At some stage of their lives, most American males idolize a sports figure. Boxing champions lend themselves particularly well to this form of worship. Fighters like James Corbett, Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali not only were heroes of their times but also put their unique, mythic stamps on very different generations of male American consciousness.
I, too, got caught up in the aura and sweep of the great champions of my lifetime. But the one fighter I identified with—my fighter, in other words—was not in the same league with Leonard or Robinson or Louis or Ali. A knowledgeable boxing critic might rank him a cut above "hell of a fighter." However, if you judged the entire man, boxer and human being, few could match Richard Ihetu, the African who fought under the nom de guerre Dick Tiger.
As with many professional boxers, the last part of Dick Tiger's life was tragic. The difference in Tiger's case is that it wasn't boxing that took the heart out of him; it was the dream that he tried to support with the purses he earned after he had reclaimed the middleweight title and then won the light heavyweight championship.
Years from now, when a bunch of guys in a bar are grumbling about a mismatch on TV and start talking about good, maybe great, light heavyweights, Dick Tiger will not be the name they settle on; it could be Archie Moore, Bob Foster or Philadelphia Jack O'Brien. But if they know their boxing, Tiger's name will at least be mentioned.
Helped by a notation scrawled in a spiral notebook, I recall the day and hour I met Dick Tiger: "Noon—March 10." The year wasn't recorded, but it was 1965. Tiger was meeting the press that day in his dressing room at Madison Square Garden. It was two days before he would fight Rocky Rivero, a tough middleweight from Argentina known for his knockout punch. It didn't figure to be an easy evening for Tiger. He was 35, and 15 months earlier he had lost his middleweight championship in Atlantic City to Joey Giardello on what was conceded to have been, by everyone but Giardello people, a warped hometown decision.
Only four or five reporters had shown up, and we waited outside the door to a 50th Street dressing room while the tap and slide of a jump rope sounded from inside. Chickie Ferrara, Tiger's able trainer, opened the door, and we filed in. I had seen Tiger a couple of times on TV; I remembered one appearance in particular, a vicious 15-round draw with Gene Fullmer. I would never have recognized Tiger in the flesh. He was the darkest man I had ever seen. But that doesn't entirely describe it: There was a dusky, deep plum color to his skin, and even where he glistened with perspiration there were gray patches that looked dry, very much like the skin of the fruit. I stared at the knotty, heavily muscled body. I was almost oblivious to the questions being asked and to his answers, but not quite. Our eyes met momentarily, and I self-consciously scribbled some words in my notebook that make only partial sense as I read them now: "Giardello ducking me. Jersey isn't quitting."
The reason for the intimate press conference quickly became apparent as Tiger gave only the briefest answers to questions about the match with Rivero. His special quality of voice and intelligence hit me when, in a clipped colonial British accent braided with a tribal African lilt, he said, "The present champion refuses to meet me again. He has defended only one time in 15 months and again it was in his home city. I put it that this is not a courageous posture for a so-called champion." Courageous posture? My god, who was this man?
"Why," a reporter asked, "did you agree to fight Giardello in Atlantic City, knowing that it was his backyard? Especially since you were the champ?"
"To a certain extent, it was because of his problem in New York," said Tiger. The euphemistic "problem" was well understood. Giardello hadn't had a license to box in New York since 1957. It had been revoked because of what the athletic commission called his "undesirable connections." Word was out that Giardello's management was mob controlled, or at least mob connected. "But that is not the entire story," Tiger explained patiently. "They offered me more money if I would fight him in Atlantic City. I do not wish to seem the mercenary, gentlemen, but this is my livelihood. I am not utterly disappointed—with my purse I bought a beauty shop for my sister and a bookstore in Lagos. Yes, these are tribal scars."
His last statement didn't make any sense. I didn't realize he was speaking directly to me. I had been staring at his chest. His thick finger moved over a band of thin, vertical scars, each about two inches long, that formed a horizontal stripe almost from armpit to armpit. "Tribal scars," he repeated for my benefit. "All Ibo boys receive them when they have proved their courage."
