Sunday 28 July 2013

Dick Tiger Versus Gene Fullmer III: 50 Years On

Africa 1963.

It was a time of hope and a time of promise. Two years after British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s famous speech before a seemingly befuddled and certainly resistant South African Parliament proclaiming an irresistible “Wind of Change” sweeping across the African continent, a significant amount of African countries could lay claim to the status of being independent nation states. Indeed in May of that year, a total of 32 of them would meet in Addis Ababa, the capital city of Ethiopia to set up the Organisation of African Unity.

The path to full emancipation was still laden with obstacles: the Portuguese regime of the fascist dictator Alberto Salazar remained steadfast in its desire to hold on to its African dominions, the unilateral –and illegal declaration of independence by a white minority government in Rhodesia was a couple of years away and the racial supremacist construct of the National Party-led Apartheid state of South Africa as indicated by the issuing of a series of draconian laws and severe reactions to dissent such as the Sharpeville Massacre, was unyielding in giving any serious thought to black majority rule.

Nonetheless, seized by a pioneering spirit and by a sense of the dawning of a glorious new age, the African nations set about the task of nation-building. But within the serious endeavour of calibrating the distribution of national expenditure in areas such as housing, health care, education and defence where did the development of sports feature?

Not by any significant measure it appears. For sure, no government could come close to treating this area on parity with any of the aforementioned sectors, yet the significance of sport as a device through which a sense of national identity may be fostered and social cohesion promoted cannot be denied.

Indeed, the more pragmatic and cynical steers of state have for millennia milked off the benefits of using sports and games as an avenue through which the attentions of the dissatisfied masses can be conveniently diverted by the associated spectacle and fanfare.

Though it was the era of the barefoot running colossus that was Abebe Bikila, who had won gold for Ethiopia in the marathon at the 1960 Rome Olympics; a title which he would retain four years later at the Tokyo games, and also the one in which football, the most popular sport on the continent, was dominated by the ‘Black Stars’ of Ghana, the path of many of Africa’s budding sportsman and women was not an easy one.

No sport, perhaps, was littered with more obstacles than was boxing. Described in the most favourable light as the ‘noble sport’ but gruesomely depicted by some self-appointed custodians of social morality as being a remnant of less civilised times, boxing had been introduced into much of Africa by the institutions of colonialism.

A rudimentary infrastructure of professional boxing spouted around many urban areas of the continent forming the basis for a segment of a market for entertainment as well as the manufacture of minor celebrities. But the reality was that most fighters could barely eke out a living in their local environment.

They needed to move to cities in the colonial ‘mother nations’ that governed them if they were to earn more money, develop their talent and also, if they were to stand a chance of achieving the highest laurels in the sport. 

It was through such migration that Richard Ihetu, better known by his ring nom de guerre Dick Tiger, would start the process which would ultimately lead him to the pinnacle of his sport. The prevalent post-war conditions in Britain had permitted this.

The British Nationality Act of 1948, which relaxed previously existing immigration and travel restrictions provided a key plank through which many West African fighters, particularly emanating from Nigeria and the Gold Coast (later Ghana), could fill the rapidly depleting ranks of pugilists created by a depression in the British boxing industry.

Their usual entrance point was the north-western city of Liverpool, but they plied their trade in the municipal halls and stadium venues around the country as cheap labour for managers and promoters who in the 1950s struggled to survive amid the effects of the Entertainment Tax legislation which doubled the levy affixed to the receipts of most sporting events.

The circumstances for professional advancement were none too promising but in 1957, Nigeria’s Hogan ‘Kid’ Bassey would accomplish the feat of becoming that nation’s first world champion by defeating Cherif Hamia in Paris.

Dick Tiger, a middleweight, who followed Bassey’s footsteps to England and then America by securing respectively the British Empire title in 1958 and then a world title in 1962, had been on the verge of giving up his adventure as a prize-fighter when he lost his first four bouts when relocated to England.

Tiger had dethroned the American Gene Fullmer in October of 1962 and in the contractually obligated return bout held four months later in Las Vegas, both men had fought to a draw.

It was at this moment that the idea of staging a third match on African soil was touted; tentative at first but gradually getting louder until it reached a fevered crescendo.

The sense of an opportunity in the making pervaded the discourse in the Nigerian press, as well as the boxing press in the United States and Britain. Nigeria, a large entity but a foundling nation nonetheless, could seize the moment to use its sole world boxing champion as the symbol of a progressive, vital nation possessed with the capacity of staging events of impressive magnitude.

At the heart of such a project would be its own citizen Dick Tiger, a young man who by virtue of his status and genial personality was custom made to fulfil the role of standard bearer of a new nation on the cusp of greatness.

