There perhaps have only been few in the modern epoch of boxing that have represented the themes of blue collar fighter and ageless ring warrior as Richard Ihetu, better known by his ring pseudonym, Dick Tiger. Indeed, it was once written that he "was the type of fighter who rolled up his sleeves, spat on his hands and went to work, giving an honest labouring mans effort. Each time. Every time." A succinctly unglamorous portrayal of a simple and uncomplicated man who bore the struggles and travails of a lifetime with admirable courage and dignity.
He was born on 14 August 1929 in Amaigbo, a village situated within the Eastern Region of what was then the British Protectorate of Nigeria. He learned his formidable work ethic firstly from the rigours of tilling his father's modestly sized farm and later as a market trader in the nearby township of Aba. The decision to lace up a pair of gloves at the ripe old age of 19 was in part due to a need to escape the drudgery of urban life and partly due to a reputation as a street fighter. He took to it like second nature, partaking in interclub contests arranged by British military officers at a barracks on the outskirts of town. One day an Englishman sat entranced watching the short, stocky fellow practically jump in the air to clobber his opponent. What tenacity he thought, almost like a Tiger. "A tiger is what he is!" he shouted. Thus was born the sobriquet Dick Tiger. Nigeria had no substantive traditions in the sport but encouraged by the improving standards of organisation and the increasing accessibility of British rings to pugilists of West African origin, Tiger decided to turn professional in the early 1950s. He cleaned up against the grandiosely named Easy Dynamite, Mighty Joe and Super Human Power. But contrary to his official fight record, he would never beat the modestly named southpaw, Tommy West in any of three meetings. West soon died after their final bout and Tiger, the peripatetic fighter who traversed Nigeria as part of a travelling boxing booth as well as a trader, was the main man again.
In 1955, having outgrown the local opposition, he joined the trans-Atlantic migration of fighters, arriving in the port city of Liverpool by mailboat. Events quickly took upon a nightmarerish quality. British boxing, resurgent in the immediate post-war period was by now in the depths of an industry wide recession brought about in the main by a debilitating tax on sporting events. He struggled to keep warm and found the native food hard going. Adding to the problems of climate and cuisine was the need to orientate his style to British standards. He was apt to miss with ill-timed lunges and not infrequently, ran into his opponents left jabs. After four bouts and four decision losses, he went back to the drawing board and would square accounts with all four and then go on to beat amongst others future world champion Terry Downes while enroute to the British Empire middleweight championship which he ripped off Patrick McAteer.
In 1959, Tiger refused to renew his contract with his second British manager, Tony Vairo (the first one, Peter Banasko, had dumped him having never recovered from Hogan Bassey's defection to another manager) and headed for New York to be guided by the braintrust of Wilfred 'Jersey' Jones and Lew Burston. Now approaching 30, Tiger was keen to emulate Bassey's accession to the world featherweight title which owed much to their behind the scenes manoeuverings in getting Bassey, then largely unknown to American audiences, into the elimination series devised by the world governing authorities to find a successor to Sandy Saddler. But the ostensibly high powered duo: Jones was an associate editor at Ring magazine while Burston served as Madison Square Garden's 'International Representative,' were unable to secure for Tiger a title challenge against any holder of the now fragmented middleweight crown. Gene Fullmer and Paul Pender were both blatant in avoiding him; the latter commenting at the time that Tiger "is one of those fighters who just keeps coming. They are the kind you don't fight unless you have to." Thus unlike Bassey, Tiger became a known and avoided quantity courtesy of NBC's 'Fight of the Week' broadcasts on Friday evenings. But although the age of saturation coverage by American television was in its last phase, Tiger profited as never; such that by the time he fought Henry Hank in March of 1962, Harry Markson, Madison Square Garden's director of boxing, describing him as a "standout fighter" was happy to pay him a television appearance fee of $10,500, well in excess of the average payment of $4,000.
Tiger stood out in other ways. A stocky, sinewy African adorned with tribal markings on both chest and back, yet a softly spoken British accented gentleman partial to homburg hats and Anthony Eden coats. Bemused and occasionally irritated by asides about 'headhunters' and the cannibalism supposedly practiced on his home continent, a favourite response was to quip that we "quit that years ago when the Governor-General made us sick." In time American sportswriters would go past their shallow prejudices and admire him for his personal qualities, not least of which was the quiet dignity he projected.
He was too quiet for some though. Gene Fullmer once recalled the disappointment of the promoters of their first fight at Tiger's lack of braggadocio - a handy weapon in the quest for higher box office receipts. John Condon, the long term director of publicity at Madison Square Garden apparently loathed his tendency to introspection. According to Tommy Kenville, a Garden publicist, Tiger was at times "difficult to deal with." He would avoid pressmen and then when he spoke to them it would be in "monosyllabic tones" such as "it could be a good fight..." But many of his contests were just that; good fights. Occasionally, they were classic exhibitions of pugilism.