I was surprised by his easy assumption that we would know what an Ibo was. I guessed correctly that it was the name of his tribe, his people. Much of the world would come to know that name soon enough—shamefully and tragically.
"A bookstore?" I asked. "Why would you want to buy a bookstore?"
He flashed a smile that revealed a gold tooth. "Because I like to read books. Har, har. Why else?"
Dick Tiger had not called his press conference to discuss books or bookstores. Instead, he continued to impress upon the other reporters his arguments about why he should get a rematch with Giardello and why it should be soon.
His best and most practical point was that the only decent payday available for Giardello was to fight the true champion, Dick Tiger. If Giardello did not offer him a rematch, Tiger said that he would step up to fight light heavyweights. The winner of the Willie Pastrano-Josè Torres fight for that title in a few weeks would be a real possibility, said Tiger. He also vowed that once he stepped up in class, he would never come back down. And, thus, Giardello could kiss goodbye a profitable return match.
When Tiger had finished his statement, a reporter asked, "You own a fur coat?" The fighter's brow furrowed, and he shook his head. The reporter went on, "You should have one, because Giardello will give you another shot just about the day after hell freezes over."
There were some perfunctory questions about Rivero; then someone asked if there was anything Tiger would like to say directly to Giardello.
"I respect any man who is a champion," Tiger said. "Truly. I do not blame him as much as the people who are behind him. But now he must finally act like a champion and defend against the challenger who has the strongest claim."
"Isn't he just waiting until you're too old, until you lose your edge?"
"He is as old as I!" Tiger suddenly jumped into a ferocious boxing position; his face contorted into a sneer, and a snarl rolled from a curled lip. He growled ominously, "A Tiger never loses his hunger." And, just as suddenly, he transformed himself back into the affable, relaxed man who had charmed us. There was nothing left to say. I waited until the other reporters had left.
Tiger asked me for whom I worked. "I'm only a stringer for UPI. Actually, I'm an English teacher," I said.
"Have you read Animal Farm?"
"Of course, Orwell."
We spent the afternoon together, talking a bit about Orwell but more about the implications of Animal Farm and the terrible pitfalls of revolutionary politics. He seemed to have a personal interest. He showered and dressed. His brown suit was on the shabby side, the jacket a shade lighter than the pants; his black shoes had gray scuffs. We walked briskly down Eighth Avenue. He was carrying a heavily twined package that he wanted to go out in the afternoon mail. It was destined for Aba, Nigeria.
I couldn't believe that, less than an hour after I had met him, I was walking in Manhattan with the former middleweight champion of the world. I assumed passersby recognized the celebrity and, by strong association, me, too. In truth, almost no one noticed us. Those who did happen to glance our way might have assumed that we were a middle-aged black delivery man and a winded white intellectual.
The Ibo tribal scars on his chest, Tiger told me as we wove through the crowds, were made by a very sharp, very hot knife when he was 10, unusually young for the initiation. No, they didn't hurt particularly. Then he corrected himself: An Ibo boy did not allow them to hurt. When we were finally forced to stop for traffic, Tiger looked at me carefully and said, "The politics of my country are a cause of great concern to me. There could soon be civil insurrection. The situation is classically Orwellian."
All the way to the post office and then back uptown he explained the volatile situation in his homeland. "Although we are not the majority," he said, "my people have held leadership in Nigeria since the British left. In recent years, military elements have taken control. We Ibo are not basically a militaristic people, but we will not permit ourselves to be shunted aside. Without the Ibo, my country would be a disaster."
Then he said something that all these years later I recall with clarity even though I hadn't written it down, perhaps because events have since conspired to underline its bitter irony. "Our opponents call the Ibo the Jews of Africa. It is meant as an insult. I interpret it as a high compliment."
A few blocks farther north—we were now on Tenth Avenue—Tiger stopped in front of a tailor's shop. He went inside, and I followed. He pulled off his suit jacket and showed the man behind the counter a long tear in the satin lining. The owner persuaded Tiger that it would be better to select a secondhand jacket from the racks in the rear than to have his own jacket repaired. Tiger and the tailor disappeared. When they returned, Tiger was wearing another brown jacket, a shade darker than the pants this time. The man wanted $5. They settled on $2.50, his old jacket and a ticket to the Rivero fight.