And the significance of boxing as a combat sport which was apt at carrying great symbolism would not have been lost on them, for boxing, particularly in the heavyweight division, has through the ages lent itself as a metaphor reflecting social and political currents and events.

The 1908 bout between Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and Tommy Burns as well as Johnson’s match with the former undefeated champion, Jim Jeffries in 1910 projected a battle for supremacy between the black and white races, while in 1938, Joe Louis’s defence against the German Max Schmeling provided a veritable symbol of ideological warfare and a precursor to an imminent worldwide conflagration between the nations of the ‘free world’ and those which had embraced fascism.

A Tiger-Fullmer bout staged on Nigerian soil would in one sense provide the perfect forum for announcing Nigeria’s arrival onto the world stage, at least as far as sporting events were concerned.

And Dick Tiger, a 33-year-old who projected an image of a gentleman and a warrior of honour, would be the perfect representative in such an endeavour. It was Tiger after all, whom one American sports journalist referred to as a “pugilistic plenipotentiary”; promoting his country and educating those who he met in New York and his travels elsewhere about the misconceptions they held about what Africa was like. The “chamber of commerce” pitch which he had consistently employed during his sojourns in the United States would be an asset in selling the bout.

Four days after the drawn bout with Fullmer, Basio Osagie a prominent journalist with the Daily Times newspaper called a press conference in Lagos to announce the formation of the ‘Dick Tiger-Gene Fullmer Fight Campaign Committee’ which set as its objective the task of bringing the third Tiger-Fullmer clash to Nigeria.

There was only one organisation in Nigeria with the resources to sponsor a bout of such magnitude, and Osagie called on the federal government to underwrite the costs.

The next month in New York City, Simeon Adebo, Nigeria’s Ambassador to the United Nations, made the following plea to the audience watching Dick Tiger receive the Edward J. Neil Award for 1963’s ‘Fighter of the Year’:

“We have had two world champions, but neither has boxed as champion in his homeland. You have championship fights all the time in the United States. Don’t you think we’re entitled to one? We want Dick Tiger to fight for us while he is still champion.”

There were of course a number of stumbling blocks that needed to be overcome. How much money would the government prepared to raise and who would promote it?

There were detractors. Not without a semblance of justification, there were those who argued that such an undertaking would amount to a something of a ‘prestige project’ with all the negative connotations that this implied.

“A grand idea” opined the Nigerian Daily Telegraph, but “poor economics.” One member of the Nigerian Parliament even took to the floor to announce that such an endeavour would quite frankly be a “waste of money”.

But Chief Modupe Johnson, the flamboyant Minister for Labour and Sports reckoned that would not be the case. He pledged £20,000 on behalf of the federal government and within a few weeks would solicit £15,000 each from Nigeria’s regional governments.

The total of £65,000 to underwrite a proposed Tiger-Fullmer bout compared favourably to the $100,000 being offered by the Gillette Company in America which was proposing to fit the match into the extensive annual advertising campaigns which it held around Father’s Day weekend.

Tiger’s manager, Wilfred ‘Jersey’ Jones had been gravitating towards the offer by Gillette, but taken by the sense of history in the making as well as the representations of Tiger, opted to pursue the Nigerian option.

He spoke with Chief Johnson and requested that Johnson draft in an established promoter who would oversee the organising and marketing of the fight. The man who was selected was English promoter, Jack Solomons.

At 62-years of age, Solomons could lay claim to being Britain’s greatest ever promoter of boxing. He had been born into a family of Jewish fishmongers in London’s East End and gravitated to promoting boxing matches; in the 1930s humble, small scale affairs at the Devonshire Club but by the post-war period, selling the British fight public hugely successful bouts involving the likes of Freddie Mills and Bruce Woodcock.

He was not averse to applying himself in uncharted waters. He scoured war-ravaged Europe for boxers who could provide opposition to his stable of fighters and regularised the one time novel venture of bringing over American fighters to the United Kingdom. His crowning glory came in 1951, when he invited the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson to England to defend his world middleweight title against Randolph Turpin.

In May, with the contractual details settled for an open air bout in July at the newly built Liberty Stadium in the city of Ibadan, Dick Tiger began a six-week training programme at New York City’s Catholic Youth Association Gymnasium.

But his trainer, Jimmy August, was full of apprehension about making the trip. “He thinks everyone over there is a cannibal,” Tiger mischievously confided to reporters.

This lack of enthusiasm in journeying to Africa appeared to have taken hold of his opponent Fullmer, whose date of arrival was delayed owing to a foot ligament injury sustained in training and which appeared not to be healing “as fast as expected.”

The Nigerian press who suspected otherwise began running a series of stories on Fullmer’s apparent reservations about the quality of food, water and sanitary conditions he and his entourage would be expected to face in an African environment.

