Chapter Five/"Reborn" -- Mickey Duff, an ex-fighter and now the rising matchmaker for Harry Levene promotions, had seen Tiger lose by a decision. To him, Tiger's six-wins-to-five-losses record spelt "journeyman fighter" convenient fodder for Terry Downes, the great hope of British boxing. "I thought I had done my homework," Duff recalled in his autobiography. "I had seen Tiger lose to a nobody in Liverpool and thought he was a perfect opponent –- one who would make a show but wouldn't be good enough to win."
A lot was expected of Downes. He had taken up boxing during a brief sojourn in the United States, fighting for the Marines as well as in Golden Gloves competitions. His record was solid enough to have him co-opted onto the American Olympic squad bound for the Melbourne games until it was discovered that he was not an American national.
Vairo hastily completed the details with Duff, the bout being scheduled for May 14th -barely two weeks after the Read match- at East London's Shoreditch Town Hall. Tiger, like Vairo, was anxious to take the bout. It did not perturb him that he would receive £60 ($170) of the total £185 purse fee since he had consistently earned less than this on the northwest circuit. This was an opportunity. What struck him most was the extent of Downes' popularity and the expectations that were being dumped on his young shoulders. The only thing bothering him about the fight was his weight, the matter that had caused him to pay forfeit to Read.
On the morning of the fight, he stood on the scales and was stunned to hear his weight declared as being one and a half pounds above the stipulated weight of eleven stone and nine pounds. The room, filled with pressmen and assorted spectators, broke out into a general titter. He surveyed the faces impassively but inwardly he burned with anger. The promoters agreed to give him one hour to shed the excess. He spurned an offer to use the facilities of a nearby Turkish bath because of the weakening effects on the body and instead scurried around borrowing garments, which he piled on his torso before embarking on a furious workout. It proved just enough to make the weight.
Looking on, Downes had reason to be confident. Tiger's record, for one, suggested that he was up against a 'trial horse.' He had seen Tiger demolish Johnny Read but he reckoned the result had been hugely influenced by Read's lack of motivation on account of his impending emigration to Canada. Although Tiger appeared to him to be a "well built fighter," Downes suspected that Tiger's weighing in exertions would likely have left him in a weakened state.
Later on that evening, the hall quickly filled to capacity. The demand for tickets had been so great that "hundreds" were reportedly locked outside. Inside the smallness of the venue ensured a semi-claustrophobic atmosphere as spectators, many of them sitting and standing shoulder-to-shoulder crowded around the ring. Above them were a number of balconies that hung steeply, seemingly above the ring, the occupants, according to Reg Gutteridge "practically breathing down the necks of the contestants."
At the din of the opening bell, Downes sprang out of his corner throwing leather from all angles -- aiming, Tiger surmised, to secure a quick rout over what he expected to be a weight weakened, muscle bound duck. Tiger held his ground until Downes waded into a powerful left hook, which deposited him on to the canvas for a seven count. At this moment Tiger would claim later that he knew his man was beaten. With indecent haste, Downes scrambled up, dusting the resin from his scarlet trunks. He was still in the process of gathering his senses when the referee yelled for both men to "box on." Outweighed by six pounds, Downes was yet to shake off the effects of the blows when in the second round another of Tiger's left hooks sent him tumbling over. But this did not finish him off. He gathered himself again and both men traded punches with some of Downes' combinations ending under Tiger's heart. The damage, nevertheless had already been done and while Tiger waited for the sounding of the seventh round, Downes' handlers, mindful no doubt about the effects that a prolonged assault would have on their youthful charge, decided to withdraw him from the contest.
"That fight, he found himself," says Downes. "He'd become acclimatised. He'd been stuck in Liverpool probably not eating properly and God knows what. Afterwards he went from glory to glory. I don't put losing down to overconfidence; I put it down to Dick being a good fighter. He caught me with a good punch and that was it." He recalls Tiger fondly. "He was a wonderful gentleman. I saw him in New York a couple of times and another time in Boston at the time I fought Paul Pender. Dick was always friendly and hospitable. We had a repartee going on between us. He would call me 'Mr. Terry' and ask me how I was and I'd tell him, 'Not bloody well, thanks to you'!"
Back in his dressing room, Downes, the irrepressibly loquacious wit, bandied trademark quips in response to the questions being asked by the journalists. When one asked him whether he thought Tiger might have being too big for him he responded, "Yeah, he did look a big middleweight to me too, then I realised I was lying down and he was standing up." Another then asked him which opponent he would like to face next and Downes shot back a gem:
"I'd like it to be the bastard who suggested Dick Tiger."