That bout proved remarkably easy for Tiger. Rivero was paunchy and moved as though he were fighting underwater. Every punch he attempted was of the KO variety. Tiger was hit cleanly just twice in 5½ rounds. The referee stopped the fight in the sixth after Rivero had been knocked down for the first time in 54 professional fights. Tiger must have known that Rivero was just showing up for a payday.
He stayed busy after Rivero with a big win against rugged "Hurricane" Carter. If Giardello's people were waiting for age to catch up with Tiger, it didn't seem to be happening. It is true, however—and all experienced fight people know it—that a fighter usually becomes old overnight. One fight, he has it all; the next, nothing. Call it the Dorian Gray syndrome. Sometimes that change takes place during a fight. Sometimes a fighter can lose it in a single round. Maybe some sign of deterioration was what Giardello's people were looking for. Maybe Tiger was foolish for not showing it to them by fighting a little below his top level, but he was, after all, an Ibo and proud.
On the boxing beat, word was that if it were up to Giardello alone, he would have fought Tiger a year ago, that he wasn't really such a bad guy. The problem was his management. They weren't going to risk this championship with a tiger like Tiger. They knew Tiger was already having trouble making the weight: he had come in five pounds over the limit for Rivero. The thing that must have really thrown them was that the Nigerian, for all his threats, still refused to take on legitimate light heavyweights.
The scuttlebutt also had it that when they felt Giardello had one good fight in him, and if Tiger was still available, they would shoot for that last, nice payday and, who knows, maybe even go out a winner. The consensus among experts was that Giardello, although not a big hitter, could still do a good deal of cumulative damage to a fighter as stationary as Tiger.
Then Giardello got rid of his manager and was given a license to box in New York. A title match with Tiger in October 1965 was made for Madison Square Garden. Giardello, as champion, dictated the terms: $50,000 or 40% of the gate (live and home TV) while Tiger would get $15,000 or 20%. I asked Tiger about the split, and he said, "He takes the lion's share, but I will take the Tiger's." His wit might have caused him to smile in self-appreciation, but it didn't. He was frowning. There was trouble at home, he told me. He had been sending every penny there to help the Ibo cause, but he was worried about his family, his property, and particularly about his ability to concentrate on this crucial boxing match, 5,000 miles from the place and people that mattered most in his life.
"The world is never without its ironies," said the man with tribal scars. "Orwell understood that."
During the week before the fight there was heavy betting. The early money liked Giardello at 6 to 5. Then Tiger support came in, and it was "pick 'em." Then it was Tiger at 6 to 5; then, two days before the bout, 8 to 5 Tiger. By fight time the odds were down to 7 to 5 Tiger.
More than 17,000 fans showed up at the Garden and paid more than $160,000, so both fighters were sure of earning a lot more than their guarantees. Frank Sinatra was supposed to be there. Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra had already been seen. I spotted Sugar Ray Robinson and Rocky Graziano. There were more men in evening jackets and women wearing furs than I had ever seen before at ringside.
And certainly more Africans than I had seen anywhere before. They paraded through the crowd, some of them in tribal robes whose colors had such a dark intensity about them that they made the garments seem not only exotic but vaguely dangerous. Most of the men wore flat hats with golden tassels.
Tiger came out first from the 50th Street side, and with his appearance a large West African drum began to thunder rhythmically from the darkness at one end of the arena. Its beat was alien but compelling to the huge crowd of New Yorkers. They clapped and stamped out a march beat, but the drum dominated the arena, as foreboding as the drums in The Emperor Jones.
The fighters both weighed the precise limit of 160 pounds, but Tiger was two inches shorter. Above his white trunks, Tiger's body was massive. Giardello seemed pink and soft by comparison; his dark trunks made his body seem even paler.
