In Nigeria last week a howling mob stormed a jail trying to rescue a chieftain on trial with 20 countrymen for treason. A farmer walked into a police station carrying his right hand, chopped off in a neighborhood quarrel. A hippopotamus upset a dugout canoe, drowning six. But to the 40 million citizens of freshly independent Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, all this was humdrum stuff. The big news was taking place in Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, a city of almost a million, where Dick Tiger of the Ibo tribe was to meet Gene Fullmer, from some faraway place called Utah, for the middleweight championship of the world.
The prospect of the fight, the first major sports event held in the emerging nations of Black Africa, had the whole country in an uproar. Into tin-roofed Ibadan flocked thunder worshipers, crocodile cultists and Yoruba tribesmen, garbed in their conservatively colored three-piece robes which are fast becoming the Brooks Brothers suit of Nigeria. With the fight backed by the government, all of Nigeria was exhorted to buy tickets. Government employees who planned to be at the fight were given the day off with pay. "Do Not Procrastinate, Do Not Hesitate," urged one sign. "Buy Your Tickets Now and Join Thousands of Boxing Fans. It Is Going to Be One of the Most Significant International Events Ever Witnessed on the Continent of Africa. Come Along! Join Lovers of Heroes All over the World!!!"
The sign should have told the lovers of heroes to bring their raincoats. For three days before Saturday night's fight, it rained and it rained and it rained. Chief Joseph Modupe Johnson, Nigeria's Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, called in some tribal rain doctors who demanded $14,000 for clear weather. "The people have this rain business in their heads now," the chief declared, fearful of the gate, and with that he embarked on an open-car tour of Ibadan with a rain doctor. "The rain doctor," the chief allowed, "is on our side."
On Saturday the rain doctors delivered. The downpours stopped. That night a crowd of 25,000 rocked Liberty Stadium as National Hero Tiger belted Fullmer in one of the bloodiest, most one-sided title fights ever seen. From the time the bell rang for the start of the first until the end of the seventh, when Fullmer's manager, Marv Jenson, called surrender, Tiger was in complete control. He was too tough, too strong and too effective for the American.
August 18, 1963
Ever since Tiger won the title from Fullmer in San Francisco last October, his nation had been clamoring to see him defend at home. A Tiger defense in Nigeria became a matter of patriotic pride as well as a way of putting Nigeria on the map. The man chiefly responsible for bringing Tiger back home to fight was Chief Johnson, in some charming ways an incarnation of Novelist Joyce Cary's wheeling, dealing Mister Johnson.
A strapping 6-footer, Chief Johnson has been in charge of all Nigerian sports since 1957. Now 51, he has had an active athletic career spanning 30 years, and, according to the chief, "It will not come to an end until I am in my grave." Besides having been an accomplished swimmer, cricketer, skin diver, long-distance runner and billiards player, Chief Johnson was also once a crack middleweight. After getting the government to guarantee Jack Solomons, the British promoter, and the fighters $280,000 for Saturday's circus, he attempted to prove his own enduring prowess by challenging the best heavyweight from neighboring Ghana to meet him in a four-round preliminary on the championship card. His boss, the Prime Minister, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, said, "Joseph J., I do not care if you box or not, but make sure you insure yourself sufficiently." But the Nigerian Boxing Board of Control, mindful of the chief's 51 years, refused to issue him a license, prompting the chief to declare, "Then I will dissolve the board and appoint a new one." This was easy for the chief to do, since he is the boss of the board. Perhaps fortunately, he refrained from this ultimate step.
The chief was—and is—a beguiling blend of native torn-tomfoolery and big-city sophistication. Seated one night in the living room of his home, he listened to a phonograph blare Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee and Bobby Rydell records while his guests sipped fine cognac and Scotch. The chief talked about his stay at the Waldorf Towers, and his guests marked him as a cosmopolite. In the next second the chief opened a whisky bottle and poured a few drops on the monkey-rugged floor, explaining, "The first few drops are for my ancestors, an ancient tradition here." The guests marked the chief as a superstitious native, and then a friend said, "Don't give your ancestors too much, chief. They might be in training." The chief guffawed, so the guests were right back where they started.
