Adeyinka Makinde, author of 'Dick Tiger-The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal' interviewed by Cheryl Robinson on 'Just About Books,' Harambee Radio, 13th February 2006.
Cheryl Robinson: Hello, you are listening to Cheryl Robinson on the 'Just About Books' Talk Show, a worldwide Internet show on authors, book reviews, book clubs and literary events for African-American book lovers. And today is our black history programme; we will talk to Ade Makinde, the author of 'Dick Tiger-The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal.' I'm so excited to have him on the show. He is calling us from London and this will prove to be a great evening. Welcome to the show.
Adeyinka Makinde: Thank you very much Cheryl.
CR: You're welcome. It's my pleasure. Now I read the book. It was a very interesting book. His name was Richard and you want to help me with his last name?
AM: It's pronounced Ee-hey-tou.
CR: Ihetu. Okay. Richard Ihetu. His nickname was Dick Tiger and he was a two-time undisputed world middleweight titlist and an undisputed light heavyweight champion. He was a migrant fighter from Liverpool and during his boxing (career) he actually came to America and when he moved to America later on in his career he boxed at New York City's Madison Square Garden.
AM: That's right.
CR: Now tell us a little bit about him because this is interesting with his life because he seemed to have a lot of ups and downs, trials and tribulations but he was very enthusiastic about his boxing career.
AM: That's right. I think the word to use about him in his life and in his career in the ring is that he was very resilient. And as you mentioned, he was a migrant fighter and the penultimate staging post was Liverpool before coming over to America but he'd obviously started in his homeland in Nigeria. There was this history of migration from parts of the commonwealth -the British commonwealth- to Britain. This was in the post-war period and a lot of that had to do with the political and other situations that evolved after the Second World War. But the interesting thing is that when he arrived in Liverpool, he lost his first four bouts and he was on the verge of packing things in and heading back home. He was in danger of losing his license, so its interesting how at various junctures in his career sometimes it looked as if he'd reached the zenith; the end, long before he was in a position to challenge for a world title.
CR: He seemed to be having a bit of trouble when he was in Liverpool at the very, very beginning but he overcame that. Was this because he was a determined fighter who did have this undisputed resilience or was it because he was just that great a fighter?
AM: I think that it was a bit of both. He grew up in an atmosphere back in Nigeria where he needed to have that tenacity to survive in the first place. He grew up in the Eastern part of what was (the British protectorate of ) Nigeria and he actually lost his father at a very early age. He lived in a rural environment and it was physically tough doing the farming etcetera and in those days they had to migrate out of the rural village areas if they were going to have any chances in life and when he got to a town -later city, called Aba, it was a situation of where he needed to survive even on a physical level. One of the interesting things about his career which he always laughed about is that you didn't have a comprehensive system of city water facilities and so people had to collect their water from a sort of a central pumping area and you know there'd be queues around and some people would become impatient etcetera, so sometimes he had to resort to his fists to insist on his rights and that was just one (instance) of how he had to develop that inner resolve and that inner steel to become the man that he was. He was also well brought up. He came from the Igbo people of Eastern Nigeria and at that particular point in history, they were in the midsts of discovering themselves in the modern world because when Nigeria had been colonised by the British, the British were more impressed in terms of the forms of government and the architectural achievements of various empires they conquered like the Oyo city states or the Benin empire but not so much the Igbos because they didn't have some sort of a centralised leadership and they sort of governed themselves in terms of independent hamlets but as things turned out they were the ones who had developed this great thirst for western knowledge and education and to someone like Dick Tiger growing up, he would have seen this sort of way of life. The way people went about their work and performed their tasks and the hopes they had for the future. They had something that was called the 'Onitsha Market Literature' phenomena. Onitsha is a city in northern Igboland. What it was, was that there were these chapbooks; these little pamphlets they produced which kind of propagated this ideal of people been determined to succeed in life and that the world is your oyster and it doesn't matter what status in life you are: you can overcome and you can achieve. And so it was a mixture of traditional and christian and entrepreneural precepts. You'd have titles like 'Determination is the key for success' or 'How to become Rich' and he would have been influenced by that sort of background. Before he came to Liverpool, he was already a successful petty trader. So while in Liverpool you had these initial setbacks, it was always in his mind that he would be capable of achieving something. As for his boxing skills -that's as far as it goes so far as his personality and his determination is concerned, he came from a particular background that told him 'Don't give up,' - on the otherhand, his boxing skills by his own estimation he started off as a very crude fighter; not very refined and even before he went to Liverpool, the local press in Nigeria often referred to his crude style of fighting where it seemed that it was his determination more than anything else that saw him through. But as he worked on it he learnt alot, he observed a lot and something he would do even when he was a big star in America was that he would watch the fights at Madison Square Garden. He was always refining himself. So he had a faith that he could always become better. So it's that mixture of his background of the determined individual linked to that willingness to learn and to develop himself that actually saw him through.