At the bell, Tiger rushed across the ring and met the champ before he was two steps out of his corner. Tiger threw punches that backed Giardello against the ropes. A surprise tactic. Tiger had always been a very cautious starter, especially in a 15-round fight. Giardello couldn't get off" the ropes and was taking solid body shots. Significantly, each time Giardello smothered Tiger's attack and appeared to hook the dark arms, referee Johnny LoBianco quickly stepped in and had them fighting again. That favored Tiger. His fists worked Giardello's softening body. The great tribal drum thundered. Before the first round was over, Joey Giardello had become an old fighter.
To his credit, Giardello didn't let it become a rout. No, it wasn't a great fight, but it went 15 rounds and it was very interesting. The decision was unanimous. I scored it nine rounds to six. Dick Tiger was champion again. Africans in green-and-purple robes leaped into the ring carrying a banner that read BIAFRA MUST LIVE. Few in the Garden understood its meaning.
After that fight Tiger had an increasingly difficult time making the middleweight limit. Also, he had developed a pain in his lower back and right side, a result of the Giardello fight. Eventually, the presence of blood in his urine became commonplace. Nevertheless, Tiger defended his middleweight title against Emile Griffith in 1966. Weakened by pain and by the debilitating need to lose weight to meet the limit, he lost a split decision. Then, eight months later, on Dec. 16, he made good at last on his threat to move up into the light heavyweight class. He won the championship easily by a decision over Josè Torres.
He didn't stay long in the U.S. to enjoy it. There was great trouble at home. The Ibo of eastern Nigeria had seceded from the central government. They called their new country Biafra. The civil war that followed became a rout. The Biafrans appealed for arms, for aid. None was forthcoming: The Nigerian central government controlled the army—and the oil—in black Africa's richest petroleum-producing country.
Tiger returned to Biafra to fight another African in an exhibition match at Port Harcourt, a few miles from his home in Aba. It was a glorious day for the Ibo, and Tiger donated his purse to the Biafran rebels. Later he would donate even more when, as a 38-year-old father of seven, he volunteered in the army of Biafra. As a second lieutenant, he trained soldiers in physical exercises.
After his exhibition bout in Biafra, he returned to New York and gave Torres a rematch at the Garden. Like their first fight, it drew a pretty good crowd, and Tiger, giving away about 10 pounds, again won by a decision. But this was the only touch of triumph in Dick Tiger's life then. The "Jews of Africa" were being slaughtered. He could get no word about the fate of his family. (As he later learned that they were either dead or imprisoned.) He could not go home. His properties in Lagos had been confiscated—his apartments, his service station in Aba, the beauty parlor and cosmetics shop, the bookstore, the Mercedes, the tens of thousands of dollars saved by the man in secondhand suits—all were gone. Biafra, the dream, was gone, too.
And soon—too soon—his title was also gone. In May 1968, Tiger was knocked out two minutes into the fourth round by Bob Foster. It was the only time Tiger had ever been knocked out. Perhaps he should have quit then. The painful spasms in his lower back came more frequently, but he couldn't quit. He was a political exile in New York. He had no other salable skill.
Tiger fought four more bouts in New York, winning three and losing one, a 10-round decision to Griffith. The fights gave him just enough money to live on. After retiring in 1971 he worked as a porter at the American Museum of Natural History, commuting by subway from a furnished room in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. In October 1971 he was stricken at work by stabbing pains in his back, right side and abdomen. It was an attack so severe that he fell to his knees. He was taken to St. Vincent's Hospital in Greenwich Village for observation.
No treatment was possible. He had cancer of the liver, acute and advanced. He told me, "The United States is a very good country, a very nice country, but Biafra is my home. I will die in Biafra."
Technically speaking, in 1971 no such place existed. But the Nigerian government permitted Tiger to return to Aba, to his Ibo home. For days after his return, thousands of visitors—mourners, really—from miles around walked the hot, dusty roads to Aba. When they found Dick Tiger's house, they saw a muscular but pain-withered boxer sitting in front, in the shade of a solitary acacia tree. He died on Dec. 14, 1971.
Sam Toperoff's "Sugar Ray Leonard and Other Noble Warriors" is due in November.