Pinched by a large knot of reporters into his dressing room last week at Madison Square Garden, Dick Tiger was shedding his robe and his gloves, and as the questions fell it became obvious he was shedding something else—his faith or, as H. L. Mencken wrote, "an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."
Tiger, neatly and furiously, had just destroyed Rubin Carter, but he was impassive and no more elated than a shoemaker who has just finished operating on one of 50 pairs of shoes. Outside, in the dim glow of the Garden lobby, people were calling him the best middleweight around, but there in the dressing room Tiger, visibly disheartened and frustrated, knew that he was just a fighter with no place to go. He had given up—not on himself but on Joey Giardello, the middleweight champion who, critics contend, is responsible for the ridiculous inertia in the best division in boxing.
"I am going home," said Tiger, hammering each word crisply. "In Nigeria I have a bookstore and some real estate. I am not broke. I do not need Giardello. He is no gentleman. A gentleman keeps his word. Eighteen months ago [when Tiger lost the title to Giardello in Atlantic City] he promised we would fight again. And then again here in March, after I beat Rivero, he came in my dressing room and said right before the press, 'Tiger, I will fight you next.' Ha! I am glad I met many nice Americans before I met Joey Giardello."
Meanwhile, following the Tiger-Carter fight, Giardello—according to Giardello—was sitting home waiting for a call from Tiger.
May 30, 1965
"Yeah," says Giardello. "I told him to call me if he takes Carter. But does he call? I don't hear a word from him. Listen, if he wants to fight me why doesn't he sit down and talk with me. Neither Tiger or his manager have come around to talk about a fight. All of a sudden I'm the rat in the picture. I'm not ducking Tiger. Who's Tiger? He's my meat. I'll tell you right now, I want him bad. But I'm not going to ask him to fight me. He's got to ask me. Not just go shooting his mouth in the press. I'm the champion. Print that.
"Also, a lot of people are saying Teddy Brenner and the Garden has offered me $75,000 to fight Tiger in the Garden. Yeah, well that's a lot of bull. Sure, Brenner has offered me a big money match in the Garden, but that's all he has done. Just offered. I don't see any contract. Brenner just talks. Let him come up with a contract. The only concrete offer I've received is from Sugar Ray Robinson. The contract is there and all I gotta do is sign it. [Robinson, who recently won a tax suit against the government which had dragged through the courts since his bout with Carmen Basilio in September 1957 had come up with a substantial money offer.] I'm liable to sign with Robinson any time. Brenner and Tiger are all wet. Print that. All they gotta do is stop mouthin' off and come up with a contract, and I'll fight Tiger in the Garden in August or September. But I don't hear from none of those bigmouths."
Giardello did not have to wait long for communication from one of the "big-mouths." Lew Burston, Tiger's acting manager (Jersey Jones is in the hospital with a stroke), called Giardello later that day. "Giardello," says Burston, "told me, 'You've got my word I'll fight Tiger in September.' He didn't mention any particular night so we'll have to wait and see. Dick is 35 and he can't wait much longer. This time we hope Giardello means what he says."
Most boxing people, although suspicious of Giardello's latest pang of conscience, would like nothing better. Tiger is, perhaps, boxing's most admired figure at the moment, and there pervades an unusually sensitive opinion—for boxing, at any rate—which holds that Tiger has been grossly mistreated.
There are a number of reasons for Tiger's popularity. To begin, there is Tiger the man. He is a courtly, soft-spoken person with impeccable manners—one feels that he should be standing in front of a big, white southern mansion waiting for Zachary Scott to arrive. The image is absurd because Tiger, articulate and intensely interested in politics, is more a symbol of emerging Nigeria than the graying, hat-in-hand retainer his good manners sometimes suggest. But most of Tiger's appeal emanates from the fact that he is the embodiment of a rare species called the professional fighter. When Tiger is in the ring the spectators know that it will not be Tiger's fault if the fight becomes tedious. "I am a fighter," says Tiger. "It is all that I have ever wanted to be, and it is all that I know. I love to fight. The fighter fights. It is that simple. He does not run. I am proud to be a fighter."