CR: Well that's great. Throughout the book it seemed that he had a special type of determination and that he was positive that he would be one of the world's greatest fighters.
AM: Oh yes. There had been several benchmarks in the past. He did have something to look forward to or to measure himself against. In the 1920s, the first world champion from Africa was Battling Siki, a Senegalese fighter who'd sort of found his way to France where he became something of a war hero. And then he started boxing under French troops and then some American troops discovered him and took him back to America and he beat the French light heavyweight champion, George Carpentier. Then after Battling Siki, his fellow Nigerian, Hogan 'Kid' Bassey had won the world featherweight title and he was a good friend of Dick Tiger's. He was there to give advise to Dick Tiger as Dick Tiger's career sometimes faltered when he was in Liverpool. So he always had those benchmarks. He always knew in his mind that that if he was ever going to be the best, he had to at some point head for America. That was the place where he had to prove his worth.
CR: Now he fought his first professional bout in 1952 and he was in his early 20s at that particular time, correct?
AM: That's right. Pretty late for a boxer to start.
CR: Yes, because I thought usually they start around their teens.
AM: Oh absolutely, sometimes even as pre-teens; schoolboy boxing. In fact he started in his late teens; that is amateur boxing. That is still in a sense pretty, pretty late. He somehow gravitated to it. It might have been a little bit to do with his success as something of a streetfighter that might have enabled him to do that because his first love was football -known to you in America as soccer- but that was his first love. He was quite a good football player and somehow or another he began to be influenced by boxing and boxers. They were always in the news; American fighters like Joe Louis, Archie Moore, Henry Armstrong. You know they'd be playing them in the cinemas in Nigeria at the time he was growing up and he was very influenced by them. Probably he was a bit of an individualist by nature and football is a team sport so for that reason perhaps, that's why he decided to gravitate to boxing. There hadn't been necessarily the antecedents in his life that he had to choose boxing but for some reason or another, he just decided that this is thing that I like to do and this is the thing I want to pursue. It had its strengths and weaknesses -the fact that he started off so late. Perhaps (starting) late is one other reason why he was able to successfully prolong his career to an age well in advance of which boxers can effectively prolong their careers. I mean he was once the oldest world champion when he defeated Joey Giardello to regain his title in in 1965. He was about 36 years of age and then a couple of years later, he won the light heavyweight championship from Jose Torres. He kept on fighting effectively. You know he was 39 years old when he defeated Nino Benvenuti, the middleweight champion at Madison Square Garden for a non-title contest; so the championship wasn't at stake.
CR: When he first came to America to fight at Madison Square Garden, this was in 1959 so he was already 30 years old by that time making his American debut; generally that's a little late....
AM: Yes, to say the least. There were a lot of detractors. Even those who really wished him well in England, they could see that he was a fairly stocky looking fellow apart from the fact that he was at what you could call a fairly advanced age. It was almost as if he was starting all over again and you know, coming to America, no one was going to do him any favours at all so he was starting almost at the beginning of another career even though he was the British Empire champion that didn't mean a thing to the Americans who were more or less a little cynical of horizontal British heavyweights and other weight category fighters. He was a stocky guy and he was always having problems reducing himself to the middleweight limit and in boxing, when you fight in non-title bouts you are allowed to stray a little over the championship limit of 11 stone 6 and when he was going to have a title fight, people kind of doubted: can he make the weight? Because it really imposes a bit of a strain on you. You can be prone to dehydrate and lose vital energy resources if you have to do that. It can even be a health issue. But somehow he managed. He was a very, very disciplined man in his life and again that's were his determination saw him through. He was in an advanced age but he felt ' look, I'm keeping myself in shape, I'm not abusing my body, I have my ideals and my ideas about what I want to do and what I want to achieve fixed in me; let me go on and achieve it.'
