The bantamweight champion of the world hails from the vicinity of Drouin, a village in Gippsland at the southernmost lump of Australia, about 50 miles out of Melbourne and within sight of Mount Baw Baw. A few Australian sportswriters have come to call him the Drouin Dazzler, but his given name—Lionel Rose—is far more lyrical. Indeed, it has such a gracious, proper sound that it evokes vague visions of Kipling's pukka colonels, of dove-gray top hats and spats at Ascot Heath, of little tsk-tsks over tea about how positively crook it is that Queen Victoria's empire has fallen into such disrepair. Of course, there is seldom any truth in the sound of a name. Lionel Rose is an aborigine, the first of his race ever to be world champion of anything, and he is only 19 years old, at that.
The night Lionel Rose won the championship, last February 27, he was in Tokyo, 5,000 miles away from Drouin, in the elaborate, pagoda-shaped Nippon Budokan Hall, which is on a hill bordering the grounds of the Imperial Palace. The man he defeated was Masahiko (Fighting) Harada, a tough if grossly oversized bantamweight (he had to shed some 30 pounds before he fought Rose), who had held the 118-pound title for nearly three years. The fight was not televised, but all across Australia that night people clung to their radios as if the ringside announcer were Winston Churchill. And when Lionel Rose was awarded the championship, the continent went wild, for Australia has had only one world boxing titlist, and that noble fellow, another bantamweight named Jimmy Carruthers, retired in 1954. Women wept over Lionel Rose and men shouted. Autos pulled off the road so strangers could embrace in the headlight beams and the Prime Minister sent Rose a wire of congratulations. There was elation among nearly all of Australia's 12 million citizens that night.
But among the nation's 130,000 aborigines, Lionel Rose was Hercules, Charles Lindbergh and the Messiah all rolled into one. Men danced in the streets outside soot-stained brick houses in the Redfern slums of Sydney. They fired guns into the air near the tumbledown settlements of bark huts in the dry Todd River bed outside Alice Springs. They threw their hats in the air around drovers' camp-fires on the vast cattle stations of the outback. And they toasted Lionel Rose in long draughts of goom (liquor) in the shabby living rooms of welfare-board houses from Darwin to Drouin. For them, Rose's moment of victory was a millennium, a glimpse of Valhalla from a valley of squalor, a vicarious justification of the hope that their own futures might rise beyond futility.
The people of Lionel Rose, the kooris as they call themselves, are for the most part a docile, downtrodden lot. They have inhabited Australia for some 20,000 years, a tenaciously primitive race that clung to its Stone Age ways long after the descendants of Australia's original convict-colonists had settled in and updated the continent with the ugly accoutrements of progress—wire fences and power lines and factory smokestacks. A few aborigines have made it profitably in the white man's world, as ministers, teachers, insurance agents. And a handful of Australia's kooris still live the prehistoric nomadic existence, roaming the blazing hot reaches of the outback and Arnhem Land with boomerangs and spears, stalking wallabies, lizards, birds and mice for food, subsisting on roots or wood grubs when the game is scarce. They are called The Nakeds. But the great majority of Lionel Rose's people live in an even more uncertain world, bereft of their old simplicity and utterly dependent on the well-intended but inevitably demeaning charity of the white man's welfare board. A lot of them are what Australians call the No Hopers. It has been said that the aborigine crouches on an island of rubbish between two worlds, that of his ancestral blackfellows and the new progressiveness of whitefellow ways.
June 23, 1968
One morning not long ago Lionel Rose was driving his car, a conservative 1967 Holden station wagon that he jauntily calls a "chariot," along a two-lane highway near Drouin (rhymes with spoon), and he was humming songs like Memories Are Made of This, Way Back Home and Sentimental Journey. He was steering rather casually with one hand and holding a pipe to his mouth with the other; he inhaled the bitter smoke as if it were country-fresh air. He is a handsome little fellow, with coal-black wavy hair, a huge sunny smile and boyish features that reflect only vestiges of the brooding, broad-nosed look of his ancestors. Like most kooris, Lionel is not a full-blood, although he is considered more than a half-caste (which exempts him from the draft). As he drove, he carried on a running commentary about the lush, green landscape. "See that field? My granny used to pick peas there. She'd carry me on her back when I was a little bloke. She and I are great mates. She used to hitchhike with me into Melbourne to see the fights."
