In this corner is Richard Ihetu, alias Dick Tiger. At 39 years of age—he will be 40 on August 14—Tiger is the oldest champion in boxing. He is also probably the oldest 2nd lieutenant in the army of Biafra, the secessionist African state fighting for its independence from Nigeria. In the other corner is Bob Foster, 29, an explosive puncher who used to work, fittingly, in a bomb factory. Foster is 6'3½"; Tiger is 5'8". Tiger likes to work inside, brutalizing the body so the head will collapse, while Foster prefers to flatten an opponent with a single blow. Both men are aggressive to the extreme, and their fight for the light heavyweight title on May 24 in Madison Square Garden promises to be a war.
For Dick Tiger there is another war, the turmoil and terror between Biafra and Nigeria. Early last March, Tiger left Biafra to start training in Manhattan for the Foster fight. He works out weekdays in the New Garden Gym, a walk-up sweatbox on Eighth Avenue, and he passes his off-hours watching TV in his West Side hotel room, window-shopping, writing letters and promoting the cause of Biafra. In his dressing cubicle at the gym, a patriotic poster proclaims the "Days to Remember," such as the massacre of Biafrans in northern Nigeria on May 28, 1966. Tiger is so committed to the cause of Biafran independence that it dismays his co-manager, Jersey Jones. Not long ago, after Tiger had finished giving an interview, Jones stuck his head in the cubicle. "Are you still talking about that Nigerian-Biafran mess?" Jones asked. "Why don't you talk about the fight?"
Softly Tiger said, "Without Biafra, the championship title is no good to me. Without Biafra, my title is nothing."
"C'mon, Dick," Jones said in a gentle tone. "Forget about Biafra. Bring your wife and kids over here and settle down."
May 19, 1968
"The United States is a very good country, a very nice country," Tiger replied, "but Biafra is my home. I was born in Biafra. I will die in Biafra."
Jones turned away silently.
The most compelling fact in Dick Tiger's life now is not his pressing ring style or his relatively advanced age but that he is an Ibo. The Ibos are the Biafrans. Biafra used to be part of Nigeria, which was an invention of colonial Britain. It was not a single nation but a conglomeration of peoples stuffed inside a boundary line determined by the Great Powers of the 19th century. When the British gave up their hold on Nigeria about seven years ago, the Ibos, 12 million strong, were one of the peoples who made up the new country. Energetic and enterprising, the Ibos were the businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers and doers of Nigeria. "Ibo people are not lazy people," Tiger says proudly. "Whatever we are doing, we put all our effort there. If we are studying, we study very hard. We like peace. We like to be jovial. We don't get angry very quick. We play, we laugh and we are good business people. And we respect law. Sometimes God watch for us."
Originally native to eastern Nigeria, the Ibos spread throughout all Nigeria, and their spirit of enterprise often aroused envy or hostility. The Ibos, moreover, are largely English-speaking Christians. Tiger, his wife and their seven children are Anglicans. By contrast, the Hausas of northern Nigeria, the rivals of the Ibos, are Arabic-speaking Moslems who have little truck with newfangled ways. As a result, the short, unhappy history of independent Nigeria has been mostly a struggle between Ibo and Hausa.
In the spring and fall of 1966 the Hausas turned on the Ibos who had settled in the north. The massacres were appalling. "They killed both soldiers and civilians," Tiger says. "About 30,000. They chased everybody from the east. All of them run home." In between massacres the Hausas also overthrew and shot General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Ibo who was the Nigerian chief of state. (Six months previously, General Ironsi had overthrown the Hausa-oriented regime of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.) In May 1967 the Ibos decided that they had had enough of Nigeria. Eastern Nigeria, the Ibo homeland, set itself up as the independent republic of Biafra, so named after a bay on the coast.
Ever since then the Nigerian government, dominated by northerners, has been warring against Biafra in an attempt to end the secession. Biafra has managed to hold out, but the fighting has been vicious, heightened by religious animosities. The Biafrans accuse the Nigerians of conducting a jihad, or Moslem holy war, against them. "They believe that killing me as a Christian will make them go to heaven," says Tiger. "The whole northerners feel that way."