CR: Now in '63 he lost his title to Joey Giardello in Atlantic City but then it didn't take him long to regain the title back from Joey Giardello and in October '65, that was when he was the oldest active world champion at that particular time.......
AM: Yes, that's right. Although I would disagree that it didn't take him a long time to do that. Giardello, people felt, was prevaricating a bit. There was a debate in boxing at the time because they usually used to have these contractual clauses. If the champion lost his title, they'd usually have this return clause which meant that the next bout would be a rematch. The problem with that of course is that you could potentially have these endless rematches. And Giardello did promise him that he would give him a rematch at some point and eventually that sort of dragged on for quite a long time until 1965. So it was almost two years; just short of two years before he got the chance to get his title back from Giardello. So that is what he would have considered to have been one of his more bitter experiences in America because he said that, ' I've been brought up to believe that Americans are people of their word and Joey had promised me a rematch much earlier on and he takes almost two years to finally give me one.' But yes, it would have been extremely satisfying from his perspective because Joey Giardello was a very good champion. He had a very solid chin, he knew how to move around the ring and those were the sort of people who gave Dick Tiger a lot of problems; those 'fancy dan' boxers who could step in and step out and use their jab and as I said earlier on he had a good resilient chin. But Joey kind of strung things along, probably a little longer than Tiger thought was fair. But he came back and he won it fair and square. He was pretty dominant against Giardello in that last confrontation in '65.
CR: How was his boxing career having a position on his family because during this time he was a very good family man and he had a wife and children and you know coming to America to fight, did this have any kind of strain on his family life?
AM: It's possible that it did. His first two (sic- three) children were born in America and he and his wife lived in a hotel, they called it the Colonial Hotel in upper west Manhattan and at some point after about two years or so, he felt that it was a bit of a distraction and so he sent them back to Nigeria. But I think eventually -speaking to his wife- I think she accepted it. He felt a little guilty that he would leave her to look after the children for long periods of time when he came over to America to train for his title bouts. But you know they have a sort of an extended family system back in Africa. But yes, it was something that in a sense pained him. He was a fairly sensitive man and of course (for) three months he'd be absent at a time and if he had three fights in a year, that's quite a lot of time. So there definitely were some guilt pangs in him as time went on but he felt his wife was understanding about it in the end. Obviously, later on in his life, there were many other things to contend with that interfered with his family life. Overall, he did have time to spend with his family in between his fights and be a leader in his local community as well as being the national hero that he became.
CR: Now back home, when he was doing his fighting, winning these titles, a lot of things were going on back home. He was also a Nigerian patriot, so how did that have an effect on his boxing career?
AM: Well, I think that right from the beginning when he went over to Liverpool and he won the British Empire middleweight championship for a country which was not yet independent of Britain -Nigeria did not become independent of Britain until 1960- he was a beacon of hope of what the country could become in one sphere of life which is sports -obviously there are there other areas. Following on from Hogan 'Kid' Bassey, he became a world champion and it meant a lot to the people back in Nigeria that he was winning these titles. It was somehow demonstrative that the country was coming on to the map of the world. He was like a torchbearer, a beacon of hope for other Nigerians to follow in his footsteps. He did quite a lot in terms of promoting Nigeria as being an emerging nation to the extent that he was referred to as by a San Francisco columnist as a 'pugilistic plenipotentiary' because he was always building up his country and trying to engage the journalists in conversations about the hopes of his homeland; the history of his homeland and he'd visit the United Nations and he'd have photo opportunities there. So he was definitely someone who brought glory to the country. When he defeated Gene Fullmer in 1962 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, it was a cause for national celebration; unbridled celebration. He was someone who was held up as an example of that sort of African who could achieve in the modern world. In fact, it went beyond Nigeria's borders. Even Kwame Nkrumah, the prime minister of Ghana and the symbol of Black African Pan-Africanism, sent Dick Tiger messages of congratulations. Later on in 1963, when he had a third match against Gene Fullmer, this was a national event. It was the first world championship fight in Black Africa almost ten years before the 'Rumble in the Jungle' between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman and the Nigerian government sponsored it. It was promoted by Jack Solomons, a British promoter but it was essentially backed financially by the government. The various state or regional governments in Nigeria contributed some money to it and you even had a situation where you had a truce in the Eastern Nigerian parliament among the warring -quote unquote- factions; it hadn't become literally a war at that stage. You had a truce in the parliament and you had public holidays been declared over the period leading up to the fight. He was really someone who in his heyday was an embodiment of what Nigerians felt they as a nation should be stamping their mark on a world level.