The dairy farms along the road were as prettily cultivated as anything in southern Wisconsin, but he kept referring to them as "the bush," a term Australians use for anything rural. "See that hill," he said. "I like to hunt rabbits there. I drive down here once or twice a week, you know, to get away from the hubbub in Melbourne. Sometimes I don't even bring my rifle; I just go into the bush to hear the birds sing. They say that aborigine blokes go mad with homesickness if they're away for long, but I think I come back just to get away from it all." He speaks with the soft, quasi-Cockney accent common to Australia (eight becomes "ite," but all the "aitches" get said), and his grammar, syntax and vocabulary require no laundering to put them in print as reasonably immaculate Queen's English.
As he drove into Drouin (pop. 1,638), a neat little place that looks like an Australian counterpart of Gopher Prairie, Lionel said, "They think of me as just 'Slim Rose' down here. In Melbourne I don't go to the football matches because little boys climb over people's backs in the stadium to touch me, you know, but in Drouin I'm just a cheeky aborigine kid."
Rose lives in Melbourne (pop. 2,228,000) now, in an unlikely ménage with Jack Rennie, a printer who is his manager, Rennie's wife, Shirley, and their two little boys. When Lionel is in Drouin he visits his mother and some of his brothers and sisters (he is the eldest of nine); his father died five years ago, and the widowed Regina Rose now lives with her brood in a sturdy-looking, but rather slovenly kept house that is supplied by the welfare board. She is a shy, childlike woman who is in her mid-30s but looks older. She has become fairly accustomed to the questions of reporters now, but she speaks to strangers with downcast eyes and an almost inaudible voice. During this visit of Lionel's, she was talking about his childhood. "Oh, yes, he was a lively chap, you know. He used to play away the days. He'd come home and tell me everything that happened in school that day, and then the teacher'd stop by and ask me where he had been. Me husband paid fines twice because Lionel stayed away from school, and the third time he couldn't afford it and me husband was in jail for 48 hours." Lionel scoffed and said, "They didn't even lock the door. They told him he could go home if he cleaned the place up, didn't they?" She smiled and said softly, "I suppose maybe he was teaching you a lesson."
From Drouin, Lionel Rose drove out into the bush, along meandering dirt roads, and then he turned into a badly rutted track. "My uncle lives up here," he said. "He runs a sawmill where I used to live when I worked with him." After a jouncing half mile, he stopped the car in the yard before a squat, crude house made of rough-cut planks that had turned dark gray in the weather. A few pigs wandered amiably about outside the building, moving easily around the rusting hulks of a couple of auto bodies in the yard. Beyond the house lay a tumbled assortment of other gray lumber structures with tilted beams and a patchwork of board roofs and walls hammered up in a splendid, random manner. "That's the sawmill and those are barns for the pigs," he said. He gazed at the buildings, and a broad smile appeared on his face. "My uncle was not renowned for his carpentry," he said.
His uncle was not there but his Aunty Euphy was and she came out of the house with a jolly chuckle that showed her pink gums and offered a hearty invitation to tea. The interior of Aunty Euphy's home was dark although it was noon. A small cooking fire flickered in a rough cement fireplace, and there was a box of garbage near the door with a friendly swarm of flies above it. Some of the furniture was made from the same weathered lumber and with the same unique skill as the buildings outside. The bantamweight champion of the world sipped at tea from a cracked cup, then strode to a dusty shelf and said, "Hey, you must have 50 pounds worth of silver here." Astonishingly, out of the darkness there appeared a massive assortment of silver trophies, plaques, statuettes and cups. They seemed as out of place in Aunty Euphy's as a Rolls-Royce on Tobacco Road, but Lionel said casually, "My cousins are the badminton champions of Australia."
Tea with Aunty Euphy over, Lionel Rose drove a mile or so from the sawmill to a dirt road called Jackson's Track. He stopped the car at a brushy patch of land by the roadside; it was shaded by a stand of white-barked eucalyptus trees, and there was a tangle of hip-high weeds. Nothing else, really. Lionel gestured with his pipe through the car window and said, "Well, there it is—my boyhood home." He chuckled. "How cheeky can a kid get? I used to tell my mates when we lived here that they'd put up a monument' to me someday. Something with a plaque, you know, that says: HERE SAT THE LITTLE TIN-ROOFED BUNGALOW OF THE FAMED LIONEL ROSE. I see they haven't got around to it yet."
