Wednesday 30 March 2011

BBC World Service Radio 'African Perspective: Dick Tiger' - Transcript

Gavin Evans explores how such an illustrious boxing career became overshadowed by the turmoil of Nigeria's politics.


Jose Torres (Former World Light Heavyweight Champion)

Ron Lipton (World Championship Referee & Tiger's sparring partner)

Richard Ihetu Jnr ( Dick Tiger's eldest son)

Adeyinka Makinde (Biographer of Dick Tiger)

Narrator: Forty years have passed since Nigerian boxer Dick Tiger pulled off one of the greatest feats in African sporting history

Fight Commentator (archival): Going into the fifteenth and final round, it's all Tiger now. Dick is taking complete control.

The 37-year old African veteran shocked the boxing world when he became the first ever world middleweight boxing champion to rise in weight and win the world light heavyweight title. The year was 1966. Nigerian-born barrister Ade Makinde has written the first biography of Dick Tiger...

Adeyinka Makinde: He was a beacon of hope for Nigeria, he was a torchbearer, he was a symbol.

Narrator: But the glory days didn't last...

Adeyinka Makinde: Fast forward it to the Biafran War where he renounces Nigeria and says ''Well, my people have been subjected to pogroms, our leaders have been brutally murdered in the army; they've been taken out of the political framework,'' and he just basically felt that he had no choice but to go with Biafra.

Narrator: The controversy around Dick Tiger's political stand meant that for many years he was a forgotten hero; especially in Nigeria. In this African Perspective from the BBC World Service, join me Gavin Evans as I explore the life and times of one of the greatest boxing heroes Africa has ever produced.

Highlife music excerpt

Narrator: Tiger was born on August the 14th 1929 in what was then the British Protectorate of Nigeria. He was the third child of Ubuagwu and Rebecca Ihetu. His parents gave him the name Richard Ihetu. Tiger spent most of his early years working on the family farm. His first job there was to draw water and fetch firewood from a nearby forest. He also attended the local missionary school where he was known as a bright, hardworking student. Biographer Ade Makinde says Tiger's early years shaped him as a fighter.

Adeyinka Makinde: He grew up in a city called Aba, in Nigeria. Aba is a place in Igboland, among the Igbo people, and at the time he was growing up, he would have been greatly influenced by the spirit of optimism and can-doism that was reflected in so many facets of their life. You had these digests known as 'chapbooks' with titles like 'How to become Rich,' 'Determination is the Key of Success' and so their lifestyle, the Igbos, they were aspirational. It was based on entrepreneural and christian precepts that if you maintained a level of sobriety and determination; you would succeed in life. So that is what helped him along in his life.

Narrator: Tiger's father was a trader and amateur wrestler. He died suddenly when Tiger was only 13-years-old. His mother continued to mind the farm, but money was scarce, and Tiger and his older brothers had to leave school and move to town. There he worked as a delivery boy, walking bare foot along the unpaved roads; pushing a cart full of goods destined for local businesses. Sometimes, he would join his older brothers on expeditions to the delta town of Ogoni. They'd buy monkeys, parrots and cats, which they would train and sell at local markets. Along the way, Tiger developed a reputation as a teenager who could take care of himself in street fights. He was fairly short, but had powerful, broad shoulders. After reading stories about the great American boxing champions Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, Tiger decided to try his luck at boxing. Biographer Ade Makinde says that he soon acquired his nickname...

Adeyinka Makinde: He was fighting, very crudely, in Nigeria; I think he was still an amateur, and he was being observed by this Englishman. I don't know if he had a few bits of scotch in his system at the time, but he was very enthused by this aggressive man who -he was short and stocky- was jumping up to hit his opponent, and he kind of said the words: "A Tiger! That's what he is! A Tiger!" And so being a Richard, they shortened that to 'Dick Tiger.'

Narrator: Dick tiger turned professional at 23. He left Nigeria 3 years later.

Sound of ship's horn

Narrator: Tiger docked at the coastal city of Liverpool, north England in October 1955. He was dressed only in T-shirt and cotton trousers and shivered in the cold English air.

Sounds of variety music

Narrator: Liverpool was a cosmopolitan city. As Britain's second biggest port, it was a magnet for immigrants from all over the commonwealth, including West Africa. By moving to England, Tiger followed the path made by several other leading Nigerian boxers among them Hogan 'Kid' Bassey, who went on to win the world featherweight title. Nigerian fighters were welcomed in Britain because they were prepared to accept less money from the promoters than local boxers. Tiger was warmly received by the Liverpool crowds, and was particularly popular with dockers who loved his brawling style. Ade Makinde...