CR: So he was definitely a Nigerian hero long before his career ended.
AM: Yes. I mean you would have thought at his age that he would have hung in for a couple of more years and that would be that but as it turned out, he was in there for longer -he fought on for quite a few more years. Whether he would have fought on without the Nigerian Civil War is another matter but there was a turn of events there in the sense that his people; the Igbo people who largely dominated the eastern region of Nigeria decided to secede from the federation in 1967. The troubles had started in 1966 and arguably well before then. He renounced Nigeria and then took up the mantle of being a propagandist for the Biafran cause and fought his title bouts with the Biafran flag and the national anthem played at his fights in America and obviously that meant his status as a Nigerian icon effectively came to an end and until this day there's a bit of an uneasiness about Dick Tiger contrasting this with what I've just told you of what happened in the city of Ibadan when he defeated Gene Fullmer in a rubber match and when he'd initially won the title from Gene Fullmer and because he basically turned his back on Nigeria he was no longer the national hero and to this day his reputation has yet to be totally and comprehensively rehabilitated.
CR: Okay! Well that's a good place to take a break and so far this is going really great. We're talking to Ade Makinde the author of Dick Tiger-The Life and TImes of a Boxing Immortal. The book, paperback, is ($) 14.95 and the publisher is Word Association Publishers. The book is available online at amazon.com and through a US publisher at 1-800-827-7903. Let me repeat 1-800-827-7903. And we wlll be right back with Just About Books and continue our discussion with Ade.
CR: Welcome back to Just About Books with your host Cheryl Robinson. Today's guest is Ade Makinde, author of Dick Tiger-The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal. Welcome back to the show. We want to wrap up Dick Tiger's career. We were talking a little bit about what was happening in the early 60s. So if you can tell my audience what happened later on in the 60s?
AM: Well, by 1966 when Dick Tiger was a big national hero in Nigeria, unfortunately, the tumultuous history of Nigeria was taking darker overtones. Nigeria, like many African nations, is a conglomerate society. They were artificially put together by European colonial powers, so in Nigeria you had a situation where you had the Northern region which was largely Islamic in influence and in the south; in the eastern part of the Southern Protectorate you had Dick Tiger's people; the Igbo people who were largely influenced by Christianity and Western culture. This tension which still exists today was at the root of the ensuing civil strife and civil war. There were two particularly violent mutinies in the military and the pogrom and the Igbo people came out the worst for it. By late 1966 to early 1967, there were calls that they should secede from the rest of Nigeria. They felt that their lives and property were not worth much and because quite a vast amount of Nigeria's crude oil reserves came under their jurisdiction -although not under the Igbo areas- but came under the outlines of the political borders of the Eastern region, they felt that it would be in their best interests to secede from the rest of Nigeria and so this is what brought forth the civil war which as I mentioned earlier before the break, Dick Tiger renounced his associations with Nigeria in June of 1967. He actually joined the Biafran military later on in 1967, more in terms of a ceremonial manner as a propagandist. He was also someone who kept on going in and out of Biafra to have his fights and apart from the propaganda work that he did while he was in America, he was also financially supporting the cause -not just his family but on a wider level in terms of food when the Biafrans were blockaded and eventually they were facing starvation as the 1960s drew to a close. He put his life and soul into that struggle. He eventually evacuated his immediate family and they lived for a time in Portugal -Lisbon- before heading to New York where they resided up until 1970 (sic -1971). At the beginning of 1970 Biafra capitulated and the civil war ended. When the civil war ended, Dick Tiger