It was nearly midnight last Friday in Las Vegas when Jeff Fenech returned to his room at the Sheffield Inn. His face was raw, his hands bruised. There was a cut under his left eye. But those weren't the places where Fenech hurt the most. Earlier in the evening he had fought 12 furious rounds against Azumah Nelson, the WBC super featherweight (130 pounds) champion, only to come away with a draw. Back in his hotel Fenech sat and watched a videotape of the bout. With each replay the pain grew stronger. Fenech was convinced he had been robbed.
"What more do they want me to do?" he said bitterly the next day. "There obviously was some business being done."
Coming into the fight—the final bout before the Tyson-Ruddock main event—the business at hand was Fenech's U.S. debut. A former world champion in three weight classes (IBF bantamweight, WBC super bantamweight and WBC featherweight), Fenech, 27, had boxed only once outside his native Australia, and never in North America. With his buzz-saw style and 25-0 record, the 5'7" Fenech had become a national hero Down Under. Yet he remained virtually unknown to U.S. fans: At the Mirage Hotel the sign on the door of his dressing room read JEFF FRENCH.
Fenech and his backers hoped that the match with Nelson would bring Fenech not only a world title in a fourth weight class (something only Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran have accomplished), but also a new level of recognition and box-office clout. "After Friday night," said Fenech's Australian promoter, Bill Mordey, "America will know who we are."
Fenech was cheered on by 300 flag-waving, banner-toting Aussies who had flown in to support their man. Yet it quickly became clear that he had invited the wrong date to his coming-out party. The 32-year-old Nelson, a native of Ghana and a superb boxer-puncher, had lost only twice in 35 fights over an 11-year career. From the opening bell he met Fenech's onrushing flurries with his own ripping jabs and hooks, and he made the challenger miss. After winning the first two rounds, Nelson spent most of the next three fighting with his back to the ropes in a neutral corner. Fenech dug in and fired away but failed to land cleanly. Nelson bobbed, weaved and responded with uppercuts and hooks—all the while resting his legs. "I love the ropes," said Nelson after the bout.
In the sixth round, Nelson came out of his adopted corner, circling and jabbing again. Fenech, however, never let up. By the ninth he was obviously wearing Nelson down. At the start of the 10th, Nelson's cornermen stole some valuable rest for their fighter when they appeared to have misplaced his mouthpiece. "They were like the three blind mice," said Fenech later of the bumbling 60-second search.
Finally, with 20 seconds left in the fight, Fenech tagged the tiring Nelson with a right hand and followed up with a volley of punches that buckled Nelson's knees at the final bell. That strong finish, as it turned out, saved Fenech from the first loss of his career. It earned him the round, 10-9, on all three judges' cards, and that made the difference. Jerry Roth scored the fight 115-113 for Fenech, Dave Moretti had it even at 114-114, and Miguel Donate, clearly in a generous mood, had Nelson winning 116-112. The decision drew a chorus of boos from the crowd, but Fenech's accusation of chicanery seemed unlikely.
"Let's get the gloves on again right now," said an angry, almost tearful Fenech at the postfight press conference.
Nelson seemed ready. "I will give him a rematch any time," he said.
Though Fenech left for Sydney on Saturday, he will be back. You can't keep a good man Down Under.