The scrub plot along Jackson's Track, maybe 17 miles out of Drouin, was Rose's birthplace. He spent the first 10 years of his life there, living in a "humpy," one of the patchwork huts that aborigines have been building of bark slabs cut from the stringybark tree since before man invented the sundial. A roof of rust-corrugated iron and bits of burlap bags had been added to the typical humpy by the time Lionel was born, but he grew up knowing the taste of meat taken from the bush—possum, rabbit, wallaby. The staple of his diet was damper, a heavy flatbread baked in the coals of a fire. There was no running water, no electricity. Kerosene lamps, candles or the light from his mother's cooking fire illuminated the hut at night. The floor was packed dirt. When Lionel lived there the area teemed with people, close relatives of the Roses and a constantly changing population of kooris on "walkabout," the nomadic tradition that sent whole tribes moving through the countryside to find seasonal plants or fresh sources of game. There is no trace at all of that squalid little settlement at Jackson's Track. The weeds and the dust of the road have covered the square of trampled ground where Lionel Rose was reared. It is not a likely place for a monument.
"I suppose things were pretty crook for us there," he said on the drive back to Melbourne. "But I never felt particularly deprived, you know. Kids don't notice some things, I guess. But I'd never move back to the bush now. I'm different now. I've seen the other side of life."
Lionel Rose has made quite a lot of money already—roughly $60,000 in four years and 31 prizefights (two losses). It is enough to put him, as he says, "up in bank manager's class," which makes him a full-fledged Croesus by koori standards. Most of his fighting has been done in the parsimonious world of Australian boxing, which has been in a moribund state for years—with perfunctory medical examinations (little more than a cold stethoscope and a warm handshake from the doctor), strangling return-bout contracts with small-time promoters, stingy purses that rarely reach five figures.
Indeed, Lionel got only $7,500 for his title fight in Tokyo against Harada because he was a little-known, last-minute substitute, but the future could be paved with gold. His first defense will be in Tokyo again, on July 2 against Takao Sakurai, and Lionel's piece of the action will be around $40,000. On the assumption that he will win—as he is favored to do—there is already dickering under way for a fight within six months or so in Los Angeles, possibly against Jesus Pimentel, and the talking guarantee for Lionel is a neat $50,000.
Oddly enough, all that money has created a dilemma that only an aborigine would face. It is timeless tradition among kooris that whatever possessions one has are to be cheerfully shared with members of his Family Group, and to the aborigines The Group extends far beyond Mum, Dad and the kids. Lionel figures he has 2,000 "close" relatives. Under old aboriginal custom, his boxing money would be considered mutual property of the lot of them. Once the purity of such socialism was admirable and essential, for about all any koori had to share was food and shelter, the raw materials of survival.
With the advice of the Rennies, as well as various experts on aboriginal affairs, Lionel has not given his mother a lot of cash or a lavish home or spent huge amounts on her or his brothers and sisters, although he does send some money regularly, buys them clothes and pays boarding-school costs for his sister, Lynette, 13. "It's not a matter of selfishness," says Lionel. "But if I gave my mother $1,000 every koori in miles would hear of it. She'd feel she had to share and it would vanish in a week. A lot of those chaps wandering up and down the road are bludges; you have bludges in the white race, too—they muck up their lives and when they get something they expect more and more. If I bought my mother a new house, there'd be so many people around that the kids wouldn't get proper care."
Rose's investments now are carefully planned—some real estate, government bonds, life insurance and a tiny sandwich shop in Melbourne. A big seller there is the Lionel Rose Steak Sandwich, The Sandwich with a Punch. The purpose of the place, besides profit, is for Lionel to learn the principles of operating a business, and he spends six to eight hours a day there as a rule. "I make sandwiches and keep the fridges full and cut meat," he said. "If we run out of something, I buy stuff on the street. I make sure we don't get cheated. I don't do the Jack Dempsey handshaking bit in my place."
Even a modest sandwich shop is a universe or two away from Jackson's Track, of course, and Lionel Rose is still a boy: he was just 19 years and eight months when he became champion (the youngest in modern history except for Harada, who was two months Rose's junior when he won the flyweight title in 1962). He never finished the sixth grade, and when it comes to mathematics he simply throws up his hands and says, "Ah, I'm useless on that." On the surface, he would seem ripe for exploitation, a rich, defenseless target for boxing's avaricious predators. It has happened before to dozens of aboriginal boxers, many of whom were superb fighters—perhaps as good as Lionel Rose—and still wound up battered and broke. Indeed, if there was any ambivalence among kooris about Lionel's championship, it was a sense of sadness that other fine aboriginal fighters before him had never been given the same chance. Middleweight Dave Sands beat Bobo Olson every time they fought, but never got a title bout; when Sands was killed 15½ years ago in a timber truck that overturned and crushed him he had $5 to his name. Ron Richards held four titles in Australia (middle-through cruiserweight) and beat Gus Lesnevich in his prime; Richards died an incoherent drunk at the age of 54. And Elly Bennett, once Australia's bantamweight champion, who won $35,000 as a fighter but was denied a shot at the world title of South African Vic Toweel because of that country's apartheid policy, was arrested just last month in Sydney and convicted of being a vagrant. The warning is obvious to Lionel Rose, and he is well aware of it.