was rather apprehensive of what the future held. It had been a bloody time in Nigeria's history but the ending was essentially peaceful and magnanimous. There was the saying; 'No victor, no vanquished' and an amnesty was given to those who fought on the Biafran side and who otherwise supported it and eventually the Igbos were gradually reabsorbed into Nigeria's body politic. However, Dick Tiger remained apprehensive because in a sense he did something that was rather dangerous to the Nigerians. It wasn't that he was just an ordinary person who was caught up in the conflict and was compelled or forced to put on a military uniform and fight for his side, he volunteered his prestige and the publicity that would be generated by his denunciations of the Nigerian military in papers like the New York Times and Time magazine. He felt that he would not be forgiven and in a sense he was correct. Figures in the NIgerian military never forgave him for what he did and it wasn't until later on when he developed cancer in the summer of 1971 that he felt, 'look, I have to go back now. They've declared an amnesty, I should be allowed to go back and he called upon a journalist; Larry Merchant who is famous today as an HBO correspondent and he sort of acted as a witness for Dick Tiger as a guarantor witness before a Nigerian diplomatic official who guaranteed his safety once he got back to Nigeria. Once in Nigeria he was searched, his passport was seized but he did basically live in peace until unfortunately he passed away.
CR: Now in '71 that was when he announced his retirement from the ring right?
AM: Yes, it was really a foregone conclusion. I mean he'd lost the last bout in 1970 against Emile Griffith and he couldn't get any other big fights .....
CR: His last fight was at Madison Square Garden
AM: That's right, in the middle of 1970
CR: So Dick Tiger died of cancer in December of 1971
AM: That's right
CR: Now he went back home correct?
AM: That's right. As I just mentioned, he was pretty apprehensive of going back home but he just felt that 'I'm at the end of my life and I want to die among my people. This is I suppose human nature that he would want to die not in a foreign land albeit that he attained a large measure of success over in America but he'd want to be among his people and be committed to the soil of his ancestors. He did have a big funeral but the interesting thing is there was no message of condolence from the federal government of Nigeria and there were no official representatives of the government. So in a sense he was already being shunned at this particular point in time because of the stand he took in the Biafran conflict.
CR: There are a lot of nice photos in the middle of the book; quite a few showing Dick Tiger with his family, with other fighters, with friends; you know some of these pictures are very interesting.
AM: Yes, I wish I could have put more of them there. You'll see a couple of photos from his time in Liverpool with different sparring partners and his breakthrough fight with Terry Downes. One is with Bessie Braddock who was the member of parliament for Liverpool Exchange; a very formidable woman; famous in British politics at the time before Margaret Thatcher came on to the scene. You have him there as the family man, you've got shots of him in his fights, you've even got a picture -unfortunately- of his funeral. I wish I could have put more there. One photo unfortunately that was not in existence was one of Dick Tiger and one of his great friends in America, a gentleman by the name of Ron Lipton who did a little sparring with him and who gave me so much information for the book in terms of Dick Tiger's fighting style, his motivations and his training before various fights; you know the pivotal fights against people like Giardello which we mentioned earlier on; against 'Hurricane' Rubin Carter. Unfortunately we couldn't get a picture there of Ron because those pictures apparently no longer exist.
CR: Now Ron Lipton wrote the introduction into this particular book...
AM: That's right.
CR: And he lived in New York
AM: He still lives there. I think he also has some antecedents in New Jersey. He's an ex- two (sic-three) time Golden Gloves champion from New Jersey but he's basically a New Yorker.
CR: Yes, he was a fighter then later on in his life he was a policeman.