Another unique character in the bizarre cast at Ibadan was Jack Solomons. An ex-fishmonger who is now a millionaire, Solomons is a garish dresser. His taste runs to Hawaiian-style shirts and alligator belts and shoes. He gets daily haircuts, uses clear polish on his fingernails and Miss Dior cologne after his bath. He held court at a $10 million hotel owned by a Greek. The hotel was never more than 30% full and is reported to be slowly sinking into the ground.
Solomons made himself the center of attention by carrying on a war with Nigerian folkways. When Chief Johnson told him that the rain doctors were holding out for a fee of $14,000, Solomons exclaimed, "For that I'll produce snow!" Solomons also had his troubles with the Nigerian inability to say no. Most Nigerians speak tribal tongues, and the only English many of them learn is the word "yes." This prompted the exasperated promoter to tell his waiter, "I wish you were a girl." Said Solomons: "You can ring the boy for breakfast and order one pineapple juice and one tea, and he will say yes and come up with a tomato juice and a bloody coffee."
Solomons never really intended to hold this fight—or any other fight—in Nigeria, but he was so overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of Chief Johnson and the rest of the government that he changed his mind. "When we first came here to talk about the fight," he said, "we had no intention of putting it on. In this bloody Nigeria, where are they going to put on a world championship fight? But we figured—well, why not show the courtesy of talking to them. So, lo and behold, we go to Ibadan, and we find they've got as nice a stadium as you could find, and they're making all these preparations. Gor blimey, I couldn't get out of it."
To the horror of some Nigerian intellectuals, who complained that the country was already behind one year in the second year of a six-year development program, the government guaranteed Solomons and the fighters $280,000. Solomons had all the official cooperation he wanted. He could not find enough chairs for the stadium infield, so, on the afternoon before the fight, the moment school was out in Lagos, the seaport capital 90 miles away from Ibadan, 3,500 chairs were loaded on 10 trucks and rushed to the stadium. There, Nigerian troops set them up and numbered them. Right after the fight they were folded up and shipped back to Lagos. "On Monday morning," Solomons said, "the kids will be sitting in them and never know I made money on them."
Despite the government's largess, money was a sore point with Solomons and other foreigners who had come to Nigeria for the fight. Nigerians are extraordinarily sweet, jolly, friendly and sporting, but no report would be accurate unless it pointed out that they have quickly learned as much about money as the sharpest pawnbroker. Citing street peddlers as a case in point. Chief Johnson said, "You go up to them to say good morning, and before you are finished they have sold you a piece of string, an empty bottle and a dead body." At times Solomons seemed to think he was buying all the dead bodies. He picked up the check at his hotel for a reception for Fullmer. The total amount was $600, reasonable enough for 110 guests, but he exploded when he noted that the tab included 14¢ for two boxes of matches. Solomons' sidekick, Bobby Diamond, Tiger's rotund European manager, asked for matches at the hotel desk. "That will be sixpence, sar," said the clerk. "Well, then," said the astute Diamond, "do you have a light?"
A veteran correspondent warned, "Solomons thinks he has a $280,000 guarantee. He's so bloody smart. He'd better watch out or they'll take him." Taxicabs have meters, but the meter is always broken so the driver can charge a passenger extra. A high point of sorts was reached by one Ibadan cabbie who drove a visitor one block and demanded $1.50. The visitor gave 20¢, and the driver was overjoyed.
Another burden for visitors was the threat of disease. Many streets have open sewage, and malaria is not uncommon. Sprayers stalk about Ibadan hosing every ditch in sight and, although Ibadan is not New York, the sanitary measures are fairly effective. Still, the fear of disease remains with an unacclimated foreigner. Bobby Diamond drank a bottle of whisky and a bottle of wine at a reception and woke up in the middle of the night feeling frightful. "I've got malaria!" he screamed as he leaped from bed. He ran to the mirror, peered at himself and then exclaimed joyously, "Thank God, I'm drunk!"
Diamond got a lot of attention because of an unseemly quarrel with Marv Jenson, Fullmer's manager. This was not the usual prefight baloney—Chief Johnson was taking care of that—but a genuine feud. It started when Diamond charged that Fullmer, who had been granted one postponement only to ask for another, had turned yellow. At the hotel reception for Fullmer, Jenson demanded a retraction, whereupon Diamond said, "He's still yellow!" Then, when Jenson seemed to be hinting that Solomons and Diamond were up to hanky-panky, Solomons replied he would sue for libel. The quarrel was finally settled on the telephone, but Diamond fired the parting shot. "They shouldn't readmit Jenson to the States," he said. "He does more harm than anybody."