Against Rubin Carter, Tiger amply demonstrated his simple philosophy. A short man, he fought Carter as he has all other tall men during the past 10 years—with his feet wide apart and moving straight ahead. "He reminds me of those movies of British soldiers fighting in India," said one ringsider. "They move ahead in a straight line and they're getting knocked down one after another, but they keep comin'. That's Dick Tiger." Carter, a sharp puncher who also does not believe in retreat, was expected to be a perfect opponent for Tiger. He did not disappoint. Until he was later discouraged, Carter took the fight to Tiger and this is not considered wise, but nobody in boxing has ever been moved to marvel at Carter's ring intelligence.
The first round was uneventful as far as the fans were concerned, but Tiger, throwing a right—his right is decidedly inadequate—and then following with a left hook at the end of the round, found his pattern. The harmless right and the seemingly sweeping left hook added up to something lethal because at the tail end of all that motion was another left hook, short and quite explosive. It was to produce one of the more forgettable evenings in Carter's career.
Tiger caught Carter early in the second round. The left hook—Tiger leaps when he throws it, a habit that led to his adoption of the pseudonym Tiger—smashed into Carter's jaw, and Rubin drooped to the floor, his head hanging outside the bottom ropes. Carter was up at the count of three and, though unsteady on his feet and obviously weakened, refused to hold and was soon at Tiger again. Tiger, his left hand sawing away at Carter's head, dropped Rubin a second time. Carter wobbled to his feet at the count of six, four counts after the bell signaling the end of the round. Referee Zack Clayton made an ambiguous motion with his right hand. To him it meant the fight would go on for at least another round, but to almost everybody else in Madison Square Garden the gesture indicated that he was stopping it. Tiger, obviously siding with the majority, smiled, did a slow pirouette in one corner of the ring and acknowledged the roar of the crowd with a wave of his hand. He was eight rounds premature.
After a wary third round Carter went down again in the fourth. Apparently convinced—Carter takes a lot of convincing—that he was being a trifle foolish, charging into Tiger's best guns, Carter decided to box. The idea was good, but the execution was not, for Carter is no boxer. He jabbed his way through the remaining rounds—much to the annoyance of the crowd of 9,785—and carefully, if not picturesquely, circled away from Tiger's left hand. Once he did catch Tiger with a straight right hand, but Tiger seemed more surprised than stunned. The fight was no challenge for the judges, who gave most of the rounds to Tiger.
"At least he didn't knock my socks off," said Carter, who was having difficulty later removing his socks in the dressing room. He held an ice pack to his eye, and his drooping mustache, minus the Fu Manchu ends, which he had been forced to snip off before the fight, made his eyes seem even more lachrymose than they generally are as he continued to ridicule himself. "Tiger is a great fighter," he said. "He just whipped me good. Compared to Tiger, Giardello is only half a fighter. He'd kill Giardello if he fought him the way he fought me tonight. Man, that guy is some tough. But I'm real tired. I need a long rest now."
Carter, who has been a busy fighter with six bouts in the last five months, will no doubt benefit from a layoff, but the aging Tiger cannot wait much longer for Giardello. Giardello, who himself is crowding 35, does not have time to wait, either. His skills have been diminished by the years and his easygoing attitude toward title defenses (he is so disdainful of them that he has had only one in his 18 months as the fellow at the top). Yet he is still quite "hungry." He has not made much money from the championship, and whoever he fights will have to come up with a bundle, it seems. While Robinson doesn't exactly own Fort Knox, he does have more money than other likely challengers, and he is appealing to Giardello for another reason: he is 11 years older than the champion. So where does this leave Dick Tiger, the best uncrowned middleweight around? Probably with nothing more than an illogical hope for—if not belief in—the occurrence of the improbable.