Sunday 16 December 2012

Dick Tiger vs. Henry Hank: A Golden Era of Middleweight Boxers

Dick Tiger (right) clashing with Henry Hank at the Garden in 1962

The history of boxing, rich as it is with an innumerable array of expressions of the noble art by an assortment of gifted individuals, is also one which from the vantage point of hindsight can be compartmentalized into various eras.

The ‘Bare Knuckle’ era and the transitory period before the advent of the Marquis of Queensberry Rules form distinct epochs as do, say, the eras referred to respectively as pertaining to that of the so-called ‘White Hopes’ and the ‘Television Era’.

The game in America also reflected many aspects of the shifts and changes in the nation’s social evolution so much so that boxing has at certain junctures formed the reference point for trends regarding attitudes to race and ethnicity, social morality, technology, and even business sales and marketing models.

It was probably boxing’s inherent value in terms of the purity of its elemental form of combat and the decisive nature of a potential definitive finish via the route of a knockout which shaped the fight between the American Joe Louis and the German Max Schemeling into a metaphorical morality play of an impending worldwide duel between the forces of democracy on the one hand and totalitarianism on the other.

When Dick Tiger fought Henry Hank on March 31st 1962, boxing had been firmly in its ‘Television Era’; this the period of regular coverage of bouts on major American television networks.

It was an era approaching its end. CBS and ABC had dropped their broadcasts respectively in 1955 and 1960, while the groundbreaking DuMont Network, which had featured bouts from New York’s St. Nicholas Arena, had gone out of business.

In fact, Tiger would fight the last of the weekly televised fights run by the Madison Square Garden Organisation in association with the Gillette Corporation two years later at the Cleveland Arena against Don Fullmer.

Boxing also was now in something of a phase which American fans acknowledged to be one of a marked internationalization of the sport, and the career of Dick Tiger was emblematic of this.

A Nigerian who had emigrated to Liverpool; the port city in the north west of England, he had in 1958 become the British Empire middleweight champion and the following year would transfer his base to the United States where his avowed goal was to capture the world title.

Successfully seeing through his task would be no mean feat as he happened to arrive on American shores during what must be described as a ‘golden age’ of middleweight boxing. Doubtless, it is not as celebrated as the frequently referred to golden era of heavyweight boxers of the 1970s which consisted of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Ken Norton, Larry Holmes along with the gate-keeping group of talent such as Jerry Quarry, Earnie Shavers, Ron Lyle and others.

Their names were not as widely known to the American public as they might arguably have been had they fought in the 1920s or 1930s, and their rivalries, when narrowed down to those involving a series as say Tiger and Joey Giardello and later on, Emile Griffith and Nino Benvenuti, did not capture the imagination in the manner that the confrontations between Tony Zale and Rocky Graziano did.

Nonetheless, from a period of roughly between the later part of the 1950s to the middle portion of the 1960s, boxing produced a group of formidable, well-schooled and highly competitive middleweight boxers.

Who were these men? A random list would have to mention Rubin Carter, George Benton, Gene Fullmer, Florentino Fernandez, Holley Mims, Jose ‘Monon’ Gonzalez, and Henry Hank. And it would be seriously remiss not add the likes of Gene ‘Ace’ Armstrong, Billy Pickett and Jesse Smith.

They were formidable because to quote Ron Lipton, whom Joey Giardello once described as knowing “all the styles of the 1960s middleweights pretty well”, they were “cast in a mould which is not of this world today.”

They were well-schooled because they trained at old style boxing gymnasiums and under the actual tutelage of or in the recommended training methods that were proselytized by icons such as Charlie Goldman, Jimmy August, Freddie Brown, and Chickie Ferrara.

They were competitive because they were matched competitively from their starts in the neighborhood arenas to when they fought on the bills put on by Teddy Brenner and Harry Markson at Madison Square Garden, the acknowledged ‘Mecca of Boxing’.

Can anyone doubt the formidability of the bull-like, awkward Fullmer who would cut you to ribbons by fair means and occasionally foul or the skill of Joey Giardello, a slip in and slide out master box-puncher replete with all the tricks of the trade?

For instance, if you got him into a tight-spot, Giardello did not bite you or head-butt you. He would push both of his thumbs into an opponent’s arms and apply pressure to the inner part of the biceps until this discomfit inducing distraction enabled him to move out of trouble and reposition himself in a more advantageous part of the ring.

The brutally constructed physiques respectively of Fernandez and Gonzalez spoke volumes of their work ethic as indeed it did about Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter whose level of ring craft was enough to propel him to title contender status less than two years after turning professional soon after his release from prison.

Take George Benton for example. A fighter blessed with a tremendous skill-set and one worthy of bearing the mantle of champion, but who was unfortunate never to fight for the title.

He was a slick, relaxed and perfectly balanced performer who could ‘read’ his opponent and anticipate the delivery of his opponent’s punches. That he was never knocked down and rarely stopped is a testament to an elusiveness borne out of an unerring talent for strategic movement and the efficient navigating of ring space.