In another setting, the spat and Chief Johnson's high jinks might have tended to obscure the training activities of Tiger and Fullmer; not here. Both fighters were very much on the public mind. Nigerians jammed in line to buy tickets to workouts, looking for all the world like famine sufferers with hands upraised in old-time newsreel shots.
"Look at them," said Solomons happily. "Trying to give us their shillings."
One day so many Nigerians packed Tiger's camp, an army barracks, that Diamond called for troops to keep order. The soldiers came with sticks, and the crowd chased them away. The next day the soldiers came with blackjacks and kept the crowd at bay. The crowd kept screaming, "Tiger! Tiger!" So Tiger, who is not without a sense of humor, appeared holding his hands above his head and saying, "Vote for me, and I will promise you everything!"
For this occasion Tiger wore tribal robes, but he refused to allow himself to be photographed against a tree trunk because, he explained, "It would look like Nigeria is a jungle." Instead, to show progress, he posed in the middle of a paved road. Tiger liked to tease reporters by telling them he ate white men for breakfast, adding he preferred whites medium rare. Chief Johnson, still insistent that he would fight on the undercard, went into training himself and even sparred a few rounds with the champ. "I did not hit him hard," said the chief upon emerging. "Would it not have been a terrible thing if I had harmed him before the big fight? So I only played with him."
The Nigerians were just as happy watching Fullmer train at Ibadan's University College gymnasium. Indeed, in the last few days before the fight, it was impossible for Fullmer to get out of his car for fear that the pressing crowd of admirers might accidentally injure him. The moment his car appeared on the street, crowds closed off both ends of the block screaming, "Foolmarrrr! Foolmarrrr!" The day before the fight, a 6-year-old boy stuck his head in the car and shouted, "Foolmarrrr! Hold that Tiger!" Then he ran off cackling at his own wit.
Kill our bum
If all this support for Fullmer seemed odd, it should be kept in mind that the Nigerian fan has been schooled in the ways of British fair play. "Sometimes," said Chief Johnson with a sigh, "this can be very annoying. When a fighter from Ghana comes here and makes a few good moves in the ring, suddenly the people will start chanting 'Ghana! Ghana!' and forget their own countryman."
A couple of days before the fight, the heavy rains washed away the railroad tracks between Lagos and Ibadan, forcing travelers to go by way of a so-called highway that is probably the most dangerous single stretch of road in existence. It has been nicknamed Murder Road. Poorly graded and afflicted with one-lane bridges at interesting intervals, Murder Road brings out the demon in Nigerian drivers, who customarily travel it at 70 and 80 miles per hour on the theory that they will not die until God wants them to die, no matter what they are doing. This fatalism has resulted not only in a fantastic death rate but in trucks bearing such side-panel slogans as "Jesus Watches Me" and "In God I Trust."
Jack Solomons found out for himself what Murder Road is really like when he was traveling to Ibadan with several British sportswriters. Twenty miles out of town a cow loped in front of the car, smashing the windshield into a thousand pieces. For two days the occupants were busy removing shards. Inexplicably, Solomons felt glass in his socks. He took them off and splinters poured out like sand. Of course, the cow was killed by the impact. A typical Nigerian cop appeared on the scene and said he didn't care to be bothered to hear about the accident because he was off duty and on his way home. Later on, to make sure that wrecks did not tie up traffic on Murder Road, the government thoughtfully dispatched four army derricks to dispose of debris.
On Saturday, the morning of the fight, rain doctors were still busy plucking feathers from parrots and draining off chicken blood. At Liberty Stadium several Nigerians showed up toting a life-sized granite statue of Tiger. They wanted a baffled Solomons to sign for it. But since no one knew anything about the statue, he refused and the Nigerians marched off with it. Rich chiefs from such neighboring West African countries as Ghana, Dahomey, Sierra Leone, Togo, Gambia and Guinea began arriving by airplane. Still determined to do combat for Nigeria, Chief Johnson showed up at the weigh-in as a potential participant. Garbed in no more than his undershorts and his considerable dignity, he shook the scales at 238 pounds. Fullmer, who was overweight on Friday, reduced in the final 24 hours to a stripped 160. Tiger had trained down perfectly to 159¾.
