The day of the fight began with mildly unfavorable auspices when Lionel Rose, Australia's aborigine world bantamweight champion, stepped onto the California State Athletic Commission scales at the weigh-in and was announced as four ounces over the limit of 118 pounds. Rose solved the problem in an aboriginal way. He retired to a washroom and spat in a basin for about 10 minutes. When he and his manager, Jack Rennie, estimated that four ounces of spittle had been disposed of, they returned to the scales and, sure enough, the scales balanced at a precise 118 pounds.
The Australian's opponent in his second defense of the title, Jesus (Chucho) Castillo of Mexico, had no trouble coming in at a comfortable 117. But after that there was nothing but trouble. First there was the fight—a magnificent display of unrelenting aggressiveness on Castillo's part and superb defensive work by the pipe-smoking, dark-skinned, heavily bearded Rose. Almost every round was extremely close and difficult to judge, but Rose did win by a trifle. Then there was the riot, which turned Jack Kent Cooke's $16 million Forum into an ugly mess. Entire rows of seats were torn up and flung recklessly in the direction of the ring. Fires were set. Whiskey bottles were flung, spectators and officials were cut and bruised and, outside in the parking lot, automobiles were overturned, set afire and their windows smashed and tires slashed.
In normally peaceful Inglewood, a suburb of Los Angeles, no one had anticipated such a turn of events, and the number of local police available was inadequate to control the situation—though it would be hard to say what number would have been adequate. One policeman was set upon and beaten by disgruntled Mexicans. Long after midnight taxi companies refused to send cabs into the area and hundreds of abandoned fans wandered about in thick fog, vainly seeking transportation.
Chucho Castillo, risen suddenly to prominence as the leading contender for Rose's newly acquired title, proved himself worthy of his No. 1 position on the World Boxing Association's list of contenders, and the match itself was in the classical tradition of pitting a swarming slugger (Castillo) against a fine boxer (Rose). It made for a fascinating fight, filled with tension and suspense, for there was a question as to whether the 20-year-old Rose, a notoriously heavy smoker since he was 10, could go the 15-round distance without tiring badly. He did tire, but little more than Chucho, for there was plenty of action in every round.
December 16, 1968
There were some 15,000 spectators in the Forum seats, which had sold at a $30 top, and about 7,000 of these had come up from Mexico to see their beloved Chucho win the title. Others were from the Mexican quarter of Los Angeles. There was a sprinkling of Hollywood and television notables—Pat Harrington Jr., June Allyson, Budd Schulberg, Elia Kazan, Kirk Douglas. And there was a hardy little band of 20 blokes from Australia, who had made the long journey from down under because Lionel Rose, aborigine though he be, is a national hero of such proportions that Queen Elizabeth has made him a Member of the Order of the British Empire. The fight was, in fact, televised live to Australia by satellite, as it was to Mexico City, and on closed circuit to an overflow at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. The lower-priced seats had long been sold out, and the crowd at the auditorium could not afford the more expensive tickets. So Promoter George Parnassus, a 73-year-old veteran of 50 years in boxing, consented to the closed-circuit arrangement, though he is not, in fact, partial to television coverage of his fights. "The TV people try to run the whole show," he explained.
The promoters did everything possible to soothe the fiercely chauvinistic Mexican crowd, members of which shot off firecrackers and danced about in sombreros of exaggerated size. Three national anthems—American, Australian and Mexican—were presented, and announcements were made in both Spanish and English. Rose, chewing gum, came into the ring wearing white nylon trunks with green stripes. Castillo's trunks were rather more elegant. They were made of black velvet, striped with red velour.
The first few rounds were given over to somewhat cautious sparring as the fighters sized each other up. But Rose did reveal a strong jab and extraordinary speed of foot, fading easily away from Castillo's rushes. Even so, the Mexican did land some good punches to the body, and in the dressing room afterwards Rose conceded that they had hurt.
By the fourth round it had become a full-fledged fight, and Rose took it on all cards, starting out with three rapid, flashing jabs in a row. Then he blocked Castillo's hook off the jab and revealed a defense against punches to the head greatly reminiscent of Archie Moore. He would hold his right arm horizontally across his face just below the eyes. It is a defense seldom seen nowadays, although it can be found in pictures of fights from the bare-knuckle days, and it seemed to baffle Chucho.
In the fifth, Rose landed the first truly sharp punch of the bout, a smashing hook to the head, and it angered Chucho, who closed with a good flurry, and was answered in kind. He pressed constantly but, with Rose in skillful retreat, missed a lot, too.