Tiger had to leave Biafra last fall for his fight with Roger Rouse, but when he returned home in December he promptly joined the Biafran army. "I volunteered," he says, "because everybody there have to do something." Though he has not been called upon to fight, he has helped to condition troops. Most of Tiger's money from past fights is tied up in real-estate holdings in Lagos, the Hausa-held Nigerian capital. He does not know if he will ever get his investments back, but Biafran independence comes first. "What I am doing now is to box," he says, "and whatever little money I get I try to donate to the war effort." In addition, Tiger has helped care for the wounded after bombing raids on Aba, his home town, and Ogui. "One day they killed about 100 in Ogui because over there they have an open market," he says. "In that open market the Nigerian bombers come and throw bombs about three times, and they killed over 100 persons that very day. I wasn't there, but as soon as it was announced we went there with the car to try to help and carry the bodies." According to Tiger, the Nigerians are using Egyptian pilots to fly British planes against Biafra. The Russians, who were said to be helping Nigeria, are supposed to have left, Tiger says. Presumably Nigeria did not look like a winner. So far only two countries, Tanzania and Gabon, have recognized Biafra, but Tiger believes others would if Biafra's story were known.
Tiger is a constant but unhappy reader of The New York Times. "The agent they have is in Lagos, and he writes what the Lagos people tell him," Tiger says. "He doesn't even come to Biafra. He doesn't know what is happening. When the [Nigerian] soldiers from the front go back, whatever they tell him is sent over here. He say, 'Nigeria did this.' But this is nothing. He didn't even see it himself." To Tiger, Nigerian victory claims are ridiculous. "Even now our troops are over into Nigeria," he says. "We are fighting them back with ammunition we got from them. Whatever happens, Biafra will never give up. This is a war of survival. If they left only one person, that person must fight until he dies. That is our country. They can't make me run away from my country. It's better that I die there than to carry my children and start running."
When the war began, Nigeria cut off communications to Biafra and imposed a naval blockade. In order to get to New York, Tiger flies out by an undisclosed route. "When we leave Biafra," he says, "I just go straight on until they drop me. When the plane is in the air and I'm flying, I don't know anything except that I'm going to New York." Since arriving in New York this time, he has written several letters to his wife, but he has yet to receive an answer. He is especially concerned because he has heard that the Nigerians bombed St. Michael's Church in Aba on a Sunday. When Tiger is at home, he and his wife attend St. Michael's.
With the war at home preying on Tiger's mind, the question arises whether he will be able to bring the necessary concentration to bear in his fight with Foster. Tiger believes he can. "Every man has worry of his own," he says. "If I carry my worry into the ring, that's no good. That might result bad. So now I'm worried, but when I step into the ring I forget about everything and mind what is in front of me. Then after that I come out of the ring." Neither does his age seem a problem to him in the encounter with Foster. "I feel fine," he says. "I want to fight until I'm 45, to be the champion until the age of 45. I'm serious."
Of Foster, he shrugs and says, "He's one of the fighters. When I go into the ring I say, 'another payday.' I just go in, and I just throw punches. People who watch me fight, they know my style. I keep going. I have fought those who can jab, so it's no news to me. I'll fight him my way. I have to go in to fight him underneath. That is my style of fighting. He'll try to keep me outside, but I won't let him. I don't care how tall or how big a fighter is. When I get a good punch, I say that's nothing. No matter how hard they punch, I punch better. Nervous? Years ago, yes, but not now. I'm too old."
Foster is scarcely just another fighter. Besides having the height and reach on Tiger, he will have weight, a well-muscled 174 or 175. By comparison, Tiger is expected to come in at around 168, and Foster's manager, Mushky Salow, rates Tiger as only a heavy middleweight. In the trade, Foster has such a reputation as a deadly puncher that he is treated as an opponent to be avoided. Last year, Salow says, Jimmy Ellis, now the World Boxing Association heavyweight champion, turned down an offer to fight him. Indeed, Tiger's camp agreed to make the match for the light heavyweight title only after getting a $100,000 guarantee.
If it had not been for Salow's handling, Foster would still be getting the runaround and working in York, Pa. "This guy's a lifesaver," Foster says of his manager. "He took me out of the bomb factory."
