Thursday, 29 October 2015

Dick Tiger’s Tenacity and the Wit of Terry Downes

Above them were a number of balconies that hung steeply, seemingly above the ring, the occupants, according to Reg Gutteridge, “practically breathing down the necks of the contestants.”

This photograph captures the brutal intensity of a small show fight in London’s East End held on May 14, 1957. The audience, compact and voluble, watched intently from the chairs adjoining the ring and the balconies that rose steeply above. It was not an uncommon sort of bout: A promising fighter testing his armour against a journeyman pugilist. One with high hopes and the other with presumed low expectations. An anointed versus a peasant.

Or so it was supposed to be.

For this was the fight which established Richard Ihetu, better known by the nom de guerre, ‘Dick Tiger’. Tiger had had a nondescript career to this point since his arrival to Britain from his native Nigeria. He had lost his first four bouts and had been in danger of losing his British Boxing Board of Control-issued licence. Terry Downes on the other hand was primed for success. He had emigrated to America where he’d taken up boxing while serving with the marines. He had even been selected to represent the United States at the Olympic Games in Melbourne only to have that scuppered on account of his still existent British nationality.

Downes lost and Tiger won. But each man would go on to become a world champion. In victory, the soft-spoken Tiger showed that a gentlemanly spirit could exist with one adept at practising a remarkably brutal trade. And Downes too had a spirit, one that was brave and determined. He was also marked by a razor-sharp wit.

Excerpt from the book Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal:

Chapter Five/”Reborn” -- Mickey Duff, an ex-fighter and now the rising matchmaker for Harry Levene promotions, had seen Tiger lose by a decision. To him, Tiger’s six wins to five losses record spelled “journeyman fighter”; convenient cannon fodder for Terry Downes, the great hope of British boxing. “I thought I had done my homework,” Duff recalled in his autobiography. “I had seen Tiger lose to a nobody in Liverpool and thought he was a perfect opponent -- one who would make a show, but wouldn’t be good enough to win.”

. . . . . . .

Later on that evening, the hall quickly filled to capacity. The demand for tickets had been so great that “hundreds” were reportedly locked outside. Inside the smallness of the venue ensured a semi-claustrophobic atmosphere as spectators, many of them sitting and standing shoulder-to-shoulder, crowded around the ring. Above them were a number of balconies that hung steeply, seemingly above the ring, the occupants, according to Reg Gutteridge, “practically breathing down the necks of the contestants.”

At the din of the opening bell, Downes sprang out of his corner throwing leather from all angles -- aiming, Tiger surmised, to secure a quick rout over what he expected to be a weight-weakened, muscle-bound duck. Tiger held his ground until Downes waded into a powerful left hook, which deposited him onto the canvas for a seven count. At this moment Tiger would later claim that he knew his man was beaten. With indecent haste, Downes scrambled up, dusting the resin from his scarlet trunks. He was still in the process of gathering his senses when the referee yelled for both men to “box on.” Outweighed by six pounds, Downes had yet to shake off the effects of the blows when in the second round another of Tiger’s left hooks sent him tumbling over. But this did not finish him off. He gathered himself again, and both men traded punches with some of Downes’ combinations ending under Tiger’s heart. The damage nevertheless had already been done, and while Tiger waited for the sounding of the seventh round, Downes’ handlers, mindful no doubt about the effects that a prolonged assault would have on their youthful charge, decided to withdraw him from the contest.

Back in his dressing room, Downes, the irrepressibly loquacious wit, bandied trademark quips in response to the questions being asked by the journalists. When one asked him whether he thought Tiger might have been too big for him, he responded, “Yeah, he did look a big middleweight to me too, when I realised I was lying down and he was standing up.” Another then asked him which opponent he would like to face next and Downes shot back a gem:

“I’d like it to be the bastard who suggested Dick Tiger.”

© Adeyinka Makinde 2005 & 2015.

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