While he waited for developments to crystallise, Tiger busied himself with a succession of opponents. Freddie De Largy was stopped in Birmingham, Jean Roellet was decisioned in Hull while previous opponents, Jimmy Lynas and Johnny Read were unable to last the distance.
A date was finally set for a title fight with McAteer on March 27. His employers at the paint factory granted him a month's leave of absence. For Tiger the moment of fulfilment was at hand and he was determined to seize it. For a man who instinctually trained for bouts with a zeal often bordering on the fanatical, Tiger surpassed himself this time and amazed those who witnessed his preparations. In all, he accumulated 100 rounds of sparring at the Professional Boxers Association gym and at Transport House.
The bout was scheduled to take place at the Liverpool Stadium, a venue with an unnerving reputation for being the 'graveyard of the champions.' Best Senior had actually built the stadium on the site of an old churchyard, an act which had brought storms of protest from sections in the Liverpool community. Superstition aside, Tiger had other things to worry about. The ring selected by the stadium for one measured in at 18 feet –four feet longer than the length of rings to which he was accustomed. Ring size can be an important consideration for fighters when set against the 'styles' they adopt. Boxers who rely on mobility to achieve distance from their opponents by applying lateral movement with retreating manoeuvres, are apt to prefer the inherent advantages of space which the larger ring brings while those with a combative bent, geared towards the employing of close fighting techniques are logically disposed to prefer the smaller ring where their ability to successfully utilise the technique referred to as 'cutting off the ring,' (applying stepping motions that shorten the distance between himself and his opponent) is greatly enhanced. The tactics employed by McAteer in the previous meeting would have weighed heavily on his mind. But if he felt disadvantaged in this regard, there were other areas which his opponents camp were confident would work against him. The championship duration for one would be in effect and while McAteer had successfully negotiated 15 rounds, Tiger had not.
His other source of worry was his weight, that is, of his ability to reduce himself down to the championship standard limit of one 160 pounds. It was and is the custom for boxers to fight their non-title bouts outside the demarcated title weight limits and Tiger had rarely been called upon to fight within the middleweight limit in most of his Nigerian and British bouts. What would have preyed on his mind was the knowledge that the maturation of the body over time diminishes the boxer's capacity to reduce his weight while at the same time keeping his strength. Aware, no doubt, of Tiger's problems in reducing before his bouts with Johnny Read and Terry Downes, Johnny Campbell was obviously indulging in psychological mind games when he pointed out that Tiger had never engaged in a contest at less than three pounds over the middleweight limit. Indeed many observers, including Douglas Collister, were doubtful that his naturally stocky physique would make it practicable for him to continue to campaign as a middleweight for much longer.
It was a day of the changing of the guard. In the early hours of March 27th, Radio Moscow announced that Nikita Khrushchev had relieved Nikolai Bulganin of the Soviet premiership. Tiger, who had watched two of his compatriots, Sandy Manuel and Roy Jacobs, win their preliminary contests by knockout, stepped into the ring wearing a deep blue dressing gown. The cheers from the crowd brought a brief grin as he strode purposefully around the ring waiting for McAteer's entrance. His thoughts tracked back to their last encounter, their sparring sessions and to the strategy he had devised along with Foran and Vairo. All were convinced that his priority would be to prevent McAteer from settling down to his classical boxing posture. He knew of McAteer's flaws. The champion was for instance inclined to drop his left hand after throwing the jab. McAteer also had a habit of carelessly catapulting himself off the ropes.
The opening rounds were uneventful, seeming largely to be a continuation of the pattern developed in the first meeting. McAteer constantly stuck out a long left jab at him as he retreated, while Tiger plodded forward, hoping for an opportunity to breach the champions guard. Five rounds passed and Tiger lagged behind McAteer on the judges score sheets. Fate, however, now dealt an intervening hand. The fans in the stadium, no doubt aware of the dullness of the first bout, were getting restless at the prospect of sitting through another staid encounter and chanted for both men to slug it out. McAteer responded by adopting a more stationary position the result of which enabled Tiger to get in close to his man. A series of intense exchanges ensued. The crowd rose to this, roaring their approval at each hook, cross and uppercut. In the midsts of this clanger, fans of the champion worried at the sight of McAteer receiving a beating, beseeched him to "Box! Box! Box!" and advised him to "Keep away Pat!" But to Tiger's relief, McAteer paid them no heed.