But he is an uncommonly sensible young man anyway, for he has an instinctive dignity and a realistic sense of his own worth that belies his age—as well as his past and his profession. There is nothing of the pug about him, none of the swaggering air of dummy royalty in which some boxers indulge themselves. And there is no trace of either the resignation or the bitter rage that deep poverty stamps on so many. "I have come out of myself a lot in the last couple of years," said Rose. "I used to be shy, you know, sitting mum for an hour or two with other people. I enjoy conversation now. Of course, the championship gives me an extra confidence. But I can look a person in the eye now, and I'm usually able to tell myself whether he's a dinkum fellow or just another backslapper. No one knew me when I was just another koori looking for a quid, and they all know me now. I'm getting to know them, too, though—the good blokes, the earbashers who just want to say something to a champion, the sharks who want to fleece you."
As it is now, the sharks would die—of boredom, if not malnutrition—in the environment of Lionel Rose. Jack and Shirley Rennie live in Essendon, a rather dowdy suburb of Melbourne, in a small, weathered-yellow bungalow on Marco Polo Street. It is wedged within a monotonous urban landscape of similar bungalows set in low-roofed ranks unsoftened by tall trees. The neighborhood, though quite clean, is one of those strangely sullen sections that somehow seem sunless even on clear, cool mornings. The homes reflect more the sweat and fatigue that went into paying for them than the owners' pride in possessing them. Once there was a brickyard behind Marco Polo Street, but that is now a ragged open field (although the Brickmaker Arms Hotel is still in business a couple of blocks away). The Rennies' house is fenced tightly away from view and visitations of their neighbors (as are all the houses on Marco Polo Street), and on the fence along the driveway there is a small sign, no bigger than a meat platter, that says in dimmed letters: BOXING TAUGHT.
Jack Rennie, 38, is a blocky, pallid whitefellow with a gentle mien; he has worked for the same job-printing firm for 11 years and is now production manager there. He was once a contender for the welterweight championship of Victoria, and he has managed young fighters as a spare-time hobby for years. "We are profiting nicely, of course, with Lionel," he said, "but I'd never quit my job; boxing is too chancy. And we like the quiet life here. We've lived here since we were married and I suppose we'll die here." Shirley Rennie is considerably more volatile than her husband. She is a nicely rounded woman in her 30s, and she is quite capable of speaking her mind. "Lionel," she may snap at the world champion, "take those paws off my curtains! You fancy-pants big shot! Do you think this is a locker room?" Lionel grins and does pretty much as Shirley tells him.
Lionel has lived with the Rennies for four years now; he first traveled up from Drouin on weekends to spar with Rennie's fighters, finally turned up one day with a suitcase and a smile. He said, "Hi, Shirl, I'm here." He did not pay for his board and room, and he brought in almost nothing from boxing. "I was well and truly out of pocket for a couple of years there," said Jack Rennie. He now takes 25% of Lionel's purses (which puts him near "bank manager's class," too), but he has no stake in earnings from endorsements or public appearances. "You wouldn't take it from your son, would you?" asked Shirley.
There are a few critics who wonder if the Rennies are tough-minded enough to wring the financial maximum out of Lionel's earning potential as champion, but most people feel that, for now, the steadiness of their home is worth more to Rose than the profit that might be lost through their inexperience.
Around the Rennies' there is no sign of status symbol or social pretense. The living-room-wall plaster is cracked here and there, the orangy pastel paint has not been freshened for years, and the carpet is dark, dark gray and very worn. Frequently the house is filled with the smell of frying steak, and the television flickers and blats almost constantly in a corner of the living room. The Rennies' sons—Mark, 12, who is red-haired and freckled, and John, 9, who is pale and dark-haired—are utterly unimpressed with Lionel Rose; they have been known to put up a stormy battle against him over whose turn it is to select the TV programs for the night. Occasionally they will sit, apparently interested if not overwhelmed, while he strums his guitar, singing country and western ballads—My Pal Alcohol, I'm Movin' On and Rollin' Stone. His alltime favorite radio program is Grand Ole Opry—which he has heard only once on an armed-forces station when he was in Tokyo.