Many modern fans who drool, or at least, marvel at the sight of the defensive skills of Floyd Mayweather Jr would appreciate Benton’s stratagem of precision movements of evasion and blocking while in a stationary stance.

He kept his balance while tilted to the right which functioned as both a defensive and an offensive mechanism. A movement of the shoulder and a glove held high protecting his head would be the precursor to an attack by way of hooks to the body.

These were the fighters who were contemporaries of both Dick Tiger and Henry Hank.

Hank himself could best be described as a box-puncher. He was cool and studied in his motions; fighting orthodox-style off a jab, he could whip out fearsome punches whether short rights or left hooks or lunge in, head bobbing, to exchange punches in a brawl. He was, like many of his contemporaries, also proficient at the now lost art of inside fighting.

Twenty seven years old at the time he came up against Dick Tiger, he had been born Joseph Harrison in Greenville, Mississippi but fought out of Detriot City. He had competed in 67 bouts of which he had won 52, lost 14 and drawn thrice. His 36 knockout victories was evidence of his punching ability which he had put to good use two months earlier by stopping Jesse Bowdry, a light heavyweight contender, in New Orleans.

Dick Tiger, the number one contender, was 32 and worried that he would not get a crack at the middleweight championship. He’d endured a false start of sorts to his American campaign by drawing and then losing a disputed decision to Rory Calhoun. He had also got through a distracting saga with the Canadian, Wilf Greaves, who had temporarily relieved him of his British Empire title.

Tiger had been declared the winner in their first bout only to be told that he had lost it in a retabulation of the match officials’ scorecards. The expected immediate rematch was delayed by the prevarications of Greaves who then decided to take a non-title fight in America.

Tiger won his title back and set himself on a course which saw him stop Gene Armstrong and Ellsworth ‘Spider’ Webb. Then he outpointed both Hank Casey and Billy Pickett before stopping Florentino Fernandez in Miami two months earlier.

So it was that both Tiger and Hank were matched by Teddy Brenner to meet on a Saturday night before television cameras on ABC’s ‘Fight of the Week’.

It was a ten round non-title bout before 7, 500 spectators gathered around a squared ring in the Garden where puffs of cigar smoke set roof-bound trails that lingered in the air amid the bright and scorching klieg lights.

It would have been as much business as usual for the fighters as it was for the television audience who were treated to the distinctive staccato tones of Don Dolphy calling the bout and Johnny Addie, the resident ring announcer, introducing boxing cognoscenti of past and present as well as the participants.

Tiger versus Hank was a typical example of the superb level of matchmaking which is an extremely rare occurrence in contemporary boxing where the fear of losing an undefeated record of a prospect contributes to the unevenly matched and tedious-to-view under-the-main-bill bouts. This phenomenon also impacts on many supposedly championship level bouts which are staged under the auspices of the many ‘world’ governing bodies and their multiplicity of ‘title’ belts.  

The audience which cheered Addie’s announcement of Dick Tiger’s name with a roar of approval had accepted this African-born, England-sojourning foreigner and taken him to their hearts because like the home-nurtured Hank, he was bound to offer and display nothing less than an unadulterated quotient of commitment, maximum fitness, high levels of skill, a high degree of resilience and an exemplary demonstration of sportsmanship.

At the din of the bell signalling the commencement of the first round, Hank was the quicker of the two in leaving his corner. He bounded towards his opponent, immediately assailing Tiger with three jabs and then pressed in closer to dig in a right upper cut to the side of the body in combination with a follow up left hook.

A short exchange followed with Hank aggressively clinching on to Tiger and forcefully pushing him into the ropes.

Would this be the Tiger who some were wont to consider a slow starter? The methodical ‘plodder’ who would allow Griffith to ‘steal’ his middleweight title in 1966?  A hesitant combatant who would burden himself with the unnecessary and pernickety analysis of his foe as he would be accused in his drawn world title rematch with Gene Fullmer in Las Vegas? These sorts of accusations had been made in his first fight against Wilf Greaves and in his bouts with Rory Calhoun.

Not in this fight.

If Hank thought that he could unsettle Tiger by attempting to physically bully him, he was sorely mistaken. Two stiff hooks arced from the left side of his body and launched from a crouched, defensive posture with gloves held high, caught Hank squarely in the face.

The rhythm of the attack and the distance between them suggested a pause as Tiger repositioned the direction of his stance and Hank adjusted his gait, but Tiger suddenly exploded, sweeping out a right and then pressing on with two further left hooks which caused Hank to retreat on to the ropes off of which he bounced back into the path of Tiger who offloaded yet another hook, this one wild and venomous in intent, but which luckily for Hank, scraped past his skull.

Both men stood off for a short while before resuming hostilities. Hank, at five feet ten, was the taller man by two inches. He tried to establish a rhythm by leading with a ramrod jab before coming in close with his feet firmly planted to land solidly to the body. Tiger, on the other hand, occasionally felt Hank out with what could be termed a measuring left before unleashing his damaging hook.

