The new middleweight champion of the world is an agreeable, stumpy man, tough as a thorn, who calls himself Dick Tiger. Across his dark chest and around his back is a sequence of dashes, like the dotted line you are asked to tear along. These are tribal tattoos, inflicted when he was a child. "I'm not old enough to know what they mean,"' says Tiger, mysteriously. "You have to be 40 or 50. We just stop that now, though. The young men don't like it. It's cruel to children."
Tiger's proper name is Richard Ihetu, he is 33 years old, and he comes from Nigeria (where there are no tigers). The first tiger he ever saw was mooning around a Liverpool zoo. The new champion was given his name by an imaginative Englishman who, upon watching him box, decided he pounced very much like a tiger. "I jump," Tiger explains. "A short jump. I thought it a good name and it is easy to pronounce. Everybody from Africa is mixed up with animals. I saw tigers in the movies, you know."
It was in the movies, too, that he saw the vast, heroic shadows of prizefighters and was inspired to quit his job as a delivery boy for a jewelry store in the city of Aba. "I became interested in boxing," he says, "and it has turned out very good. I've met a lot of good people. I grew up on a farm and we were very poor. If we were rich I don't think I become a fighter. But if I get plenty money I want my son to become a politician. I like the way they talk on television. I'm not clever enough to be a politician myself. I'm a prizefighter; otherwise, I know nothing."
Tiger's first opponents were more fancifully named than he—Lion Ring, Mighty Joe, Easy Dynamite, Black Power and Super Human Power—but not as worthy; he short-circuited Super Human and soon left for England. "There was a bookmaker in Liverpool of West African descent," says Jersey Jones, who, in time, became Tiger's manager. "He was bringing them in. They were novelties at first. They had no real promise. They started on what they had naturally: toughness, strength, guts." Fighting that first lonely, baffling winter of his life in the bleak cities—Liverpool, Blackpool, West Hartlepool—Tiger showed little ability.
November 5, 1962
"He kept running into a left jab," says Jones, sourly, "but he profited by it. Things don't come quickly to him but when he grasps them they're here to stay. I wasn't too damned enthused about taking him on. Little by little this thing is dying out. But I figured I could afford to gamble a little time."
It was a risk well taken. Last week, after 10 years of campaigning in which he won 47 of 61, Tiger roundly beat Gene Fullmer and rode about the ring in San Francisco's Candlestick Park on the shoulders of politicians: The Honorable J. M. Johnson, Minister of Labor, Social Services and Sport, and Mr. R.B.K.. Okafor, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice. These strapping fellows wore native dress: embroidered caps and elaborately draped robes of pale hue over trousers rather like pajama bottoms. On admittedly scanty evidence it appears that if you're big in Nigeria you go in for politics; if you're small, like Hogan Bassey, the former featherweight champion, and Rafiu King, a new and highly rated featherweight, both of whom attended the fight, you go out for boxing. After Tiger was returned to earth, Bassey, King and the pols danced intently about the ring; a tricky shuffle and much brandishing of fists. The scene had a flair reminiscent of episodes in theirregular histories of Azania and Ishmaelia, emergent African nations that were irreverently founded some years ago by Evelyn Waugh.
Tiger, of course, is world champion only in those parts of the world accepting the dominion of the World Boxing Association, an organization that might as well have been created by Waugh, too. The WBA was, until recently, the National Boxing Association; it changed its name, as has been noted, by a stirring act of mimeograph. Paul Pender, who was to have defended his title against Jose Torres in Boston on November 2 (the fight has now been postponed), is the world champion of New York, Massachusetts and Europe. New York contrarily refuses to recognize the Pender-Torres fight as being for the championship. Torres isn't a fit opponent. If he wins they will have a meeting. New York commissioners get paid $79.55 a day when they have meetings. Great Britain dazedly recognizes Tiger as Empire champion and Pender as the world champion. California is not a WBA state but recognizes Tiger; it doesn't recognize Liston, however, so a big San Franciscan named Roger Rischer claims, byact of mouth, that he is the heavyweight champion. The WBA prohibits return-boutcontracts, but there is a contract calling for a return between Tiger and Fullmer. If it occurs, it will most likely take place in a WBA state. We may now be ready for another question: Why should it occur? From Promoter Norman Rothschild's standpoint, there isn't much reason—only 11,000 fans came to Candlestick Park. Even Lester Malitz, who had the theater-TV rights and did an excellent job of presenting the fight, lost a good deal of money.
All this is regrettable because the bout, although one-sided, was for the most part compelling and hard fought; it did get somewhat dreary, even painful, toward the close when it became evident that Fullmer, badly bruised and bleeding, couldn't win, but boxing isn't art and these are life's shortcomings as well. Gene was up against a man who was evidently stronger than he was, certainly as well-conditioned and who punched harder. Tiger is a counterpuncher of a curious sort—he leads. That is, he advanced on Fullmer but allowed Gene to set the pace. If Fullmer chose, as he did in the latter rounds, to throw punches infrequently, Tiger refrained from punching, too. But whether he was brawling, as he did early on, or circling and boxing, as he did later, Fullmer was overmatched.
As Jones said afterward: "Fullmer knows only two ways of fighting. One is to pile, crowd, push and pin an opponent to the ropes and maul away. The other is to back off and wait for an opponent to come to you. But when Gene tried to box he couldn't keep away from Tiger's jabbing, chopping left. And about every time he tried to close with Tiger he was beaten back with attacks to the head. Fullmer has to take a bad beating anytime he fights Tiger. Dick is a shorter, faster, straighter puncher."
Fullmer got his worst beatings in the fourth, ninth and 14th rounds, when Tiger, his eyes lightly suffused with blood, a condition that gave them an eerie, reddish, almost baleful look, battered him about the ring with alternating blows. Fullmer suffered deep cuts about both eyes, and a cut on the right side of his head. He bled copiously from the nose and mouth. After the ninth round, Referee Frankie Carter, having requested permission from Fullmer's corner, called a doctor in to examine Gene's wounds. It would have been sensible to stop the fight at that point; Fullmer didn't have a chance but, obedient to the old, unreasonable code of honor, he chose to carry on. Although Carter scored the fight most fittingly—he gave Fullmer only one round while both judges managed to come up with five—he should not be permitted to act as referee. He is too slow, too weak, too bemused. One California commission official said Carter was given the Tiger-Fullmer assignment for whatamounted to sentimental reasons. "Carter has never refereed a big title fight in California," he said, at the same time agreeing he was an ineffectual referee, "so we kind of thought we ought to give it to him." Boxing isn't in bad enough shape.
Tiger was unmarked after the fight. Promoter Norman Rothschild came despondently to his dressing room to congratulate him for knocking off his meal ticket. "Thank you, sir," said Tiger, graciously. "I hoped you enjoyed the fight, sir." Fat chance. "Yes," Tiger admitted, "Fullmer hurt me sometime. He's a strong man, hard to knock down. But I never expect him to run back. People want to enjoy a fight. It's no good if he run back. I never dreamed I'd be champion. No, I'm glad."
Fullmer looked a mess but he was wryly cheerful, too. "I sure can't fight him the same way next time and beat him," he said. "We'll have to change something. Why did I lose? He hit me more, I guess. One thing, though. I don't have any false beard with me."