AN AUSTRALIAN FIGHTS FOR FAME

Only true fans know Jeff Fenech holds three world titles
June 24, 1990

For Australians hoping to endear themselves to the American mainstream, these are indeed g'days, mate. Paul Hogan's face is on TV more often than Hulk Hogan's, and Elle Macpherson in a bikini has done more to enhance Australia's reputation than that country's throwing John McEnroe out of its tennis open has.

One of Australia's finest natural resources, however, remains a virtual secret beyond its own shores. In just 5½ years as a pro, boxer Jeff Fenech, 26, has won world titles in three different weight classes (the IBF bantamweight, the WBC super bantamweight and the WBC featherweight, and he has done it more quickly than Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns or Roberto Duran. He's 24-0, with 18 knockouts, and is considered one of the best fighters, pound for pound, in the game. And yet, this Wonder from Down Under is known only to boxing diehards, the kind of crowd that hears the name "Dundee," and immediately thinks Angelo, not Crocodile.

Of course, Fenech hasn't exactly courted the American press. All but one of his pro bouts have been fought in Australia—the other was in that boxing hotbed, Fiji—and only two have been seen on American network TV. "I'm confident that the American public will like me," he says, "if they only get more chances to see me."

They will get such a chance on July 21 when Fenech is scheduled to fight Puerto Rico's Juan LaPorte, a bout that ABC-TV is planning to televise. A win will give the 5'7", 130-pound Fenech his fourth world crown—the vacant WBC super featherweight title. The bout will also test Fenech's hands, tools that have both served and betrayed him.

Because Fenech was born with protruding knuckles on both of his hands and has difficulty making true fists, his career has been a frustrating series of ice buckets, cortisone shots and scalpels. While earning a decision over Mario Martinez in November, Fenech broke his right hand and, says his promoter, Bill Mordey, "was lucky Martinez was intimidated. Jeff got through on his reputation." Fenech underwent surgery on his right hand before Christmas, the fifth such operation of his career.

Fenech's problems with his fragile mitts are exacerbated by his ring style, an entertaining but risky game of rush-in roulette in which he wades forward and punches furiously until his hands give out, or his opponent's resolve does.

"As much as anybody in boxing today, he has an indomitable will, a willingness to do whatever it takes to win, that is extraordinary," says ABC analyst Alex Wallau. "There are moments in every fight where both fighters take a breath, and there's a silent communication between them that says it's rest time. In those moments, Fenech jumps on his man. He continues throwing punches at a time when you think he just has to rest."

The remarkable volume of his punches is a testimony to Fenech's conditioning and to his grit. Still, after he broke both hands in a defense of his WBC featherweight crown against Marcos Villasana in April '89, he announced his retirement during the postfight press conference.

After zipping shut his Everlast gym bag, Fenech pumped iron, bulked up to 160 pounds and played five games of rugby league football for a pro team called the Paramatta Eels. But by the time he traveled to Atlantic City to watch Jeff Harding, a stablemate at the time, fight last June, the urge to return to the ring was becoming more difficult to suppress.

"I spoke to Mike Tyson at the Harding fight and he said, 'Rest your hands and come back,' " Fenech says. "He told me, 'You have too much talent to retire.' "

"I had hoped the retirement would be a happy ending to his story," says John Lewis, Fenech's trainer. "But I knew the pain would eventually go, and he'd want a fourth title. A lot of guys are called born fighters, but Jeff really is a born fighter."

"He's a limited kid in terms of skill," says Wallau. "He has no defense at all. But he's relentless. It's going to take a lot of man to beat him."

Adds CBS commentator Tim Ryan, "Fenech has a tremendous roughhouse spirit. In some ways he's kind of a mini-Tyson in his fighting style and attitude."