In round six, two swift left hooks landed squarely on McAteer's chin buckling his knees and forcing him to gasp for air. The effect of this according to the Liverpool Echo, was to send McAteer "plunging across the ring like a hop, skip and jump contestant." Although now largely bereft of his customary ring elegance and poise, McAteer was able to summon attacks of his own. But when he caught Tiger in the nose with a full-blooded swing, retribution came swiftly with a left hook that caused McAteer to stagger backwards against the ropes near to his corner.
The end came in the ninth. McAteer now bled from the nose, his mouth was permanently agape and the strain on his legs was becoming intolerable. At the two minute mark, Tiger shot out a left-right combination that froze the champion, setting him up for the coup de grace, a sweeping hook that deposited McAteer on the floor. Tiger watched as he attempted vainly to raise himself only to tumble over into a heap. Referee Tommy Little stepped in to wave the bout over.
After he was roused, McAteer went over to congratulate the new champion. He recalls, "(In the first fight), I took him too lightly. I was training but my heart wasn't in it. He took me by surprise and they gave us a draw. The next time we boxed, he'd improved. People said to me, 'What punch did he hit you with?' and I said, 'I didn't see it, I was asleep.'"
Still on leave, Tiger spent the next day relaxing and contemplating his future. It was the sort of future that the bedraggled journeyman bound boxer of one year past could only have viewed as a virtually unattainable dream. The reviews in the morning papers would have pleased him, his performance having received praise from previously disbelieving quarters. The Daily Mail's Harry Carpenter for one had in the past been unimpressed by what he termed Tiger's "wild swinging." Against McAteer however, he noted that Tiger "hit with deadly precision and a calculating grimness."
There were those who felt that Tiger had reached his finite level. Of course, they argued, there was no harm in facing the top middleweight contenders and trying his luck as it were -- that was his prerogative, but they felt that he was in essence a limited fighter who appeared to rely more on strength than skill. One journalist wrote that he could 'come close' to winning a title but no more. Others like Douglas Collister felt him capable but were doubtful of his chances of continuing to make the middleweight championship limit. Nevertheless, enough support and encouragement came from British fight fans, promoters and sportswriters; all sensing, perhaps, expecting that he would in the words of a Boxing News editorial, "Bridge the gap that has existed between rated American and British middleweights since Randolph Turpin."
It was a gap that would not be narrowed if he continued to fight the likes of Billy Ellaway whom he dismissed in two rounds at the Liverpool Stadium. He needed quality opposition of the sort that could only come from the United States. A match with Gene Fullmer was touted and was looking a distinct possibility before the American came down with a serious kidney ailment.
Offers, for his services continued to land on Vairo's desk coming from promoters like Johnnie Best Junior, Stan Baker and Reg King. Another from Australia involved him fighting a series of bouts in Sydney. While Vairo mulled over them, he was hopeful that Tiger would be able to fight the winner of the impending contest between Terry Downes and Phil Edwards. Later, he would enter into negotiations with representatives of Clive Steward, the Australian middleweight champion, with the view to defending his Empire title in Sydney. Despite the welter of activity, it was apparent by August of 1958 that none of the promoters were in a position to deliver Tiger with an adequate opponent: "There is neither anyone on the continent that wants Dick Tiger nor anyone available they want to put in with him" Vairo sighed.
The frustrations caused by the lack of suitable opposition and the searing ambition kindling in him had by now convinced Tiger of the need to make wholesale changes in the handling of his career. While he may have deferred to Vairo in public, the true state of relations between both men was far from being all sweetness and light. Much of this centred on Tiger agitating for Vairo to provide him with meaningful American opposition, that is, of the sort that would enable him to break into the world rankings. This he realised would not be achieved by engaging in 'dead end' excursions against the likes of Downes and Steward.
It had always been impressed upon him from the time of his arrival in Liverpool that if he truly wished to win the world championship, his ultimate destination would have to be the United States. Peter Banasko, whose indifferent career had perhaps in part have been shaped by the realisation that he would never be able to fight for the national title of the country of his birth, had been fond of telling his black fighters that sport, and in particular, boxing, was one of the few areas in American life where the issue of racial discrimination had been resolved to the to the extent that it compared more favourably to the situation in Britain: If you were good enough, you would not be denied the prizes or the purses.
