Wednesday 30 March 2011

Book Review: 'The Case For Dick Tiger' by Gavin Evans

When it comes to rating the greatest African boxer of all-time it is impossible to sidestep Dick Tiger. A strong case can be made for Azumah Nelson’s devastating power, refined skills and superlative record but it was the man known to his parents as Richard Ihetu who laid the path for the likes of Nelson, Ike Quartey and, today, Sam Peter, in their bids to win over the hard-to-please American fight fans.

Forty years have passed since Tiger became the first-ever African boxer to win world titles in two weight divisions. The weight-drained Biafran-Nigerian controversially lost his world middleweight title to Emile Griffith (with 17 of the 22 ringside reporters giving the fight to the champion) and then shocked the boxing world by giving away 8 lb., 4 inches and seven years to batter the 39-1-1 Jose Torres around the ring to lift the world light heavyweight title.

But 1966 was also a year of great sadness. The pogroms directed against the Igbo people unleashed a series of events that forced Tiger into exile and clouded his remaining six years. He became a vocal international voice for the fledgling Biafran state, renouncing all association with Nigeria and returning his MBE to Britain in protest against its support for the Nigerian regime. He was commissioned as an officer in the Biafran army, after which he smuggled his wife and eight children out of the country, while popping back and forth between Biafra and America, competing in major fights – a remarkable spell in a truly remarkable life.

He returned home following the defeat of the Biafran independence campaign, and on December 15 1971 died of liver cancer. For a while he was virtually forgotten but over the last 15 years there has been a revival in his posthumous fortunes. In 1991 Tiger became the first African boxer to be elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame and since then films of his fights shown on ESPN and a steady stream of magazine articles have helped to revive his reputation. Adeyinka Makinde, a Nigerian-born, London-based barrister and law lecturer, has added considerably to this legacy with a fascinating first biography.

He mixes the story of Tiger’s early life in Aba, Eastern Nigeria, with a social history of the Igbo people, before getting his teeth into the long tale of the man’s boxing career, which he tells with understated flare, never stinting from criticism of his subject when due. Makinde’s research is impressive. For instance, contrary to published records, which have Tiger winning one and losing one against Tommy West, Makinde shows he had three bouts with West, losing them all.

Following his countryman, Hogan Kid Bassey, he arrived in Liverpool in 1955 and began the British leg of his career with four defeats (two disputed). At that stage British boxing was reeling from the doubling of the taxes on gross promotional receipts (from 15 to 30 percent). African boxers, prepared to accept lower purses, helped to keep it alive, even if they were regarded as expendable.

Tiger was a slow learner, but one who eventually absorbed his lessons well. His breakthrough came in 1957 when he was pitted with one of the young stars in the Mickey Duff and Harry Levene stable, Terry Downes, stopping him in six rounds. Later that year he drew with the British champion Pat McAteer and four months on stopped him in four rounds to win the Commonwealth title.

After four years in Britain he relocated to New York and it was there that he learnt the fine points of the game. He suffered several setbacks, including questionable losses to Rory Calhoun, Joey Giardello and Wilf Greaves, but a series of impressive wins over leading contenders earned him a shot at Gene Fullmer’s middleweight title. He proved to be significantly stronger than the Utah ironman, driving him around the ring, slipping his punches, carving up his face and outboxing him to lift the title. In the return, a more cautious Fullmer earned a draw but in their third fight, in Ibadan, Nigeria, the rampant Tiger forced Fullmer’s retirement after seven emphatic rounds.

His third defence came against his old rival, Joey Giardello, who jabbed and ran, to lift the title. It took Tiger two years to force Giardello into a return – a frustrating period that saw him picking up four wins and a highly dubious split points loss to Joey Archer. One of his victims in this period was Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter, who was dropped three times and badly beaten up, afterwards describing it as the worst beating he had taken “inside or outside of the ring.”

In his next fight a 36-year-old Tiger had no trouble regaining the world title, with his second win over Giardello and followed that with a knockout over Germany’s Peter Mueller, that controversial points loss to Griffiths (for example, ‘Ring’ editor Nat Fleisher gave it to Tiger by ten rounds to five), and that shock light heavyweight title victory over Torres. Over the next 18 months he picked up a return win over Torres and a 12th round stoppage over mandatory contender Roger Rouse. His career seemed over when he was knocked out in four rounds by Bob Foster and yet he returned to outpoint Frankie De Paula in The Ring’s 1968 Fight of the Year, and followed this with wins over middleweight champion Nino Benvenuti and light heavyweight contender Andy Kendall. He retired at 41 after losing a return with Griffith.

Films show Tiger as an aggressive boxer-puncher. His defence was tight, his head movement excellent, he was immensely strong, always superbly conditioned and he had one of the firmest chins in middleweight history. While not a one punch blastout artist, he was heavy-handed – a solid, draining puncher who was particularly adept at working the body. His record shows 17 or 18 losses (depending on whose version you accept) but at least 11 were legitimately disputed. He struggled with quick moving, defensive boxers, although he beat several of them. Victories over fellow world champions Downes, Giardello, Fullmer, Torres and Benvenuti and top contenders like Florentino Fernandez, Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and Henry Hank place him comfortably within the top 20 middleweights of all time, and perhaps even the top ten.

Makinde’s book also reveals him as a fine human being – intelligent, and resourceful, with a deep self-pride and a profound commitment to his people. Unlike so many boxers of his time and ours, he was a virtual teetotaller who always trained hard, never cut corners and avoided trouble outside the ring, except when it came to his battle against the Nigerian military regime in the late 1960s. ‘Dick Tiger’ is a compelling and inspiring read, that will certainly appeal to anyone with an interest in boxing history, African history, or both.

Gavin Evans (2006)

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