At the start of the sixth the Mexicans began to cheer in organized football fashion for their hero, who responded with a slashing attack but was countered rather easily by Rose. In this round Rose went to the canvas for the first time, but Referee Dick Young did not call it a knockdown. Rose had slipped from the momentum of a tremendously hard punch that missed.
The next few rounds were filled with action, but of an indecisive sort. It was the 10th round that persuaded the Mexican contingent that their boy was a winner. It was, indeed, Castillo's finest round. He began with a good right to the head, which Rose countered nicely with a left and right. Then Chucho hooked to the head, threw a left and right to the head and forced Rose into some defensive jabbing. Rose was staggered by a one-two combination, and Chucho saw his opportunity. He threw a now-or-never right to the head, shook off Rose's counter, ignored a hook and a jab and crashed home a long roundhouse right that sent Rose to the canvas and the crowd into bedlam.
Rose was up at the count of four, coolly considering his opponent, who was crouched, snarling like a frustrated wildcat, in a neutral corner. Rose has been knocked down before and has risen to win, and it was clear from his expression that he was by no means dismayed this time. As Young tolled off the mandatory eight-count Chucho was unable to contain himself and charged out of his corner before the count was finished. The referee waved him back, and that gained Rose a few more precious seconds in which to clear his head and consider the situation.
That 10th round was easily the most important of the fight from a scoring standpoint. Under New York scoring rules, Chucho would merely have won the round, with extra points for the knockdown considered only if the fight ended in a draw by rounds. In the California point system a fighter may be awarded anywhere from zero to five points in a round, though it is conceded that if he gets five points the bout should be stopped to save his opponent from further punishment. In this case all three officials gave Chucho two points, though the newspaper sports columnist who originated the system, Morton Moss, gave three, pointing out that the Mexican had dominated the entire round, aside from the knockdown.
At any rate, Chucho won that one big, and every Mexican in the arena remembered it big, too, when the final score was announced. The aborigine slipped once again, in the 12th, from the force of a right-hand lead, an awkwardness to which, for all his superior boxing ability, he is prone. Rose won the 14th handily; the 15th was won, though by a slim margin, by Castillo, a fact which built up even more pressure in the Mexican contingent. And, though both men were clearly tired, Rose was more obviously a weary little fighter.
Before announcement of the result, some spectators who remembered previous riots in the Los Angeles area involving unsuccessful Mexican fighters moved toward the exits in order to fade swiftly away as soon as the verdict was given. They were wise. Young's vote for Castillo was given last and was all but lost in the uproar that followed the disclosure that the two judges had voted for the aborigine. The crowd took it as an ungracious act.
"Nahsty bahstids, aren't they?" an Australian sportswriter observed after a whiskey bottle had whistled past his head. As a police escort led him from ring to dressing room, Rose was missed by fractions of an inch. Later, puffing his pipe in his dressing room and nursing hands too sore to be shaken in congratulation, the aborigine observed: "If that bottle had hit me it would have taken my head off." Referee Young, the only official who voted for Castillo, was hit above his right temple by a flung bottle and arrived at the dressing room with blood spurting through his graying hair and spattering his shirt. Several policemen and a fireman were struck by flying debris.
It was a wild night at the Forum, and a succession of such riots over the years has now made it very doubtful that Mexican fighters of importance will be invited soon to show their talents in a big fight show. It is too bad, from their standpoint, because me huge Yanqui purse is just not available in Mexico, where a law limits the prices that may be charged for admission. Castillo's guarantee for this match was $20,000, the most he ever has made or likely will. Rose was guaranteed $75,000, and that, said Promoter Parnassus, is the most ever paid for a bantamweight fight. Even so, Jack Rennie, Rose's manager, will think twice before bringing the fascinating aborigine back to Los Angeles. Rennie was cut on elbow and hand when he slipped into broken glass while trying to avoid a missile.
"If we fight here again," he said, "we want more police protection."
But to what extent "more" police protection can handle an infuriated mob like that which took over the Forum is debatable. Guns and Mace will not do it without creating a stir that would kill boxing in California. A disheartened George Parnassus, a sentimental sort of man, wept at the disgraceful way in which what may have been his finest promotion was tarnished. Jack Kent Cooke grimly supervised the cleaning up of his arena for the next night's hockey game. Chucho went back to Mexico and may not be seen in these parts again, his career ruined by the excesses of his countrymen.
The winner, overall, was Lionel Rose, not just in the ring but in the hearts of those who saw his brilliant boxing performance and heard his gentlemanly words of praise for the very good man he had beaten. (Chucho had all but called Rose a coward because he would not stand still to get hit.) An aborigine, Lionel Rose has established, is not necessarily a Stone Age man.