Foster has had 33 professional fights and has won 29, 23 by knockouts, mostly in the early rounds. "The minute I see an opening I just let the punch go," he says. Raised in Albuquerque, he turned down a football scholarship at the University of New Mexico to enlist in the Air Force. As a youngster, Foster had won the local Golden Gloves featherweight title, and in the service he resumed boxing. He had 101 fights, winning 89 by knockouts. After five years in the Air Force he turned pro, won his first nine and then stepped out of his class in both weight and experience to fight Doug Jones on short notice. "I needed the money," Foster says. Jones, then the No. 2 heavyweight contender, won by a KO in the eighth. (Previously, in the Air Force, Foster had beaten Jones by a decision.) Foster knocked out his next two opponents and then began getting the runaround. He had to go to Lima, Peru to take on Mauro Mina. He clobbered Mina, so much so that Mina suffered a detached retina, but the Peruvians gave Mina the decision. Back in the States, Foster won three more (KO 3, KO 1, KO 1). Then he overreached again against Ernie Terrell, who scored a seventh-round technical. After seven straight victories (six of them KOs), he lost a 10-round decision to Zora Folley.
By this time Foster decided he was going nowhere. He took a job at the American Machine & Foundry factory in York. "I was bringing home $150 a week," he says. "My wife was working as a cook in a hospital, and she was bringing home $162. I forgot all about fighting. I didn't see where I needed fighting if I wasn't going anyplace. So I just forgot about it and set my mind to working and taking care of my four kids."
Enter Mushky Salow of Hartford, Conn. Now 49, Mushky may be described as a sportsman or, as he succinctly puts it, a "former vending-machine magnate." Without benefit of rehearsal, he probably could replace Stubby Kaye in Guys and Dolls. Mushky has been in and out of boxing since he managed Willie Pep as an amateur. His last fighter was Red Top Davis, a featherweight contender of a dozen years ago. Mushky had first heard of Foster when Al Weill raved about him as the next heavyweight champion. Weill did not sign Foster—another manager did—but Mushky stayed at a discreet distance because, as he says, "Who's gonna interfere with anything that Weill started out to do?"
Mushky followed Foster's career, and, when Foster went to work at the bomb factory, Mushky stepped in. He knew about Foster's defeats, but he blamed them on bad managing. "Do you t'row a guy with nine professional fights in with a top contender?" Mushky asks. "Do you t'row him in with Ernie Terrell, to boot, who had maybe 30 pounds on him, in his 17th fight?"
Mushky bought Foster's contract from a lawyer for $4,000 in October 1966 and began a training program. A German promoter offered $5,000 for a fight in Berlin, but Mushky turned it down. Mushky says, "I told Bob, 'You'll be fighting for the title if you listen to me.' So now I put him in Norfolk, Va. with Leroy Green, and he got $300 or something. He came over to me after the fight and he says, 'Jesus, I think you know what you're doin'.' I say, 'Why do you say that?' He says, 'You know when I entered the ring,' he says, I wasn't quite sure of myself,' he says, 'but you get anybody for me now. I can fight again.' "
Mushky matched Foster with Slim Jim Robinson, who went out in one after "a short bomb," and then Andres Selpa, the South American light heavyweight champ, who disappeared in two. Foster hit Selpa with, in Mushky's joyous words, "a left hook in the belly. The guy screeched—you could hear him—like a guy shot." Eddie Cotton was next. Foster had Cotton down in the first, but then Eddie covered up for the second and part of the third. Frustrated at being unable to find a conventional opening, Foster struck Cotton on the top of the skull with a left hook, and Cotton sank like a clubbed ox. "After that," says Mushky, "we were waiting for the one shot with Tiger."
To hear Mushky and Foster talk, Foster will take the light heavyweight title and then the heavyweight championship as well. "Ain't nothin' out there," Foster says. He admits Tiger is a good fighter ("I give the old man a lot of respect"), but he is not about to be pressed by him. "I don't back up for nobody," Foster says. "Somebody is going to go. I say within six or seven rounds." For Dick Tiger, there appear to be two wars of survival, one back home in Biafra, the other in the Garden next week.
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