At the Rennies' the aura of unrelenting domesticity extends even into Lionel's training hours. Behind the house there is a low, gray, boxy structure made of wallboard and corrugated iron. It is situated a few feet from the outdoor toilet booth and the shower stall, which are attached to the house. By the look of it, the building could pass for a kind of Gasoline Alley garage, where neighbors gather to clean carburetors and play pinochle, but it is Jack Rennie's gym. He put it up himself a few years ago, and the neighbors have never complained because, as Shirley puts it, "We allow no louts in there; it is part of our home."
In that particular part of the home Lionel skips rope over the worn plank floor, thuds punches into the heavy bag hanging from the low wooden rafters, flicks his quick fists at the little bag bouncing in front of a large sign that says: BOXERS! NO SMOKING WHILST IN TRAINING. (Of course Lionel does smoke whilst in training. Rennie confided, "We got Lionel to get shut of the ciggies after he moved in with us; the crazy bloke had been smoking 30 a day since he was 10. He can't get along without his pipe though.") Rennie's homemade sparring ring is a tiny patch of padded canvas surrounded by drooping ropes and, despite some fluorescent lights up under the tin roof, the whole place seems quite gloomy. Also crowded. When the champion is working out, the wall is apt to be lined with a gaggle of gaping teen-age hopefuls and occasionally Rennie's little boys will appear, scrubbed and pajama'd after their nightly tub, and one of them just might throw a fierce roundhouse or two at the big bag when Lionel has finished. It is certainly no place for louts.
On Marco Polo Street it is easy to forget that Lionel Rose is an Australian star of great magnitude, a national byword for Hero. Just two weeks ago Queen Elizabeth named him on her birthday honors list, awarding him an M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire). The pallid inhabitants of a thousand pubs toast him in endless draughts of heavenly, tangy beer; 10,000 little boys demand that their mothers buy Sunkist ice cream or Riverland oranges or a Land Rover car because Lionel Rose endorses them; members of Parliament make speeches declaring that he is a splendid bloke, a bloody credit to Commonwealth and Queen. His name appeared in red, black and purple headlines four inches high when he won the title (IT'S ROSE!). His life story has been serialized in the country's leading papers. His brief days have been chronicled in television documentaries. A record called The Ballad of Lionel Rose has bleated steadily over radio stations for weeks.
And when he returned from Tokyo last February, Melbourne gave him a homecoming reception unprecedented in history. For eight miles—from the airport to Town Hall—some 250,000 people milled in tumultuous masses along the streets of that city, shouting "Good on ya, Lionel! You beaut little Australian! Good on ya!" They say that no Prime Minister, no royal tour, no other celebrity—not Lyndon Johnson, not even the Beatles—pulled such crowds as Lionel did that day.
It may be difficult for American boxing fans to understand such enthusiasm for a mere bantamweight champion; to them any holder of a title below the middleweight division is about as anonymous as a freeway toll booth collector. One reason for Australia's outburst, of course, is that champions have been so rare. Another is that it is a nation of sports fanatics. And there may have been a subtler, yet more significant, compulsion behind that tremendous reception, too. Gordon Bryant, a white-maned federal Member of Parliament from the Melbourne area and a longtime national gadfly about aboriginal inequities, said, "I doubt that any whitefella champion would have got that crowd. There is, I think, a strong sense of guilt among many Australians toward our treatment of aborigines. That may have been a force in effect for Lionel that day."
There truly is a new uneasiness in Australia about racial unrest, triggered mostly by troubles in the U.S. and Britain. The concern doesn't seem entirely logical, for Australia is a white man's continent. An oddly striking thing there is that you can walk for, say, 50 blocks in teeming cities like Sydney or Melbourne and look at maybe 10,000 faces and the chances are good that you will not see one face that is not white. For nearly 70 years the Commonwealth has rigidly restricted the immigration of nonwhites. Australians say it is not apartheid, merely a matter of trying to avoid a large population of unemployed or unemployables from Asia or Africa. Be it hard-headed realism or covert racism, the policy has kept Australia quite complacent in racial affairs. And the chance of rebellion exploding out of the nation's population of aborigines seems remote.
