Dressing room No. 26 in the rear of New York's Madison Square Garden is a windowless pit that holds heat like a thermos. Behind its heavy steel door, Room 26 contains nothing but the basic needs for a fighter in training—two low benches pressed against the grim, peeling walls, a small tiled shower, an archaic bronze-colored scale that has lost too many decisions to oxidation, a rubbing table only recently oiled and repadded to disguise its oblique past. Every day for six weeks prior to meeting Joe Giardello for the world middleweight championship, Dick Tiger, the courtly 36-year-old Nigerian challenger, would come to this room and sit on a bench in the 90° heat. For luck he would put on a six-year-old tattletale-gray T shirt with "Hotel El Cortez in Downtown Las Vegas, Nev." written on the chest, and then he would bandage his small, skilled hands. "Always, always I bandage my own hands," Tiger would explain. "I am a traveler. I learn to do things for myself."
But two days before he entered the ring to try to regain the championship that he had so decisively lost to Giardello 22 months previously in Atlantic City, Tiger did a surprising thing that changed the calm, well-organized atmosphere of Room 26. A delegate from Giardello's entourage had come upstairs from the Garden basement, where Joey was preparing for his last serious workout. "Tiger," the delegate said, "Joey would like to borrow your swivel for the light bag." "No!" said Tiger. "No! He is my enemy. Tell him I will loan him nothing. Tell him when this fight is over and I am the champion I will give him the swivel, even a bag. Now, no!"
Ever since he began his career as a boxer in Nigeria in 1952 by beating the likes of Easy Dynamite, Mighty Joe, Lion Ring, Koko Kid, Black Power and Super Human Power, Dick Tiger's personality, both in times of travel and travail, militated against such an outburst. Often overmatched and underpaid, but seldom outgamed, he had worked hard to be a gentleman—always a gentleman. An intelligent, aging and unfierce person, Tiger would do much to help a fellow man. Even on those occasions when he finds it is necessary to be wary lest he be exploited, Tiger's refusals are always polite.
"Some people have tried to make me out a savage," he said one day while sitting in his room. "As if I had wandered in from the jungle. In truth, there is no jungle where I live in Nigeria. It is like the towns and farm country of the United States. Because the people here and many of the photographers and writers have such a limited understanding of my country, I now refuse to be photographed standing by trees." So why this trouble over a $1 swivel? "When Giardello beat me in Atlantic City he promised that I would get a return fight in three months so I could try to get back the title I had held for a year," Tiger said. "A gentleman does what he says. I consider myself a gentleman. When I came to this country I met many nice people who were friendly and kind to me. But if I had met Joey Giardello first, I'm not so sure I would have liked any Americans."
Unable to locate a swivel, Giardello had to content himself with lunging at the light bag in the Garden basement. For nearly four days now Joey had begun to suspect that at 35 he was not the Giardello he once was, and his pawing at the clumsy bag did little to bolster his ego. He had boxed 170 rounds and run 130 miles in training, more work than he used to do for 10 fights. His legs felt good, but 18 years of boxing and 128 bouts had done something to his once-smooth combinations. Giardello seemed capable of throwing only one punch at a time.
When Joey was told that Tiger had refused him the use of the swivel he retorted with some terse Italian epithets. Finally he said, "He's just trying to get me mad like some of his people did in Atlantic City by waving feathers and a bag of bones at me. Those——witch doctors! But he ain't goin' to get me mad. I know Tiger is too old to change his spots—too old."
Moments later Giardello went to look at the ring. In a tableau that Grade B dramatists have strained countless times to capture, he stood and stared up at the empty tiers of seats in the silent hall. An immaculate white towel hooded his head and partly concealed his face, which looks like a wrinkled fender. There was something grotesquely beautiful about him. Joey shadowboxed around the edges of the ring, but always he came back to the center. "Here is where I will fight him," he said. "Right here in the middle. Just like before. But the floor feels soft here. They'll have to fix it."
They gave the floor more support under the center of the ring, but it was not enough to support Joey, who had made two false assumptions. First, Tiger had changed, even if by only one stripe. Second, Giardello did not get to fight his fight in the center of the ring. In five weeks of working under new Trainer Chickie Ferrara, Tiger had developed a left jab. "You cannot change too much of a man's style when he has had as many fights as Dick has had," said Ferrara. "The easiest thing to teach is the jab, so that's what we taught him." It was a small thing, but meaningful in a fight between adversaries who knew each other so well—they had fought three times before.
Right from the first round, Tiger flicked jab after jab at Giardello. The jabs, not punishing in themselves, upset Giardello's counterpunching, and set up Tiger's familiar and best punch, his left hook. Every time that Giardello appeared set to start a serious attack of his own, Tiger would jab him out of it. Giardello has long relied on clinches to stop an attacker and steal rounds, but Referee Johnny LoBianco was breaking the clinches up quickly, and this didn't help Joey either. Finally, it was not until the fifth round—which he won—that Giardello was able to use the center of the ring the way he wanted to. By constantly boring ahead, Tiger had been able to keep Giardello close to the ropes and, therefore, in trouble.
With Tiger so relentless and Giardello still able to produce periods of the deftness that made him famous, the fight was an excellent one that kept 17,000 fans alert and shouting. From a far corner there even came the sound of an apesi, a Nigerian drum. Played by a friend of Tiger's, it beat constantly, and its message was "keep punchin'." In turn, Giardello's fans from Philadelphia started chanting "Hey, hey, take it away," in the ninth round when Joey seemed to rally, but there was very little that Giardello could do to take anything away. As the fight moved toward the 15th round, his combinations had totally disappeared, his legs looked stiff and Tiger's jab was keeping him from ever getting a chance to throw the big right hand that would knock Tiger out. Giardello was courageous, as he always has been, and he was thoroughly beaten, as he hasn't often been. The referee's decision was for Tiger 9-5-1. The judges had it 10-5 and 8-6-1.
In his dressing room after the fight Tiger looked like a woodcut print of a boxer, while Giardello, sitting on a table across the arena, lifted his mashed profile and announced, rather proudly, his retirement. "I am willing to fight any challenger now," said Tiger—that two-year wait still rankled. "But I also want money. I have fought many fights for little money, and now I want a good big gate." There are several potential contenders who would draw such a gate, and immediately after his victory Tiger began to get offers by wire. Lew Burston, an American representative for Tiger and a man who once capsuled a Ray Robinson upset by saying "Sugar Ray still had Paris in his legs," summed up Tiger's freshly earned position of eminence in the current boxing revival with, "The ugly duckling has now become a beautiful swan."