Adeyinka Makinde: He was a big star in Liverpool. They considered him one of their own.

Narrator: Despite his popularity, the old school British boxing officials didn't like what they saw. They favoured 'jab-and-move' boxers and controversially declared Tiger the points loser in each of his first four British fights. Tiger's first British trainer, Maurice Foran, was interviewed about his boxer in 1962. Foran describes Tiger as a 'diamond-in-the-rough'.....

Maurice Foran (archival): He didn't punch correctly. He didn't move very well, but the strength was there, the material was there of a great fighter.

Narrator: Yet, life was tough for Tiger. He trained every day in a damp gym and never got used to the British weather, or to British food. He wasn't earning enough from boxing to survive, nor from the occasional odd job that he could find. Here's Foran again...

Maurice Foran (archival): When I got to know him, it was why I started to help him because he was very discouraged at this point and I remember saying to him quite well that if he could organise himself more, he would do well in boxing. But at that point, he was very disheartened because he'd lost a few fights and living conditions were very hard, he had a very hard job and he didn't seem to be getting anywhere. And I think he was thinking of going back to Nigeria.

Narrator: He did return home briefly to marry Abigail Ogbuji, a 23-year-old kindergarten teacher. She would bear him eight children. Dick Tiger's oldest son and namesake, Richard Ihetu Junior remembers his father as a fiercely determined man who could be strict but also loving.

Richard Ihetu Junior: Very liberal, very generous, very funny. You (needed) to be around him. He was a very funny man and we children liked him a lot. He might just look at you and pretend that he wants to come and bite (you) or something like that (and) you'd run away and laugh. You know, he (liked) creating a scene, making people laugh, especially with the children.

Narrator: Although he was a family man, Tiger continued to learn the ropes in the British ring, still occasionally losing dubious decisions, but usually winning. In 1958, he pulled off an upset by knocking out Pat McAteer to lift the commonwealth middleweight title.

You're listening to BBC African Perspective with me Gavin Evans. Today we remember the great Nigerian boxer, Dick Tiger.

Sound of a boxing ring bell

Narrator: In 1959, Tiger relocated to New York City to relearn the art of self defence in some of America's toughest gyms. Over the next three years, he worked his way towards a world title shot by beating a string of top contenders. Madison Square Garden was the 'Mecca of boxing' and soon Tiger caught the eye of the top boss there, Harry Markson...

Harry Markson (archival): Dick Tiger, because of the many qualities he has; he's an excellent puncher, he has great stamina, he has a wonderful determination and will to win, I think that he would rate among the leading men of our day in his class. I also would regard him as being a fine gentleman. I think that he is a credit to his country, and certainly a great asset to the business of boxing.

Narrator: Dick Tiger finally got his big break. At the age of 33, he travelled to San Francisco to challenge the formidably powerful Gene Fullmer for the world middleweight title in (October) 1962.

Ring Announcer (archival): The number one contender, from Nigeria Dick Tiger

Roar of crowd

Ring Announcer (Archival): And his opponent, the middleweight champion of the world, Gene Fullmer.

Narrator: At the end of 15 rounds, Tiger had outmuscled the strongman, and outboxed him too, winning a wide, unanimous decision.

Boxing Commentator (Archival): And there's the bell ending the fight. The decision goes to Dick Tiger, and Dick becomes the new world middleweight champion. Tiger's fans are elated as Dick waves to the crowd.

Narrator: Here's what Tiger told the American press immediately after the fight.

Dick Tiger (archival): In some rounds I may think to myself that I'm a bit slow, and some rounds I think I'm ahead.

Reporter (archival): Did you seem to let him set the pace? If he wanted to slow it up, you were willing to slow it up. Is there any reason for that?

Dick Tiger (archival): No reason, it just happened that way. Excuse me, I hope you understand my English...

Reporter (archival): Whoa! Don't stop now! (laughter) You haven't run out have you....

Narrator: In the return match Fullmer was considered fortunate to be granted a draw. The pair fought for a third time in Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, Nigeria on August the 10th 1963. This was the first ever world title fight in Africa outside of apartheid South Africa. This time Tiger beat Fullmer to a standstill. He forced the American to retire to his corner at the end of the seventh round. After the fight, Tiger was hailed as a Nigerian sporting hero, says Ade Makinde...

Adeyinka Makinde: His fight with Gene Fullmer was a national event. He was lionised and on the day of the fight, one of the newspapers had his image superimposed on the African continent. He even got messages of congratulations from Kwame Nkrumah, the purveyor of black pan-Africanism.