It is an attitude that was nurtured in St. Peters and, later, Marrickville, the working-class sections of Sydney where Fenech was raised. His father, Paul, suffered from heart disease almost from the day Jeff was born and, until Paul's death in 1988, was shuttled in and out of hospitals. His mother, Mary, worked at three jobs to pay the medical bills and support Jeff, his three brothers and two sisters. With no supervision at home, Jeff was running with a street gang called the Newtown Hoods by the age of 10. Friday and Saturday nights were spent at a local speedway, exchanging punches and kicks with rival gangs. When he was 12, a nasty brawl at a train station got him sentenced to a two-month stint at a reform school.

Fenech's transformation from street thug to ring terror came about by accident. One day when he was 17, he and a fellow Hood went to a boys' club in Sydney to lift weights. Lewis was training fighters there at the time and needed a sparring partner for one of them. Fenech volunteered and survived. He started coming to the club regularly.

He entered the L.A. Olympics in 1984 after only 20 amateur fights. One win away from a guaranteed bronze medal in the flyweight class, he earned a 3-2 decision on the judges' scorecards over Yugoslavia's Redzep Redzepovski. But a five-man jury overruled the original verdict and awarded the bout to Redzepovski.

Revenge would come two years later, when Fenech was the IBF bantamweight champion. In a hard-fought title defense in Sydney, he stopped Steve McCrory, the U.S. fighter who eventually won the flyweight gold in Los Angeles. Fenech dealt him a frightful beating before the bout was halted in the 14th round.

"Get Jeff angry," says Lewis, "and he can become the most vicious person alive."

When Thai super bantamweight Samart Payakarun angered Fenech by flooring him in the first round of a 1987 bout, Fenech responded by knocking out his foe in the fourth round, leaving him unconscious for four minutes. Payakarun returned home and entered a monastery.

"That aggressiveness, that power, is what the fans in Australia love," says Mordey. "Jeff is solely responsible for the rebirth of interest in the game here. At a time when Australia was getting beat in football, cricket and swimming in the mid-'80s and we were looking for a sports hero, he came along with all his magnetism. He loves fighting for his people. Of course, the remaining criticism of him is that he's fought only in his backyard."

"If he wants to be a real star, he'll have to come to the U.S.," says boxing promoter Bob Arum. "Maybe he'll make less money than he would in Australia for his first fight or two, but he'll become more famous and make more money in the long run."

If that's not enough motivation for Fenech to call his travel agent, there's another: America's TV soap operas. If there's one thing in life that Fenech enjoys as much as flattening noses, it's watching Days of Our Lives. He's a card-carrying member of the soap's fan club in Australia, and in January, he and his fiancèe, Tania Foster, named their baby son Beau, a variation of Bo Brady, the name of one of the show's main characters.

"John Lewis wants me to train at 1 o'clock every day, but I make him wait until 2:30," says Fenech. "The soapie comes on at 1:30 and I don't want to miss it. I never like to tape it when I can cancel an appointment and be home for it. The only problem is that we see the episodes a couple of years after they come out in the States."

Watching the soaps and reading the daytime-TV magazines helped Fenech pass the time during his recent layoff because of a viral infection, but the idle months also left him with plenty of time to contemplate his uncertain future.

"I don't know if I can describe the frustration of knowing the hands might get injured again," he says. "It drives you mad. I just have to keep hopeful, but eventually this is going to shorten my career."

Before he leaves, however, Fenech says he wants that fourth title, maybe even a fifth. And there's this not-so-little matter of a grudge match he craves with IBF featherweight champion Jorge Paez, the part-time circus performer with the Liberace robe and the ever-changing designs he has shaved into his hair.

"He's a clown," says Fenech. "This is boxing, not a circus. We don't need that crap giving fighters a bad name. Someone has to bust the bubble on his shoulders. I want him bad."

Get Paez's name on a contract, and Fenech would be willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. If Lewis insists on training at 1 p.m., Fenech will be more than happy to set the VCR.

PHOTOACTION GRAPHICSFenech (right) doesn't hold back during a fight despite painful problems with both hands. PHOTOPHILIP QUIRK/WILDLIGHTNamed after a soap character, Beau made his debut in January.

Jeff Ryan, who lives in New York City, is the managing editor of "The Ring" and "KO."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)