On that score, Hogan Bassey was in a position to attest. The world featherweight champion, by now fighting regularly in America, was embarked on lucrative non-title bouts against the likes of former world champion Willie Pep, topping up the earnings he received for his championship defences. Bassey was instrumental in bringing Tiger to the attention of his American representative, Wilfred 'Jersey' Jones. In 1957, against many odds, Jones had contrived to get Bassey into the world championship elimination series that had been organised after Sandy Saddler had been forced into retirement because of injuries he had sustained in an automobile accident. As Tiger later recalled "It was Hogan Bassey who suggested that I come to America and have Jersey Jones handle me. Bassey was (British) Empire champion at the time, but that didn't mean anything in America and Hogan was unknown. Jones had some strong opposition getting him into the tournament –there were so many other featherweights with better records- but he did it and Hogan went on to become world champion. Bassey convinced me that what Jones had done for him, he probably could do for me."
The transaction with Jones meant that he would not only be leaving England but would also have to sever his association with Vairo whom his friend, Foran had grown to dislike. "Maurice thought the world of Dick and vice versa," relates Jim Jenkinson, Treasurer of the Merseyside Ex-Boxers Association, "He didn't get on with Vairo because he said Vairo got him a job in a bloody paint factory. Of all the places to put him, with the fumes and everything." Foran for his part insists that he did not have a problem with Vairo, claiming, "it was Dick who didn't get on with him."
That aside, money may well have featured as a point of contention and although Tiger would not outwardly assert to being ripped off by Vairo, the brief measured reflection of his stable mate, Harry Scott speaks volumes. "Vairo" he says, was a shrewd man." Adding the all too familiar pugilists lament that "boxers retire poor while managers get rich."
By the beginning of Autumn, Tiger and Vairo had settled on two matters: An opponent, Yolande Pompey was lined up on a Jack Solomons' package to take place on October 16th at London's Wembley Pool. Afterwards, he would depart for Nigeria for a long awaited break; this Tiger had insisted upon after turning down Vairo's proposal that he face Clive Steward in Australia, a month after tackling Pompey.
Pompey was a London based Trinidadian who two years earlier had made an unsuccessful attempt at wresting the world's light heavyweight title from Archie Moore. More recently, in his last contest, Pompey, who at this moment was the number eight-ranked contender in that weight division, had humiliated the great Randolph Turpin in a second round stoppage victory. The fight effectively ended Turpin's career.
Faced once more with the predicament of taking an overweight contest, Vairo had insisted that Pompey come in at no more than 12 stones. The punches exchanged with Pompey were particularly fierce and directed largely at each man's mid-section. At the end, it was Pompey, his face bloodied after ten hard fought pounds who came out the worse for wear and the referee raised Tiger's hand in victory.
The following morning's papers were unanimous in their praise of his performance, most seeming to place emphasis on his physical strength. Harry Carpenter of the Daily Mail wrote "There can be few men stronger than Tiger in this country today" while the News Chronicle's Gerard Walker noted that "every time Tiger got home, there was genuine power behind the punch." The Daily Telegraph's sportswriter opined that while "Tiger's performance may not have been spectacular, it was workman like and relentless."
On Monday, February 16th, he and Abigail finally flew to London. The following day, Vairo received them at the airport and accompanied them on the London to Liverpool intercity carriage, arriving at the train station at 4.30 in the afternoon.
Vairo, Tiger discovered had been working furiously at securing him a series of fights against world title contenders. In January he had written to Britain's representative on the World Boxing Championships Committee, Onslow Fane, imploring the Old Etonian to ensure that Tiger received a fair hearing in the event of a need to stage the world title eliminators that were expected if Sugar Ray Robinson was stripped of his middleweight title. Vairo turned to Johnnie Best Junior who was busy making preparations for Liverpool Stadium's annual Grand National Week Show, bouts which were held around the week of Britain's premier horse racing event, the Grand National. Best cabled Lew Burston, a New York City based agent, requesting that he send he send a 'top class' American as opposition for Tiger. Best had by this time given up hope of luring Sugar Ray Robinson to meet Tiger at the stadium and informed Vairo that the most he could hope for was to get Tiger a spot on the bill of the proposed 'super contest' between Robinson and Archie Moore touted to take place in New York at the end of June.
Burston did deliver an opponent for Tiger, the Brooklyn born Randy Sandy. Tall and leanly built, Sandy boasted a solid if not spectacular record; the sort that Vairo hoped would provide the stern but tameable opposition that Tiger needed to overcome in order to break into the world rankings. Tiger would be conceding five inches in reach and height but would have reasoned that the Americans eleven stone seven weight spread over a six foot plus frame would be no match for him in the area of physical strength. This proved to be the case. He plotted his way past Sandy's long jab, pummelling his torso with 'complete gusto and relish.' By the end of the sixth, he had succeeded inflicting a cut above Sandy's eye. But to Tiger's amazement and the audience's dismay, it was Sandy's hand that the referee raised. Many in the crowd rose, voicing their collective disapprobation with slow handclaps and foot stomps.
