The small dressing room in Budokan Hall was full of jubilant, backslapping Australians who had come all the way to Tokyo to watch Lionel Rose make a successful first defense of his world bantamweight title.
" 'E's a national 'ero now for sure," one of them yelled.
"We were very, very lucky," said Shirley Rennie, whose husband is Rose's trainer and manager. "When Lionel got knocked down in the second round I thought, 'Oh my, we've had it.' It was a very difficult fight."
"It was a chase, really," said the compact little aborigine. "I had to chase him and chase him."
July 14, 1968
Rose's first defense of the 118-pound title that he won in this same hall in February from Masahiko (Fighting) Harada was more like a marathon race than a boxing match. Before the fight Jack Rennie had said that Rose enjoyed aggressive opponents, and, since the challenger, Japan's Takao Sakurai, was strictly a defensive specialist, he expected some problems. Sakurai, who turned pro after winning the bantamweight gold medal in the 1964 Olympic Games, had won all of his 22 pro fights with a natural left-handed style and agile footwork. For 15 rounds, Rose, glowering and frustrated, was in constant pursuit of the shifty, backpedaling challenger whose main weapon was a very fast left-right combination counter. As he danced, Sakurai missed few opportunities to pepper Rose's face and body with this combination, but the punches lacked the power to really damage.
The only knockdown came when a countering left caught Rose flush on the chin, knocking him back onto the seat of his pants. But instead of pushing his momentary advantage, Sakurai remained on the defensive—despite the thunder of encouragement and pleading from the highly partisan crowd of 8,000 Japanese—and thereby lost his one chance to win the fight. Rose said later, "I wasn't hurt. I didn't lose my senses. I was very much surprised, though, that he decided to remain cautious."
Still, for the first six rounds Sakurai's hit-and-run tactics worked. Rose's face and body were turning red, and a small cut opened above his right eyebrow. In the seventh, however, Rose caught the challenger with a solid left hook that bounced him into the ropes and then dug a hard right into Sakurai's middle as he tried desperately to escape. From the ninth on, the tide turned completely. Rose began scoring to the challenger's head and body and by round 12 it was evident that Sakurai was running out of steam. He could not keep out of Rose's range, and Rose scored repeatedly as Sakurai's counterpunching decreased in direct proportion to the champion's stepped-up attack. The last two rounds were a rout. Sakurai unashamedly ran and, when Rose caught up with him, hung on in desperation.
The decision, a foregone conclusion, was, nevertheless, surprisingly close. Scoring by the maximum five-point-per-round system, Referee Nicky Pope, a civilian employee of the U.S. Army in Japan who has officiated at many fights there, had it 72 to 71 for Rose. Japanese Judge Ko Toyama saw it 72 to 70, and the second Japanese judge called it a draw at 72 to 72.
Rose received a standing ovation. With his pleasant relaxed manners and clean powerful fighting style, the dusky Australian had established his popularity with the Japanese fans when he beat Harada. When he arrived in Japan as a substitute for Jesus Pimentel, who had backed out of the fight with Harada because of contract disagreements, Rose was completely unknown. The bout sponsors gave him and the Rennies small cramped quarters at a downtown hotel in Tokyo. But by the time he had beaten Harada, Rose was almost as popular as the Japanese champion.
This time Rose had spacious quarters in a big resort hotel on the seaside at Chigasaki, about 40 miles southwest of Tokyo. In the low-ceilinged, curved sitting room of the suite, Rose slept peacefully on a divan covered by a white sheet. Against a wall, on a table next to a small refrigerator, were an electric burner, thermos jugs, frying pans, dishes and other utensils. As she did before the Harada fight, Shirley Rennie cooked all of Rose's meals. "Lionel likes his food plain without all those spices and flavorings," she said. "The hotel people were kind enough to look the other way." Shirley was also able to arrange for a supply of Australian steaks from a Tokyo importer, instead of carting along a boxful as she had been obliged to do the first time. And Rose brought his own sparring partner with him, a left-handed Australian named Jimmy Bell.
"It certainly makes a difference whether you're a champion or just another fighter," said Jack Rennie. Both he and Shirley were amazed at the sudden popularity of their protégé. Shirley was also a little worried. "I don't want it to change him," she said. "I keep telling him that there is nothing as fickle as public fame." Rose understood this but liked to tease Shirley by pretending he didn't. "Oh, he's a cheeky one," she said, smiling indulgently at him. "But you must remember he is still very young."
At a press conference after the Sakurai fight, Rennie announced that Rose would have nontitle bouts in August, September, and October and defend his title for the second time in December. He has already signed a contract with Los Angeles Promoter George Parnassus for Rose's August fight in Los Angeles against one of three Mexican fighters to be selected by Parnassus. The three are Chucho Castillo, Ruben Olivares and Joe Medel. For his second title defense, probably in Sydney, WBA rules demand that Rose meet the No. 1 challenger, who, at the moment, is a tough Korean named Won Suk Lee.
In a Tokyo hotel room cluttered with baggage, bouquets of flowers, baskets of fruit and hordes of friends, Rose was kept busy answering phone calls from Australia and talking to newsmen. Relaxed and smiling, as always, he admitted to no great ambitions. "Naturally I want to get as much out of this as I can, because it won't last forever," he said. And when his boxing days are over? "I want to expand my snack bar in Melbourne. It's a good business."