Narrator: But the African hero controversially lost his title to America's Joey Giardello. Two years later, he got his revenge when he became world champion again. But Tiger's world was changing. It was becoming a darker and more dangerous place.

School children singing a patriotic Biafran song

Narrator: Civil war had broken out in Nigeria. It pitted Tiger's Igbo people in the Eastern Region of Biafra against the Federal government. It was one of post-independent Africa's first and most bloody civil wars.

School children singing a patriotic Biafran song

Narrator: The conflict began in 1966 when a group of middle ranking Igbo military officers tried to overthrow the Federal government of Nigeria. The coup attempt failed and thousands of Igbo people were persecuted and killed. As a result, the Igbo leadership declared Biafra an independent state. The Nigerian federal government reacted by mounting an all out military offensive to secure a unified nation. In a BBC interview at the time, the Biafran leader Colonel Ojukwu, justified the war.

Colonel Ojukwu (archival): We came into this war; rather, this war was forced on to us by the fact that Nigeria attacked us. Our aim is to prevent Nigeria overrunning us.

Narrator: Farmland was destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people from the region were forced to flee their homes. By August 1968, the International Red Cross estimated that 60,000 people were dying each day as a result of the war or food shortages it created. Suspicions ran high and the leader of Nigeria's federal government, General Gowon, was reluctant to allow aid flights into Biafra.

General Gowon (archival): Really I do not trust any aircraft going into rebel held areas now, because otherwise what Ojukwu would do is that he would use the opportunity to fly in also his aircraft carrying arms and ammunition.

Narrator:Tiger was quick to take a public stand. He was commissioned as an officer in the Biafran Army. He popped back and forth between Biafra and America competing in major fights, and speaking up for the fledgling Biafran state. Biographer Makinde, again...

Adeyinka Makinde: He made the decision, ''I want to support this cause,'' and he made the announcement and in his fights in America, he'd play the Biafran anthem, he'd wear it proudly, he'd speak up in Time magazine and Newsweek magazine against what he referred to as the war crimes of the Nigerian military against the people of Biafra; I mean, he actually even handed in his MBE medal; returned it to the British state because of his perception they supported the Nigerian federal forces. Now firstly, the Nigerians, what they did is they tried to ignore this. So during his fights, they would actually make announcements about 'Dick Tiger of Nigeria'; the thing is that they didn't publicise it in the Nigerian press that meanwhile over in New York in a hotel room, he's telling Robert Lipsyte of the New York Times that "What do they mean 'Dick Tiger,' 'Nigeria'? Yet, they would kill me. They're killing my people in Nigeria at the moment. So at that time, he had to take physical risks. First of all evading Nigerian forces going through the borders of Cameroon and later on airlifts.

Narrator: Tiger's son, Richard Ihetu junior, remembers that difficult time...

Richard Ihetu junior: He (didn't) speak much, epecially to us children, about the war. Most fathers don't tell their children serious things, you know, they just allow the thing to flow. War was a very serious business and a father wouldn't like to tell his children (about) the war although we experienced some before we left.

Narrator: Tiger tried to protect his family from what was happening. He smuggled them out of Nigeria. They settled first in Portugal and then in the United States. Tiger's American sparring partner, Ron Lipton, remembers the effect the civil war had on the man he knew.

Ron Lipton: You know he had a heavy load to carry with what was going on in Nigeria and how passionately he felt about it. And his one tremendous asset was his focus so I'm sure that from what I saw, he didn't allow these terrible thoughts and pressures to affect his focus in the spartan atmosphere that we lived in and trained in New York City. But the sad part is it weighed heavily upon him. I know he loved his wife Abigail very much and his family. When the war went badly, I think that it affected him very deeply.

Narrator: The impact of Biafra on his boxing career soon became obvious. Tiger lost his title against the reigning world welterweight champion, Emile Griffith. Once again, it was a controversial decision. 17 of the 22 ringside reporters gave the fight to Tiger. Most felt his time was up, but not Dick Tiger. Instead of retiring, he decided to move up in weight. In December 1966, he successfully challenged the highflying Jose Torres for the world light heavyweight title. Torres was a slick, hard hitting Puerto Rican with just one loss in forty-one fights. He was even tipped as a possible opponent for Muhammad Ali. Torres was nine centimetres taller than Tiger, four kilograms heavier and seven years younger. No one gave Tiger a chance including Torres himself.