Defensively, both men moved their heads well, Tiger had his left glove high as Hank stepped in, and would counter or even lead with a stinging left hook. But he would crouch down quickly, shoulder angled in self-protection, in order to absorb or evade Hank’s counters.

The ringside microphones TV captured the sound of the grunts which accompanied the efforts of each man’s power shots, with Hank being the more expressive of the two in this department. There was much give and take and a fair share of thrust and parry, but it was Hank who appeared to be jolted more often; his processed hair visibly bouncing from its roots as Tiger bulled forward and made him, consistently fight while on the back foot.

In the second Tiger scored more cleanly than Hank. He continued the pattern developed in the first by outworking his opponent and beating him to the punch with his preferred choice of weapon: the precision guided left hook.

Who was proving the more physically stronger and tenacious of the two? This was without question Tiger. Hank was game for sure, but as the round was about to end, both stood toe-to-toe and traded blows; an episode which lead to Hank retreating into a corner before scurrying out of this tight spot towards the centre of the ring while the advancing Tiger reigned in blow after blow until the bell sounded to end the round.

Round three. Hank came out with a probing left, but stung by a stern left, he decided to make adjustments to his approach. He had up to this point used his jab as a precursor to stepping in and planting his feet to load up and fire in power shots accompanied by huge and heavy grunts.

Now, he began boxing looser.  Tiger, on his part, defended well from a coiled stance and continued to counter with great force and effectiveness; his well-angled counters thudded into Hank with great violence.

When Tiger advanced, Hank managed to reply with scoring counters, but Tiger’s tighter defence, which involved him enveloping his more compact frame at close range with his arms and elbows along with the swift movement and adjustment of his head, meant he could nullify most of his opponent’s retorts.

It is worth remembering that Dick Tiger was in fact a defensively sound fighter. This was achieved through a variety of methods: shoulder movement, head movement, and an Archie Moore-style cross armed stance from which to defend or uncoil from with an offensive consisting of single or double hooks.

The pace slowed down in the middle rounds, but both men’s work rates maintained a level of beguiling intensity. There was, for instance little or no clinching. Tiger began ratcheting up the points; he threw more punches, while Hank threw less. And when Hank did land, many of his punches were blocked or smothered by Tiger.

With the heart and persistence of the brave and committed pugilist that he was, Hank kept jabbing, hoping to open Tiger’s defences. But Tiger continued to better him. When there was a lull and Hank contrived to pick up the pace, Tiger would again rise to meet the challenge and inflict retribution.

Even in round eight, when he might have sensed that it was all a lost cause, Hank did not visibly lose heart. He was prepared to absorb punishing blows in order to plant his feet and hit Tiger with clubbing overhead rights.

And what to say of sportsmanship? The bout did not feature an excessive level of clinching or any bouts of ill-temperedness. In the ninth round, Tiger in a fit of over eagerness, accidentally hit Hank on the break.

A bark from Mercante in admonition was met with an elaborately orchestrated but genuine mea culpa: a quickly executed bow and a salute in the direction of Hank which the crowd acknowledged with a cheer of approval and a short round of applause.

Hank’s jab in the final round continued to probe as he attempted to pick spots when Tiger was within range. But mid-way during the round, Tiger scored a walloping hook and again applied unrelenting pressure on Hank until finally the bell rang to bring an end to the proceedings.

When Johnny Addie read the scores, each was an overwhelming record of Tiger’s dominance. Bill Recht scored it eight rounds to one with one round even, the other judge, Leo Birnbaum, had it nine rounds and an even round, while referee Mercante adjudged every single one of the ten rounds to be in Tiger’s favour.

Hank graciously went over to congratulate his conqueror. His career would last for a further decade during which he would defeat a middleweight Jimmy Ellis, draw with Johnny Persol and lose to Harold Johnson and Bob Foster.

For Dick Tiger, it proved to be the final eliminator before challenging and defeating Gene Fullmer for the world middleweight championship. His career would run for eight more years during which he would lose and regain the middleweight title and also win the world light heavyweight title.

Ahead of him was the adulation of the Nigerian nation which was crowned by a winning title defense against Gene Fullmer in the city of Ibadan; black Africa’s first staged world title bout fully eleven years before 1974’s ‘Rumble in the Jungle.’

There would of course be the tragedy of Biafra and a diminution of his wealth and finally the loss of his life through cancer. 

But he left a rich legacy through fights such as the one which pitted him against Henry Hank, a fight for fans to savor because of its entertaining display of the essence of the noble art. It is a fight for posterity; one which each generation of practitioners of the boxing trade can watch to seek both instruction and inspiration as they attempt master the fundamentals of the sport of boxing.

(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2012)

Adeyinka Makinde is the author of DICK TIGER: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal. His latest book is JERSEY BOY: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula.

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