Lionel Rose and the fight game
Leading boxing journalist and cornerman Grantlee Kieza writes about his new book, Boxing in Australia.
9 October 2015
Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander communities are advised that this blog post contains images and names of people who are now deceased.
I have been privileged to cover boxing for News Corporation mastheads since 1980 and during that time I have also worked as the chief second or assistant trainer for some of the biggest names in the sport in Australia.
In writing my new book, Boxing in Australia, I relied on many of the newspaper interviews I conducted over 35 years around the world and on the experiences I've had working the corner for some of Australia's greatest fighters.
There is no doubt that boxing is dangerous. But it is also captivating, a primal struggle of savage beauty that has produced some of the most iconic sporting heroes in history—men, and now women, who push their minds, bodies and hearts to the outer limits of endurance. The sport is often referred to as the ‘fight game' but no fighter ever ‘plays' boxing. It is a gruelling, hard business.
The sport is about physical damage and the tolerance of pain. It's a sport of heroic champions but, more commonly, of humble strugglers bravely trying to claw their way to the top. As my old mate, Vic Patrick, the craggy little southpaw who was Australia's biggest boxing star in the 1940s, told me not long before he died: ‘Even if you're just a preliminary boy, it takes a lot of courage to lace on a glove'.
Boxing has taken me to England, the United States, Mexico, Germany, Thailand, Fiji and New Zealand, and during that time I was in the corner, as assistant to Australia's most successful coach, Johnny Lewis, for all of Jeff Fenech's world-title wins and for the ferocious Jeff Harding as he marched towards the world light-heavyweight title.
I was the chief second when Hungarian-born Joe Bugner fought future world-heavyweight champion Frank Bruno before 37,000 people at White Hart Lane, London, in 1987, in what was then the richest fight ever held in Britain. The bout was such a huge event that the promoters provided us with two S-Type Bentleys and a four-motorcycle police escort to ferry our team to the packed stadium. I almost had to climb over Hollywood stars Demi Moore and Bruce Willis to get into the ring!
In 2010, boxing took me to the Estadio Beto Ávila, a dilapidated baseball stadium in Veracruz, Mexico, where I was in the corner for Sydney solicitor Lovemore Ndou, when he fought hometown hero Saúl ‘Canelo' Álvarez. Three years later, Álvarez fought Floyd Mayweather in Las Vegas in what was then the most lucrative bout in history, generating $150 million.
I have interviewed champs from the 1920s, such as the German bomber, Max Schmeling, Adolf Hitler's reluctant symbol of Aryan supremacy, all the way up to the current world heavyweight king, Wladimir Klitschko.
But few fighters I have known were as inspiring as Lionel Rose: humble, gracious, funny and so unaffected by his success that his favourite pastime in later life was a slow walk to the TAB to place small wagers on even slower horses. Boxing gave him a platform and a status he might otherwise never have known and his 1968 victory over the great Japanese bantamweight, Fighting Harada, was a milestone for the embracing of Indigenous Australians.
Lionel grew up in a bark humpy beside Jacksons Track, a logging trail in Gippsland. There was no running water in his first home, no electricity and certainly no money. Kerosene lamps, candles or the flickering light from his mother's cooking fire inside an old oil drum were the only sources of illumination. The family ate possum, rabbit and wallaby. He and his siblings cleaned their teeth with charcoal and slept on chaff bags.
Lionel arrived home in Melbourne on 29 February 1968, two days after his astonishing victory. He was still four months shy of his 20th birthday. When the jet touched down at Essendon Airport, Lionel's world had changed forever. In a nation that prided itself on punching above its weight at sport, this shy, modest 54kg teenager had notched a victory so remarkable he would soon be voted Australian of the Year and receive an MBE. They were impressive accolades for a young Indigenous man in a country that had only just included its first people in the census, and was not noted for giving them honour.
The reception that greeted Australia's first Indigenous world champion as the door of the DC-9 opened was unlike anything ever seen in this country. An estimated 250,000 people lined the route from Essendon Airport to Melbourne Town Hall in unprecedented scenes of jubilation. Nobody—not The Beatles, not the Queen, not the recent visitor to Melbourne, US President Lyndon Johnson—had ever drawn a cheering crowd like Lionel did on that summer day. It is a seminal moment in the nation's history and in our attitude towards our native people, brought about by the bravery and skill of a young boxer from a disadvantaged background. More than a century and a half after the first recorded prizefight in Australia between two convicts in Sydney boxing had scaled its greatest height.