Jose Torres: I remember that he was a tough fight. In the first and second round, I understood that Tiger was a very smart fighter and I began to try to match him with my head; trying to think more deeper because I knew that he was a smart fighter. And it was a close fight, but when they gave him the decision, I did not complain. (Laughs.) What makes the difference between winning and losing is in the brain. Not in the fist, and Dick Tiger was a proof of that.

Narrator: Six months later, they fought a return. This time Tiger won an even closer bout that ended in a riot...

Commentator (archival): (Loud noises of disturbance in the background) And supporters of Jose Torres are throwing bottles into the arena. They're smashing all over the place. They're hitting people. People are holding their chairs above them to protect themselves from falling bottles that are crashing down from about fifty feet up in the air.

Narrator: Once the trouble died down, Tiger reflected on his win over Torres...

Dick Tiger (archival): I think from the beginning of the fight, he was fighting my fight. This time, instead of him standing up, he was low, because he knew last time I fought him, I was punching him down but I still got him downstairs.

Commentator (archival): Did you think that he made any basic mistakes as far as the fight was concerned?

Dick Tiger (archival): Sometimes, not always. Sometimes he made a mistake and sometimes myself, I made a mistake.

Commentator (archival): What did you think of the reaction in the audience; the sort of tremendous applause that he had and then at the end of the fight, the throwing bottles.

Dick Tiger (archival): This is not new. It's not knew to me and it's not new to Madison Square Garden; it's happened before.

Commentator (archival): Would this happen in Nigeria?

Dick Tiger (archival): No

Commentator (archival): Any plans as to who you'll be fighting next?

Dick Tiger (archival): My plan now is just to go back to Nigeria and leave all the plans to my manager.

Commentator (archival): How long would you like it to be before you have another fight?

Dick Tiger (archival): I've no other job, tomorrow, I'm ready. (Laughs)

Narrator: But Tiger was not ready for what was to come next. Eighteen months later when he was nearing forty, the ageing boxer agreed to defend his title against America's Bob Foster. Foster is known as the hardest hitting light heavyweight in boxing history.

Ring announcer (archival): Introducing from Washington D.C., the challenger Bob Foster. His opponent, from Biafra wearing blue trunks, he weighs one-sixty eight, the light heavyweight king, Dick Tiger.

Narrator: In round four, Foster struck with his left hook and for the first and only time in his career, Tiger took the full count. Despite this crushing defeat, Tiger pressed on. He went on to beat several top boxers. Finally, aged 41, he retired. To keep busy, he now took a job as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York. One day at work, Tiger felt an intense spasm of pain on the right side of his abdomen. He was rushed to hospital where he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. By this time, Biafra had lost its bid to become a separate state. With the war over, Dick was given permission to return home. It was the first time he'd set foot in Nigeria in three years. His son, Richard Ihetu was then twelve years old. Dick junior still has vivid memories of those last months with his beloved father.

Richard Ihetu junior: It was very shocking. It took us some time before we got used to being alone by ourselves. The man was very protective of us, he took care of us, (then) all of a sudden BAM! From nowhere the man is dead. You know that it affects a child. I miss his fatherly touch, his fatherly advice. At times we miss his voice, you know like shouting ''Hey! What are you doing!'' You know, something like that. If you had a dad that died young, at a very early age, you are on your own. You have to start moving. I still believe that if the man was alive, that maybe I could have gone further than this. Yes, we really missed him.

Narrator: Dick Tiger quickly faded from view. His controversial involvement in the Biafran campaign, a devisive period in Nigeria's past, meant that Dick Tiger was airbrushed out of his country's history. Ade Makinde again...

Adeyinka Makinde: When his career ends, that's when we begin to see the beginnings of the obfuscation and the marginalisation of Dick Tiger in Nigerian memory. They don't send anybody at the time of his demise; to his funeral, no honours are bestowed upon him posthumously. So no question about it, it had a big effect during his career and after his career.

Narrator: Thirty-five years have now passed since Dick Tiger's death. Forty years since his greatest triumph. But the last decade has seen Tiger's fortunes rise again. He was the first African boxer to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. His greatest fights have recently being shown on international television networks. Biographer Ade Makinde says it is high time that this boxer gets the prominent place in African history that he deserves.

Adeyinka Makinde: Dick Tiger was modest, hardworking, he was a gentleman, but ultimately a supreme athlete, and that kind of fighter, I think, needs to be remembered.

Narrator: Such glowing praise is fitting says Richard Ihetu, Dick Tiger's first born son.

Richard Ihetu junior: He's the best. That's it. They can't take it away from him. Nobody can. He's the best that ever came out from this continent.

Narrator: I'm Gavin Evans. You've been listening to African Perspective from the BBC World Service.




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