Bold and ferocious as the classic koori features appear, the aborigines have generally been compliant, unaggressive, easily rebuffed and remarkably fatalistic. Unlike the American Indian, the kooris seldom fought the gubba (white man) for their territories; when settlers moved in they simply scuttled off to the edge of the white man's land, foraging there with increasing desperation and finally eking out a scavenger's existence from the gubba's leavings. Despite their docility kooris were slaughtered by the thousands. Whites massacred them from ambush, poisoned their waterholes, killed many more by spreading gubba diseases such as syphilis. As recently as the 1930s it was not unknown for whites to organize a Sunday jaunt into the bush to track and gun down whichever they happened to see first—an animal or an aborigine.
Still, most white Australians have had the aborigines on their consciences, even though policies toward them have not been notably enlightened. Around 1900 kooris were assumed to be near extinction, and a Smooth the Dying Pillow policy was instituted to give them free homes and handouts; this ultimately became what critics call "the dole and control" welfare-board approach of the present—giving kooris enough to survive, but generally leaving them in the bush out of the white man's sight. "It's not raw racism that works against them. There is less a revulsion against their colored skin among whites than a distaste for their casual approach to hygiene," said Stan Davey of the Aboriginal Advancement League of Victoria. "Some of them don't understand the importance of modern sanitation."
Of course, Lionel Rose has great potential as a spokesman, even as an educator, for the more backward kooris; but at the moment he's not particularly interested in exercising that potential. The Rennies have discouraged his involvement in what they call "the politics," and Lionel himself says, "I consider myself an Australian first and an aborigine second. We're all Australians together, you know. Whatever contribution other people think I could make to kooris I think the best one now is being a respectable bloke—whether I was champion or not."
Someday he may see his role as a celebrated aborigine somewhat differently. For now, he is considerably more effective doing the one thing he does best—boxing. And if anyone ever was born to the ring, Lionel Rose was. He has pursued a world championship with a singlemindedness that borders on obsession, and he began when he was still a toddler on Jackson's Track. His father and his uncles and his cousins used to ramble on by the hour around the camp-fire, refighting the days when they were tent-show boxers, rugged, brawling men who crisscrossed the bush with carnivals. Lionel would sit in the gloom beyond the firelight and listen. His father, Roy, had been a "gee-man," the fellow whose job it was to precede the show to a town by a day or two and "gee" the yokels in the pubs into believing he was a tough little stranger just passing through. When the show arrived Roy Rose would have a large group of locals who paid their way into the tent to watch him challenge a fighter from the carnival. "All the fights were fake, of course," said Lionel. "To be a good tent fighter you had to be able to pull a punch better than you threw one."
Not too long after he learned to walk, Lionel and a cousin used to "train" in the dust along Jackson's Track, sparring with their fists padded with rags in a ring made of fence wire stretched between eucalyptus trees. He heard his first fight broadcast while hiding in the weeds along the road. "My mate and I were sent to get a wireless one day—that was quite a luxury for kooris, you know, and we were told we'd be stropped if we turned it on and came back with the battery flat. We turned it on, of course, and it was the Marciano-Ezzard Charles fight from the States. We were hooked proper. Fortunately, it was a short fight and the battery held up." After that, he listened with his father and the crowd of ex-tent fighters to every bout that came over the radio. "They'd demonstrate how the punches looked as the broadcast went on," said Lionel. His father died of a heart attack when Lionel was 14; he had seen his son fight one amateur fight and had promised to go to Melbourne to watch him box in Festival Hall. The day his father was buried Lionel went to the funeral, then headed straight to Melbourne, fought and won that night. "Dad would have wanted me to," he said.
The first time Lionel Rose ever saw the city lights he was 10, one of a group of aboriginal kids given a few days in Melbourne by the Save the Children Fund. One of the high points was intended to take place in a department store (the first Lionel had ever seen) where he was to get a new suit (the first he had ever had). A newspaper photographer named Graham Walsh, assigned to cover the waifs' days in town, was struck by the nonchalance of the little boy from Drouin. "He just didn't seem to be very impressed with his first time in the city and all," recalled Walsh. "I started to talk with him, and in about 10 seconds, apropos of nothing at all, he said, 'Dave Sands is the greatest boxer of all time.' Then he told me that he really wanted most of all to see a fight. I thought what a pity for the little bloke to be up here and not see the one thing he cared about." So Walsh, a gentle, sensitive man who was once a fighter himself, took Lionel to a match and introduced him to a man who had become a kind of Captain Marvel to the kids on Jackson's Track—George Bracken, an aboriginal boxer who was then the lightweight champion of Australia.