Fullmer denied having made such comments, claiming that he was misquoted but the reason for his delayed arrival as would be revealed later on, had been contrived due to an illness suffered by the wife of his manager, Marv Jensen. The bout was rescheduled for August the 10th and Fullmer arrived on July the 19th.

About his stay in Nigeria, he told this writer that “they gave us a welcome like I’ve never been welcomed in any place.”

A huge crowd gathered to watch him make the obligatory courtesy call of a visiting celebrity to the palace of the Oba of Lagos. Then a few hours later, an even larger one of 150,000 lined the streets of Ibadan to serenade his name as he made his way to an official reception organised by the government of the Western Region at the Liberty Stadium.

Crowds milled around his training camp which he set up at the gymnasium of the University of Ibadan and many willingly paid the shilling (14 cents) entrance fee to watch him go through his paces.

Within the week, he was happy enough to write home to Utah confirming that the “food is good, the weather is kind and the people are very friendly.”

But the star was Dick Tiger, who in July was announced as being the recipient of the M.B.E. medal awarded in the name of the Queen. Basing his training camp at the Abalti Army Barracks in Lagos, his image adorned countless billboards and numerous newspaper advertisements in which he endorsed products ranging from Quaker Oats to Dunlop tyres. The press was saturated with columns on the mundane happenings in his training camp and tales of how he had risen out of grinding poverty.

His public appearances were characterised by cheering crowds and his training camp, deluged with many onlookers, was often pandemonium. This caused much consternation with August who could barely tolerate the habit of the audience who yelled at almost every punch Tiger threw at the punching bag or at his sparring partners.

His ire was raised when one morning he was unable to negotiate a path through the mass of human bodies thronging around the training camp. A police guard was placed around the ring for all sessions held after this incident.

Fight fever gripped the country. A political truce was declared by opposing parties in the Parliament of the Eastern region whose members also passed a resolution granting civil servants a two-day holiday. The Northern Parliament out-did them by affording their staff a four-day holiday. All regions negotiated cheaper fare rates with public and private transport services for those travelling to watch the fight in Ibadan.

On fight night the Liberty Stadium throbbed with excitement as thirty thousand spectators geared up for the bout. At ringside along with Governor-General Nnamdi Azikiwe sat the ambassador of the United States and other political dignitaries.  Encircling the ringside area and the vantage points leading to the ring were 250 members of the elite Queen’s regiment; each resplendent in a scarlet and yellow jacket which was topped by a red fez.

At 8.30 PM the moment finally arrived. The lights went out as a fanfare of trumpets blasted around the stadium. Then two spotlights returned to reveal Fullmer who had emerged from the stadium’s underground dressing room walking towards the ring while attired in a kente cloth robe. The crowd roared its approval. Then another blackout and resumption of light was met by the deafening approval of the audience cheering for Tiger who wore a blue and silver kente robe.

The champion was a picture of calm. His team of Jones and August had kept their advice simple: “don’t get overly anxious because you are fighting before your countrymen.”

In truth, the first round was the only round of the fight in which both men would compete in a manner approaching parity. From the second, Tiger had settled to a steady rhythm by which he bored towards Fullmer with a jab and followed up with punch combinations to the head and body.

Fullmer gradually but inexorably wilted as Tiger pressed at him with an array of jarring blows. Stunned by the sight of Tiger’s punches rocking the American’s head backwards and sideways as flecks of blood began marking a trail around the ring canvas, one Nigerian official seated a few feet from the ring asked incredulously: “Is this Fullmer human?”

By the end of the third, the 32-year-old Fullmer seemed a spent force. Back at his corner during the minute’s rest, his father and his manager Jensen both pleaded with him to quit, but his response was to vigorously shake his head from side-to-side.

He fought with raw courage but this was not enough against power and sublime skill of Dick Tiger. The damage being wrought by Tiger’s fists was all too apparent as the din of the bell ended round seven.

“Fullmer’s face,” wrote London Daily Mirror correspondent Peter Wilson, “was a rubbery caricature of a human countenance; a contour map of disaster with bumps and lumps for mountains, ridges and meandering red streaks for the rivers.”

Jensen had seen enough, and as chief second, he notified referee Joe Hart that the fight should be ended. Fullmer, who could not see out of his right eye, provided no objection. Hart proceeded to Tiger’s corner to raise his hands to the acclaim of the spectators in the stadium. It was to be the beginning of a night of widespread celebration, although some remained aloof from the festive mode.

Tai Solarin for instance, the educator and journalist who revelled in his role as the conscience of the nation railed against the “profligacy” of the fight. The estimated cost of £120,000, he felt, would have been better spent on educating forty thousand young Nigerians to degree level.

