TITLE: Dick Tiger, A Battle Too Far
The year is 1967. Thirty seven-year-old Dick Tiger is a world boxing champion and a national hero to the newly independent Nigeria. Described by one American journalist as a ‘pugilistic plenipotentiary’, Tiger is a torch-bearer, a symbol and an icon; a man at the peak of his powers. But all is not well. Nigeria is in the midst of a political crisis; a crisis which will soon lead to a bloody conflict between the secessionist state of Biafra and the rest of federal Nigeria. As the country split into two, Tiger would make a fateful choice. Renouncing his Nigeria citizenship, he gave his backing to the Biafran rebels who were largely drawn from his ethnic Igbo kinsmen. For much of his life and career, Tiger had repeatedly triumphed over the most promising odds. But in facing an opponent armed by both Britain and the Soviet Union, the odds against the rebels surviving the onslaught of the federal army were imposing. Over the following thirty months, Tiger a man of tenacious resolve and uncompromising self-belief, would play a prominent role as a propagandist for the Biafran cause. It would win him the admiration of the world.
BUT IT WAS A BATTLE TOO FAR for Dick Tiger who would die broken-hearted at the early age of 42 of liver cancer.
He was born Richard Ihetu in 1929, in the Igbo heartland of the British protectorate of Nigeria. He was typical of the Igbo who became known as the ‘Jews of Africa.’ Growing up in an era of great optimism, pamphlets were distributed along the streets he walked, with titles such as ‘Determination is the Key to Success’, ‘How to get Rich’, and ‘How to Stay Rich’. Buses and lorries passed the young Tiger by with inspirational inscriptions such as ‘Glory Be to God’, and ‘Let the Good Times Roll’. The culture imbued him with a sense of destiny: If he could live a life of sobriety, thrift and hard work; the world was his oyster.
Rendered fatherless in his adolescence, Tiger would find his expression in boxing. But he was far away from the better facilities and opportunities in the capital city of Lagos. Undaunted, Tiger fought his way up from being a provincial fighter to become the best middleweight in Nigeria.
Inspired, he left his young fiancé behind to join the migration of West African boxers to Britain, arriving in Liverpool in 1955. Losing his first four bouts, Tiger was quick to acclimatise to the boxing standards, winning over British fans on the way to claiming the British Empire (Commonwealth) championship three years later.
Believing now that his dream of world championship glory was at hand, he relocated to New York in 1959. But as the reigning champions avoided him and matchmakers disappointed him, it looked as though Tiger would never get his chance. Yet, ever resilient and indefatigable, Tiger defied the difficulties and wrested the world middleweight title, aged 33, from the formidable American Gene Fullmer in 1962.
An extremely popular fighter among New York audiences and an object of veneration among his fellow Nigerians, Tiger’s world title defence in the city of Ibadan united the nation. His prowess in the ring earned him commendations from Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, the revered pan-Africanist, and brought him to the attention of President John F. Kennedy. In 1963, he was awarded the MBE by Queen Elizabeth II. By 1966, he had won two more world championships. Dick Tiger was at the summit.
But the onset of the Nigerian troubles would change that. In 1966, a military coup carried out by middle-ranking officers led to pogroms against the Igbos and a murderous counter-coup. The following year, the Igbo dominated Eastern region declared its independence and a new nation named Biafra. The federal government refused to accept this; plunging Nigeria into a catastrophic civil war.
Dick Tiger was quick to support Biafra, and spoke up for the rebel nation in the Western press. As was the case with his contemporary, Muhammad Ali, he was a boxer whose courage did not end in the ring; demonstrating that a conscientious and socially responsible athlete could articulate the grievances of a people.
It would all be in vain. By early 1970, the fledgling state was snuffed out; strangled into submission amidst the chaos of human suffering, mass slaughter, child starvation, and widespread disease.
The costs were also high for Tiger. He lost his status, his wealth and his health. He died a broken man. Before his death, however, he had once again pledged his allegiance to Nigeria, returning to his home country after a few years in the United States, where he fought his last fight in 1968.
“He was,” eulogised boxing writer Ted Carroll, “a man whose qualities as a fighter was matched by his qualities as man.” Yet, the question remains: was he a man blinded by pride who stubbornly and unwisely gambled on a cause that seemed doomed almost from the time of its inception? Or was he a principled man of conscience who was finally unravelled by the malevolent forces of fate?
Copyright. Adeyinka Makinde. (2007-2011).