Whenever Bracken fought in Melbourne after that, Lionel Rose would turn up unannounced on the doorstep of Graham Walsh, stay the weekend and spend hours quizzing Walsh's young wife, Mary, about the intricate history of boxing: "Who took Graziano in 1947? What round? What American city?" "I was dumb as a duck about it all," says Mary Walsh, "but he knew everything." Lionel was enthralled by the phenomenon of running water and stood under the Walshes' shower for hours at a time. He couldn't quite believe electricity either and occasionally woke the Walshes' baby by incessantly turning the bedroom light switch on and off.
Graham Walsh gave Lionel his first pair of boxing gloves, and the little boy immediately went into "hard training" for his first fight. He was not yet 12. "I was a fanatic," Lionel says. "I weighed all of five-stone-seven [77 pounds] then, and one night some good blokes took some of us to a youth club to fight. When we got there everyone had someone to go against but me. I was the smallest of the lot. So I spotted this red-haired bloke, and I saw that we both had our boxing strides [pants] on, so I said to him, 'What's your name, mate? You looking for a fight?' We hopped on the scales and he was six-stone-three [87 pounds], but I said, 'Don't worry, chum, I'll fight you if you'll fight me.' He was willing, and I don't pick fights anymore. He punched me from post to post. Right after that fight I retired to gain some weight."
Fourteen was the legal age to quit school, and Lionel did. He worked in the sawmill at Aunt Euphy's. He welded bulldozer tracks, he worked in a Drouin laundry, he dug ditches. But mostly he boxed. He was now under the wing of Frank Oakes, a pleasant, pug-nosed railroad repairman who coached youth club boxers in Warragul (five miles from Drouin). "Frank would give me a bob or a feed if I needed it," said Lionel. "He was a fine bloke, and he really got me started right." Eventually, under Oakes, Lionel earned a go at the Australian amateur flyweight title, but the fight was to be in Tasmania, and he didn't have the money to get there. Someone put up his picture in the Orient Hotel in Warrugul and took a collection. Lionel also needed clothes for the trip. Frank Oakes's son lent him a sport coat, but there had to be another Orient Hotel collection to get him a decent pair of pants. Lionel won the championship in return.
Obsessed as he was with boxing, he was not exactly compulsive about staying in condition. Many of his victories in the three-round amateur fights came on knockouts or TKOs and, he says, "Bloody lucky it was, too, because I was smoking so many cigarettes that I'd invariably run out of petrol in the third round." He decided to enter trials for the Australian Olympic team in 1964. He was only 15, but by now Frank Oakes thought he should take on some classier sparring partners than the area around Drouin could offer. "Frank had heard of Jack Rennie," said Lionel, "and we took a look at his picture in the paper one day and thought he looked like a good, friendly bloke. We asked him if I could work out with him and he said all right. That spring Lionel finally moved in permanently with the Rennies, and Jack was appalled at his habits. "He just smoked and smoked and smoked and smoked. It was shocking," said Rennie. It caught up with Lionel in the final match to make the Olympic team; he had soundly thrashed his opponent through the first and most of the second round. He even floored him once. But by the third round Lionel was so winded he could barely stagger out of his corner, and he lost on a close decision. It was poetic justice—beyond his evil addiction to tobacco. He also had lied about his age to qualify for the Olympics (16 is the limit), and he would have been ineligible even if he had won. Ridiculous as it sounds, he then "forgot" his real age, and it was not until he had to get his birth certificate to apply for a passport this year to go to Japan that he remembered he was only 19 and not 20.
As it was, he won his first professional fight when he was just 2½ months past his 16th birthday. He got $44 for the effort and continued fighting at a furious pace—eight or nine bouts a year. Most of the fighters he took on are not exactly household names in the U.S.—Teddy Rainbow, Flash Dum Dum, Akihide Tamoake, Rudy Corona, Karmara Diop, Singtong Por Tor, Laurie Ny, Nevio Carbi—but Lionel improved with each bout. His second (and, so far, his last) loss as a professional occurred when American Ray Perez won a decision in 10 rounds; Lionel had fought the last half of the bout in agony because of a torn muscle in his stomach, but when Jack Rennie said he was going to throw in the towel, Lionel snapped, "You do and we're through."
He was a ripe old 18 when he won the Australian bantamweight title, but it was not until last December when he fought Italian Rocky Gattellari, a former world flyweight contender with 23 fights behind him, that his career became impressive enough to catch the eye of international promoters. In a viciously skilled exhibition at Sydney Stadium Lionel jabbed and clubbed Gattellari until he crumpled to the canvas in the 13th round.