AM: Yes, that's right. He started off as an amateur boxer (and) as I said, he won two (sic-three) Golden Gloves championships in New Jersey and for one reason or another, he gravitated to work as a county prosecutor in the police department. He did not have a professional career which is most surprising but he had his reasons for doing that he felt that he wanted to contribute to his community and that to him seemed to be a better means of contributing than pursuing a professional career. And particularly poignant for me was that he was the one person who I could find who knew of Dick Tiger when Dick Tiger had sort of retired. Well, he hadn't been retired officially but he was no longer getting any fights. He needed to keep himself busy and Dick Tiger got a job as a security guard at the Natural History Museum and Ron used to visit him occasionally and part of it was to keep his -Dick Tiger's- spirits up. In many ways some people would have seen it as a comedown. As I say in the book I don't think that he would have viewed it that way. First of all, it wasn't that Dick Tiger had lost his fortune -although he'd lost a lot of money because of the Nigerian Civil War. But he realised that he wasn't a man with great academic qualifications and he just needed to keep himself busy because you see he'd brought his family over to America, they lived in a place somewhere in Queens and he just needed to go out and do a nine to five job to keep himself occupied.
CR: Right. And to keep his spirits up.
AM: Absolutely. And Ron Lipton performed that task very wonderfully.
CR: Also on the back of the book, there's a picture of Dick Tiger standing over Rubin Carter. Their fight was a non-title bout in '65. Rubin 'Hurricane' Carter, a lot of us can remember because Denzel Washington starred in the movie 'The Hurricane'. Speaking of movies, let's talk a little bit of (whether) you have plans for a screenplay and also a documentary about Dick Tiger. Is that correct?
AM: Most definitely. I wouldn't want to malign the 'Hurricane' movie; that movie is controversial in one or two areas, particularly in the boxing world because of the depiction of the fight between Rubin Carter and Joey Giardello. But I would like to think that I can provide something that is inspirational -it's a little bittersweet at the end of the day because Dick Tiger loses his life; he succumbs to cancer but in between is that indefatigable spirit of somebody who sets his goals and sets out to achieve them and he has so many setbacks but yet, somehow he manages to overcome. And he is someone who is upright and upstanding and he has a conscience and I think that anybody can relate to that. The fact that he's a boxer is just the circumstances but if you strip away the time period, you strip away the boxing from it, it's just a great life story and I think it could be something that would be very marketable provided that it is handled properly. I think that a documentary would be a much more realistic proposition in the shorter term and I hope that I am close to making up a deal with regard to that. I have the potted outlines of how it's going to start, what sort of footage I'm going to use ; fight footage and the scenes -because Dick Tiger's life encompasses aspects of political history, social history, boxing history. I have all these ideas and laying them all out; people who should be interviewed and both of them are very, very realistic propositions. I think they would be very viewable and I'm hoping that they come to fruition sooner rather than later.
CR: Now tell us just a little bit about yourself because you're a barrister which in America we call a lawyer. So I had to make sure I'd say that for my listeners. But tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing because I thought it was interesting that you have the story and the book and you published it with an American publisher.
AM: Yes. Well, I had to try so many avenues for publication and you know a lot of them said good writing etcetera but audience a bit limited. So I found a publisher who I felt I could do business with. The book is sold in England, America, parts of Europe, Australia, South Africa, Nigeria but I still feel that America is a very,very important market and this is where a lot of the customers would actually come from. You know, a lot of the fans of Dick Tiger are now middle-aged white guys from New York, California and when they were growing up, he was their idol in America. When Dick Tiger came along, I mean he was a foreigner, he was a black African and it's really instructive of Dick Tiger's life that he could generate such almost worship from American audiences given that he'd be up against Italian-American or Puerto Rican American or Irish-American fighters. He was guaranteed equal if not more support in Madison Square Garden. Now why was that? It probably had something to do with the simplicity, the honesty of his fighting style which in effect replicated what he was like as a person and I think that's one of the more remarkable things about it. I get messages and e-mails from people who feel Dick Tiger 'he was my hero when I was growing up. Everyone else was for Hurricane Carter or his guy was for Joey Archer but Dick Tiger was my hero and I was just this young jewish kid from New York City.' It is really remarkable that he could reach out to boxing audiences and he is still well remembered because of his fighting style and his personality.
CR: Well Ade it has been a pleasure talking to you about Dick Tiger. This has been a very interesting show.
AM: Thank you very much for having me.
CR: Oh, you're welcome. My pleasure.
Copyright. Adeyinka Makinde (2006)