But he was decidedly in the minority. The Nigerian Outlook editorialised about the “spirit of unity and national brotherhood” which the fight had helped develop while Dick Tiger himself wrote for the Ring magazine claiming that the “worldwide publicity and prestige” the fight had brought to Nigeria was of the sort which could not be measured in purely financial terms.

On this point there was much concurrence. Thirteen days later his name cropped up in a conversation between John F. Kennedy, the American president and Prime Minister Abubakar Tafawa Balewa with JFK informing Balewa that “we look forward to having Dick Tiger come over here (again)”.

Cabling Tiger soon after the bout, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s president and embodiment of pan-African sentiment lauded Tiger’s achievement as testimony “of the ability of the African to scale the highest ladder of human achievement.” 

Fifty years have passed since Dick Tiger’s duel with Gene Fullmer; the first world title bout staged in ‘black Africa’ occurring over a decade before the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. What has been its legacy? The answer must surely be a mixed one.

Although the actual financial returns of the fight were not officially released, the fact that the expected attendance of 45,000 spectators fell short by 15,000 was one indication that the fight had operated at a net loss.

Yet looking back, it was an event which needed to be staged. The rationale for this may be ascribed to what in modern parlance is termed as ‘nation branding’. As an emerging nation, the country had to use all devises at its disposal to bring the world’s attention to it. And the seriousness attached by the country’s leaders to the event cannot be underestimated.

On the morning of the fight, a full-spread advertisement placed by the Western region government had portrayed the image of a gloved Tiger astride the African continent with the caption: ‘Toward That Noble and Rewarding Venture of Nation Building’.

That of course went contrary to events which were brewing. The Western region had itself been in great political turmoil and the nation would be wracked by a series of general strikes. Then the army mutinies and anti-Igbo pogroms of 1966 would provide a baleful prelude to the civil war which would be fought with the secessionist state of Biafra.

While the Tiger-Fullmer bout did provide the template for Ghana’s staging of a world title match between Floyd Robertson and Sugar Ramos in the year that followed, the notion that the holding of world title bouts in Africa would become something of a common occurrence would in due course be put to rest.

The defence by Saoul Mamby against Obisia Nwankpa in 1981 is the only other world title fight to be held in Nigeria and between that and the Dick Tiger-Gene Fullmer bout, the biggest boxing event held on Nigerian soil was the 1976 Commonwealth lightweight title bout between Dele Jonathan and Scotland’s Jim Watt.

No other world title bouts have been held there although there were strenuous but ultimately abortive efforts made to have the short-lived, heavyweight champion Samuel Peter defend his title in Abuja. A similar picture exists in Ghana whose long-reigning world champion Azumah Nelson never put his title on the line on home territory.

The reasons are not too hard to discern. The nations of Africa, with the exception of South Africa through its ‘Sun City’ entertainment complex, are unable to muster the financial resources required to stage major world title contests.

The level of infrastructure required to sustain a credible industry catering to professional boxing in Nigeria is for the most part non-existent. Dating back to a period that began a few years after the Tiger-Fullmer bout, the Nigerian government adopted a policy of discouraging the leading lights of the nation’s amateur boxing program from turning professional.

Furthermore, no viable home-grown economic model for organising the professional game has been developed among a class of sporting entrepreneurs; a not too surprising difficulty given that TV channels expect fight promoters to pay them for the privilege to covering their fights.

Talent as in the past has only stood a chance of being nurtured by boxers journeying to the United States or Europe. Thus over the years, promising amateur fighters who do well in international competitions such as Samuel Peter and Ike Ibeabuchi are snapped up by foreign scouts.

And what of the protagonists in the remarkable bout held fifty years ago? Gene Fullmer, now an octogenarian, retired from the sport after his loss to Tiger and settled down to the life of a mink farmer in his native state of Utah.

For Dick Tiger, at the time of the bout, at the apex of his fame as well as a standard bearer for the newly independent nation, what remained of his short life was to be a tumultuous ride through the Igbo-dominated Biafran enterprise in which he participated as a propagandist having renounced his associations with Nigeria; the gain and loss of two further world championships, and, after the capitulation of Biafra, a futile battle against the incurable cancer to which he succumbed in December of 1971.

The disapprobation toward Tiger by the then ruling military elite over his war time activities served over the long term to plunge his achievements down an Orwellian-type memory hole from which he has seemingly never recovered.

But memories of that night in Ibadan and of how he brought a nation together in an event which underscored the communal sense of the promise of great things to come which permeated the atmosphere in the first few years that followed independence are surely too precious to remain suspended indefinitely.

That would be an injustice to the man as well as a self-inflicted wound on the nation which once so dearly embraced him.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2013)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer and law lecturer who is based in London. He is the author of the biography 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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