There is a cool, detached air about Lionel Rose when the subject is boxing. "You must have a killer instinct, you know, or you shouldn't be in the ring. You must sense when you hit a bloke on the chin and he is glassy-eyed and helpless that it's time to rip in and finish him. It's simple self-preservation." He is fairly tall (5'6") for a bantamweight and has an extraordinarily deep chest and thick shoulders; so far he has been able to eat like a cruiserweight (custard tart snacks at the sandwich shop in midmorning, french-fried potatoes between thick slices of bread at afternoon tea) without going more than 10 pounds or so overweight when he is not in training. He is a remarkably polished boxer, blessed with a swift left and enough of a punch so that he has eight KOs in his 29 victories. He still needs seasoning, of course. In his only appearance since winning the world championship, he took on Italian Tommaso Galli in a nontitle bout in Melbourne. Lionel easily outpointed Galli, even knocked him down in the 10th round, but the Italian's frustrating tactic of clutching and pinning Rose's arms whenever he could made Rose look surprisingly baffled and helpless during much of the fight. "He's so young," said Jack Rennie, "that I haven't let him stand in there and slug it out. I've tried to keep him boxing instead of slugging. People compare his style to Sugar Ray Robinson, and I think there is a similarity. His reflexes are unbelievable."
Impressive as he had been in Australia, not many people considered him much of a match for Fighting Harada last February. A handful of rather despondent reporters saw him and the Rennies off from the Sydney Airport (flying tourist class), and a parting message to Jack Rennie from a Melbourne promoter was, "Don't forget to throw in the towel." When they arrived in Tokyo the Japanese were not really prepared for them. For one thing, Shirley Rennie was listed as Lionel's manager (simply to get her fare paid under the contract terms), but the Japanese were anxious about what they would do with her if she wanted to go into the locker rooms. When the trio checked into their hotel Shirley began bossing the management around because they didn't have adjoining rooms; Japanese men are not accustomed to being told off by women and this caused some conflict, but they complied. Then Lionel found that Japan's highly seasoned taste in steak and vegetables didn't agree with him. The Rennies had ordered 60 pounds of special steaks shipped from Australia but they hadn't arrived, so Shirley got an electric frying pan and a coffee pot into her room; then she ordered very rare steak from the hotel kitchen. When it arrived she washed the spices out of it in the bathroom sink and recooked it in her frying pan. "We lived on rinsed steak for a week," said Lionel. "And she boiled all our vegetables in the coffee pot. I don't think the Japanese quite believe yet what happened. This time they're giving us a training camp by the sea instead of a hotel room in the city. The status of a champion, you know."
If the Rennie-Rose domestic arrangement at the hotel was a surprise, Lionel himself proved positively baffling to some Japanese reporters. Apparently his name had led them to expect an Australian of the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired variety. When they learned he was an aborigine they quickly dubbed him "The Black Kangaroo" and besieged Jack Rennie with probing questions. Did Lionel Rose speak English? Did he use a knife and fork at the table? Had he ever boxed kangaroos? Well, did he enjoy eating them? How about mice? They were bothered by the fact that Lionel smoked a pipe, and Jack told him to be sure he lighted up every time he was in public. Ah, so. Was the pipe a secret aboriginal recipe for keeping fit? What mysterious material did he smoke in it?
At last one reporter did some diligent research and came up with some insider's advice for Fighting Harada: "Aborigines have notoriously hard heads and all Australian settlers came to know that if they hit an aboriginal on the head with a stick several times it had no effect. But they were vulnerable in the legs and fell down immediately when struck with a stick."
Harada had no stick in the ring against Lionel, and the young Australian, jabbing and backpedaling wisely against the Japanese's flailing rushes, was so cool in taking the championship that once, in a clinch, he even winked at Shirley Rennie sitting deep in the ringside crowd. The three judges—all Japanese—gave him a unanimous decision, and Lionel's cool disappeared. He leaped out of his corner, hugged Jack Rennie and they both tumbled in a gleeful heap on the canvas. Then, holding the gigantic silver champion's trophy over his head, he pranced around the ring, grinning, whooping, yelping.
And, of course, at that same moment the wild elation of Lionel Rose in Tokyo was mirrored—and magnified a hundred-thousandfold—in Redfern and Drouin and everywhere that there were kooris in Australia. Even the No Hopers on that symbolic island of rubbish could see that, from such relatively temporary things as a boxing championship of the world, someday a permanent bridge might be built.