Observers noted the calm, stoical manner in which Tiger took the loss and contrasted this with Vairo's outbursts in Tiger's packed dressing room. His world appeared to be in tatters when announcing that the decision "has made me seriously consider whether to quit boxing."
"It has been my life's ambition to manage a world champion," he continued, "and in Dick Tiger, thought I had the chance to achieve this."
For Vairo, however, the anguish continued. Two years had passed since he had signed Tiger and their contract was now up for renewal. Vairo, who had recently re-signed Sandy Manuel, now on a tour of Australia, may have expected Tiger to do the same, but when he broached the matter, Tiger informed him that he had made alternative arrangements. "I remember that he went back to visit his family in Nigeria," recalls Michael Valerio, "and whilst he was away, my uncle Tony who had a co-promoter in New York, a chap named Mickey Vance, was negotiating a bout with Sugar Ray Robinson. In that interim period while Tiger was away, he had actually clinched a deal with him. But unfortunately, Tiger signed with somebody, which made him ineligible to go ahead with the fight. When he came back, he hit my uncle Tony with the news that he had signed with another manager. And I remember this because my uncle Tony said that it was the only time in his life that he knew he had a world champion. But it took Dick Tiger another (three) years to get a crack at the title."
Some years later, a writer to Boxing News would claim to have seen a copy of a contract detailing the terms of a proposed bout with Sugar Ray Robinson. The agreement, which according to the writer was dated in 1958, apparently bore the consenting signature of George Gainsford, Robinson's manager. Yet even if true, the agreement would appear not to have been binding on the notoriously difficult champion, at the time in debt to the United States Inland Revenue Service, who consistently haggled with promoters over purse sizes far in excess of the maximum monies that would generate out of a fight with Tiger. It is unlikely that Robinson would have considered Tiger, then virtually unknown in America, as a viable money making exercise, and also, perhaps not worth the risk.
Talk that Tiger had thrown away the chance of a fight with Robinson would do the rounds in Merseyside for years, but what is more likely to be the case is that the supposed document purporting to be a contract to fight Robinson was in fact a contract giving Gainsford the right to be Tiger's American representative when as Vairo expected, Tiger would relocate over there. The fact that Tiger did not renew his contract with Vairo, automatically invalidated it.
Tony Vairo was devastated and felt bitterly let down by Tiger, although his nephew insists that there was no lasting feelings of betrayal "He definitely knew that Tiger would be the champion and that was the most ironic part about it," Valerio says, "but, I don't think there was any bitterness later on. They had made up as far as friends were concerned because business is business, money is money."
This may well be a sugar coating of the realities; Vairo afterall had been the one to assume responsibility over Tiger when other managers had shunned him. It reminded Peter Banasko of the unfulfilled promise of guiding his fighter to the denouement of ring glory. "Tony," he wrote years later, "must get all the credit for Tiger's rise to the top like me with Bassey but neither of us was there as we should and could have been when both became world champions."
The return with Sandy was held three weeks later at London's Wembley Pool. On this occasion, Sandy, having learned a lot from the first meeting, went about matters in a manner designed to stifle Tiger; keeping his distance and constantly grabbing Tiger into clinches. His other tactic centred on mirth. "Sandy," wrote an on looking correspondent, "often had the crowd roaring with some amusing antics. At times, Tiger was left standing in the middle of the ring while the American strolled round the ropes twirling his arms windmill fashion." Sandy joked in between the furtive, painless jabs he was throwing going as far as playfully patting Tiger at the back of his trunks at the end of the sixth. Tiger was visibly outraged. Although Tiger's persistent display of aggression won him the fight, the decision drew boos from sections of the arena convinced that Sandy's tactics had won him the bout. Sandy's manager was convinced that his fighter had won and he stormed towards the press section to solicit help in finding an official of the B.B.B.C. with whom he intended to lodge a complaint.
Tiger was nonplussed. All that mattered to him was that the loss had been reversed. For the last time in his career, he stepped out of a British ring and would now step onto a far greater stage: that of America.
Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal (ISBN 1595710426) published by Word Association Publishers. Available from amazon.com.