boxer. When he became ABA (Amateur Boxing Association) president he got down a Cuban coach. In 2008 we qualified once again to box in the Olympics,” noted Liyanage.
Nonetheless, the heyday of boxing in the country was in the 1950s and 1960s. “Such was the standard of boxing that Ceylon were on par with the best in the world. With a little bit of luck Sri Lanka would have won an Olympic medal in boxing,” he said.
“For me to draw the second best of 38 fellows was bad luck for Ceylon. In 1956, CP lost a close fight to Dick McTaggart who won the gold medal and Best Boxer title in Melbourne. That shows if we had luck, we could have won one or two fights and win a medal. For our bad luck we met the best and second best in our first fights.
“There were large crowds attending our local boxing meets. Paper and radio coverage was there. Lot of publicity was given for boxing. Boxing was the order of the day at that time. That’s why boxing improved but it died down with weak people taking over the reign of administration,” he said.
He recalled with fascination the duels between HP Jayasuriya and Albert Perera.
“The three fights between HP and Albert Perera were the most memorable. HP, who won two of them, was selected for the (1952) Helsinki Games. We were small when we watched them fight. It was fantastic boxing,” he recalled.
“Two of the finest boxers I have seen in Sri Lanka are CP and HP Jayasuriya. I will never forget them,” said Liyanage. “For us to come to the standard we had at that time, I owe it to these guys.”
He should know because he has sparred with them while training at SABC.
“Donovan Andree had a famous show at Havelock Park in 1955 and invited boxers from Pakistan, India, Japan, Burma and few other countries. CP beat guys from India, Pakistan, Burma and Japanese champion (Tsutomo) Yanagiya all in one evening,” he exclaimed.
“People who took over reins of the ABA didn’t do much for boxing later on. They were only thinking of themselves,” he said, relating how AIBA president Prof. Anwar Choudhry phoned ABA president Dharmasiri to say they were short of people to officiate meets.
“My feeling is all the people who were coaches then wanted to go abroad. They were only concentrating on being judges and referees and gave up being coaches. That would have had some effect on boxing which virtually died down. We had international judges and referees but not many boxers. I was serving in outstations so I could not do much coaching. I wish I had done some coaching,” he said.
As an elder statesman he is revered at the newly formed Sri Lanka Olympians.
“I feel thanks to boxing I am still boxing on,” he quipped but was concerned that another gap was building up in boxing after Sri Lanka took part in the 2008 Olympics.
Asked how the standard of Sri Lanka boxing could be improved, he said: “You must dedicate yourself to boxing. I have never touched a cigarette in my life. Hard work must be put in. Training must be there for at least three months. We also need quality coaches.”
He summed up his recollections with a message to aspiring Olympians.
“You fix a target and make that your mission. Then work towards that. Then you will not go astray from that. Think of it morning, noon and night. Think of the sport and see how best you can improve yourself. That’s important.”
Golden words of wisdom from a gentleman who shed blood, sweat and tears for the sake of the nation, even putting his body on the line fearlessly, pushing himself to the extreme to achieve his ambition with selfless dedication and discipline which has been the cornerstone of his storied career.