By late afternoon a crowd of 30,000 was standing outside Liberty Stadium, cheering the 25,000 going in. A capacity house of 46,000 would have given the show a $20,000 profit; but someone, presumably Chief Johnson, had overestimated the Nigerian public's ability to pay anything more than the $1.50 for standing room. The standing-room section, designed to hold 6,000, was oversold. It was filled to the brim three hours before the fight, and newcomers who courageously fought their way to the top row, which afforded the best view of the ring, were, upon arrival, tossed downward bodily until they reached the bottom row with a thud. As a result, terrible fights went on constantly. At an American stadium the situation would have bred a riot, but at Liberty Stadium these melees were received as welcome divertissements, and thousands cheered happily as bodies flew through the air. Spielers delivered commercials for sundry products over the public address system, and vendors hawked such local delicacies as banana cream and Fanta, a popular orange pop.
At 6 o'clock Governor-General Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, his wife and daughter arrived in a Rolls-Royce as the crowd shouted "Zeke," its nickname for the popular guy. There were also some shouts of joy for Chief Johnson, who—resplendent in green-and-silver robe, wooden beads and green velvet hat with gold braid—waved a gorgeous white feather fan in salutation. The ring announcer drew a big laugh and cheers when he said that Chief Johnson was scheduled to box a man from Ghana, but "the man from Ghana has not arrived so Chief Johnson is the winner."
The preliminaries were wild affairs with the undercard fighters slipping and sliding all over the ring. Said Solomons: "I looked all over the country for resin, but I could only find enough for the main event." Nigerian referees demanded that a fighter be all but dead before he lost. In the first prelim, for instance, a Ghana fistfighter named Tei Dovi was beaten unmercifully by Ray Adigun of Nigeria. Dovi was knocked down nine times in the first four rounds before his corner threw in a red towel.
Just before the main event every light in the stadium was turned out, leaving the whole place as dark as only an African night can be. Then, to the sudden fanfare of trumpets, two spotlights shot into the darkness, lighting up Fullmer as he emerged from an underground walkway. He was wearing a kente, a short robe reaching to the bottom of his trunks, and the crowd roared "Foolmarr" in appreciation. The lights were doused again and then lit up to catch Tiger, who was also wearing a kente, which he topped with Chief Johnson's hat and a broad grin. A phonograph ground out what must have been the first recording ever made of The Star-Spangled Banner, followed by the Nigerian national anthem, and then both fighters were introduced to thunderous applause. That was the end of the cheering for Fullmer as Tiger took over from the start.
Fullmer looked fat, as though he had put back all the pounds he had sweated off to make the weight. He tried to stay away from Tiger but he was not fast enough. Tiger knocked him from corner to corner. By the third round, Fullmer's tactics were reduced to crisscrossing his elbows in front of his face to avoid getting hit. Even so, Tiger opened up cuts on both cheekbones. In the fourth, Fullmer's arms gave out, and Tiger landed at will for a full minute. "Stop it! Stop it!" the crowd chanted. In the sixth, Tiger sliced open a wicked cut over Fullmer's right eye. Fullmer's face was red with blood, and every time Tiger whacked him the gore splashed into the ringside seats. "Fight, Gene, fight!" Jenson yelled from the corner, though it was obvious Fullmer had all he could do just to stand up. At the end of the round, Trainer Angelo Curley said, "Gene, let's stop it. You've got all the money in the world. You don't need this." Fullmer refused, but by the end of the seventh he could not see out of the right eye and he did not demur when Jenson signaled surrender.
Joyous Nigerians overflowed the ring, and the hubbub was such that it took 10 minutes before Tiger's win could be announced officially. But Tiger's victory had never been in doubt, at least not in the minds of Chief Johnson and Zeke, the Governor-General. At the end of the fight, Zeke issued a statement to Tiger that he had had mimeographed the day before: "You have once again established your superiority as kingpin of the middleweights. Continue to be humble and charitable in your dispositions but lead a clean life to enable you to give a worthy account of yourself when occasion demands it." Then everyone went out to celebrate.
Perhaps the postfight victory parties, and Ibadan's zany week in particular, were best summed up by a poster announcing that Expensive Eddie Okunta and His Rhythm Dandies would play for a "None Stop Dance," where folks would do the High Life, a domesticated war dance done to music not unlike rock 'n' roll. The poster for the None Stop Dance advised, "Bring Your Own Dame and Avoid Disappointment."