SYDNEY - Boxing can be a cruel game. Not only do boxers suffer in the ring but many, even after successful careers, end up destitute; some with severe health problems.
There are few happy endings in this so called sport.
This story, however, is one of them. It involves two amateur boxers, one from Ireland and the other from a remote province of Papua New Guinea who battled out the final of the bantamweight division at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada.
Barry McGuigan was a tough 17 year old from Cloves, Ireland, although he represented Northern Ireland at the Games.
Tumat Sogolik was 23 and a customs officer born in New Ireland. He was an experienced amateur having won gold at two regional boxing championships in the Pacific and was something of a national hero in PNG.
McGuigan, on the other hand, was relatively inexperienced.
Prior to the bout beginning, PNG officials had expressed an opinion that sometimes it was difficult for boxers from smaller, developing nations to gain winning decisions against opponents from more developed countries.
Possibly bearing this in mind, Sogolik made sure that in each of his three qualifying bouts the judges were not bothered to add up the points.
In bout one, he defeated David George of Wales by a knockout in the first round.
In bout two, David Maina of Kenya hit the canvass in the second round.
And in bout three, Jackie Turner - two time British Amateur Boxing champion and favourite to win gold – was knocked out by Sogolik also in the second round.
Unfortunately, in the final against McGuigan, the bout went the distance and the prior suspicions of the PNG officials were vindicated.
The less said about this bout the better, save that in the annals of boxing, both professional and amateur, it delivered one of the worst decisions ever.
Some of the words used by journalists about the judges’ decision were “atrocious,” “inexplicable” and “ridiculous”,
The PNG’s Post-Courier ran with the headline, ‘Sogolik Robbed of Gold’.
And you had to be a one-eyed Irish supporter to disagree with the scribes. Sogolik had decked McGuigan several times in the bout and seemed to win every round with ease.
Even McGuigan admitted later that he was “fortunate” to win, which is as close to admitting a loss as you can get.
The commentator at the end of the third round before the decision was announced stated: “The Irish lad has put up a courageous battle but PNG will win its first ever commonwealth gold medal”.
Alas he was wrong! Following the announcement by the judges, Australia’s senior boxing official, Arthur Tunstall, rang PNG Amateur Boxing Federation president, John Stuntz, and apologised for the decision.
Tunstall, a hard bitten, tough and experienced boxing administrator, said, “could not understand it!”
Naturally Sogolik was disappointed, although he took the decision in a sportsmanlike manner, and he was first to congratulate McGuigan.
What happened next, however, was extraordinary.
A disconsolate Sogolik, arriving back at the Games Village, was surprised to find a red carpet leading to his room.
An official looking gentleman requested he quickly change into his Games uniform as an important visitor was expected. Shortly after there was a knock on the door and who should be ushered in but Queen Elizabeth II.
Tumat nearly fell over in surprise but quickly recovering he bowed. The Queen gently told him to rise and congratulated him on his sportsmanlike acceptance of the decision, adding that she thought he had won.
Her Majesty also told him he “had a heart bigger than her kingdom”.
The Queen’s visit did much to assuage any bitterness the PNG boxer may have felt at his loss and he returned home to a hero’s welcome.
Unbeknown to him virtually every Papua New Guinean with access to a radio had been closely following his progress at the Games. He was indeed a national hero and, while he had not won gold, everyone knew he should have been PNG’s first Commonwealth gold medallist.
Sogolik’s exploits in the ring had wider implications for his newly independent country. As Sir Manasup Zurenouc and Felicity Herbert wrote in a 2016 paper entitled, ‘State, Sovereignty and Government in Melanesia’, “The incredible interest in the bout brought the country together as one.”
In 2016 Sogolik was elected to PNG’s Sporting Hall of Fame, the citation acknowledging not only his boxing achievements as well as that he had “helped unite a country.”
Sogolik returned to his job as a customs officer and had several professional bouts with limited success and he soon retired, married and returned to live in his home village of Tsoi in idyllic New Ireland where he subsists as a fisherman. His silver medal is in his son’s keeping.
His opponent, the young McGuigan, went on to pursue a highly successful professional boxing career becoming world featherweight champion. His career record records 31 bouts and only three losses. He later would tell people that the bout with Sogolik was the hardest he had ever been hit as an amateur.
McGuigan is now a wealthy boxing promoter, author and sports journalist andcommentator. Incidently, McGuigan won his world title from Panamanian Eusibio Pedrosa who had previously successfully defended it against the late Johnny Aba also from PNG.
McGuigan’s success as a professional boxer raises the question of how far Sogolik may have progressed if he had won their bout and with appropriate guidance pursued a professional career. He certainly had the ability.
But even though the lives of these two sportsmen diverged considerably following their controversial bout, each achieved success and contentment. Given the harsh realities of their chosen sport, this was a rare achievement.