On October 23 1962, at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, he seized the N.B.A. middleweight crown from the bloodied Gene Fullmer in a match which lived up to its 'Pier six brawl' billing. Afterwards in Nigeria, they celebrated like never bursting out of their homes and into the streets to sing and dance in unbridled jubilation. After being granted undisputed status by edict of the other governing bodies, Tiger defended his title twice against Fullmer. First was a drawn verdict in Las Vegas while the other happened in Ibadan, western Nigeria. Black Africa's first world title bout occurred 11 years before Zaire's 'Rumble in the Jungle.' For Tiger who painstakingly had built up a career without the benefit of home support, it was a triumphant homecoming. The build up was eventful too. Nigeria's quarrelling politicians called a temporary truce in aid of an event which they underwrote and utilised in the promotion of their newly independent nation. Tiger's subsequent seven round mauling of Fullmer before thirty thousand baying countrymen was one of his most assured and destructive displays of boxing skill. "Fullmer's face," wrote Peter Wilson of the London Daily Mirror, "was a rubbery caricature of human countenance, a contour map of disaster with bumps and lumps for mountains and ridges and meandering red streaks for the rivers."
The euphoria however would not last for long. A few months later in the first ever world title bout promoted in Atlantic City, he dropped a 15 round decision to Joey Giardello. It was one of Tiger's more disappointing outings but a stellar performance by Giardello who surprised many on the night with a jab and move strategy. "Fancy giving the verdict to the runner instead of the fighter," Tiger lamented. "Ahh, these days you can win a world championship by running." He would never accept that a boxer could win a fight and a challenger a championship "playing tricks" and "flying around like a bird." American judges, he had been led to believe were more inclined to favour aggressors.
The other thing, which Tiger had been led to believe about Americans, was that they kept their promises. "You were man enough to give me a chance at the title, so you deserve a return," Giardello told him. These words would haunt Tiger for close to two years during which Giardello continued to vacillate and to prevaricate. Yet this was the period during which Tiger consolidated a major portion of his legend, taking on every ranked contender willing to venture into the ring with him. It was the time when Tiger became a 'Garden Fighter,' with both Harry Markson and Teddy Brenner, the Garden's matchmaker, seeing Tiger as useful tool in attracting live audiences in a new boxing era brought about in 1964 when the Gillette company announced the ending of its sponsored coverage of fights at the Garden. There were wins over Jose Gonzalez, Don Fullmer and Juan 'Rocky' Rivero. A controversial points loss to Joey Archer sullied his streak of wins. But his most impressive victory of the period occurred in May of 1965 when he dropped the 'Hurricane,' Rubin Carter three times on the way to a unanimous decision. This performance convinced many that Tiger was the "world's best middleweight, the uncrowned champion." Giardello relented and later on that year he regained his title in what was described as the "most one sided fight to be staged in New York for some time." In the process he set a noteworthy record; joining Ketchel, Zale and and Robinson as the only fighters in history to have regained the middleweight championship.
In April 1966, he lost his title to Emile Griffith. Although the judges scored the bout unanimously in Griffiths favour, most of the attending press corps saw it for Tiger. Among their ranks, the stentorian Nat Fleisher described the decision, as been "one of the worst rendered in New York for many years." "The judges," he added "had being honest but deluded." With Griffith and the Garden disposed to putting him behind a queue consisting of the likes of Nino Benvenuti and Joey Archer, Tiger sensed that his career might be drawing to an end. He appealed to the New York State Athletic Commission to arrange a rematch on what he termed as "neutral ground." he even when as far as to call upon the W.B.A. to have the match nullified. Both requests were politely turned down. Retirement now beckoned. Much of his earnings had been invested back home in Nigeria. There were apartment blocks, a customised jewelry establishment, a bookshop and a two thousand-seater cinema complex. He drove a top of the range Mercedes Benz and lived in a nine-bedroom mansion.
But the trappings of wealth failed to diminish his hunger. There was still a lot of fight in him and he moved up a division to challenge Jose Torres for the world's light heavyweight title. The fact that this Cus D'Amato nurtured Puerto Rican was younger, taller, heavier and nominally the more naturally talented boxer failed to dampen Tiger's ambition and desire. There is a moment from fight, beautifully recounted by Torres in an obituary he would write for Tiger that captures the spirit of Dick Tiger. Torres saw an opening and connected solidly with a combination of punches before stepping back to watch Tiger fall to the canvas; a pause long enough for Tiger to riposte with a stunning left hook. The first thing Torres noticed when his head cleared and his vision returned was the exposed brown coloured mouthpiece of Tiger's; Tiger was smiling. Tiger upset the odds when he obtained the unanimous verdict and became only the second man in 63 years to have won both middle and light heavyweight titles. This feat was acknowledged by New York's sportswriters who awarded him the Edward J. Neil Award. Five months later in May 1967, he repeated his victory, this time with a split decision.
Afterwards he returned to Nigeria to give his support to the act of secession by his native Eastern Region. During 1966, Tiger's Igbo kith and kin had endured much suffering in a concatenation of bloodletting. In May and October, many lost their lives in a vicious ethnic pogrom executed in the northern part of the country. Between these events, in July, a mutiny orchestrated by Northern soldiers toppled the military regime headed by General Aguyi-Ironsi, an Igbo who suffered a particularly brutal assassination. Much of the commercial and public sector in northern Nigeria was dominated by the Igbo's who the Northerners feared were hell bent on establishing a form of tribal hegemony. The subsequent accession of a Northerner as head of state was disputed by Colonel Ojukwu, the military governor of the Eastern region whose eventual proclamation of the rebel republic of Biafra triggered off the ensuing civil conflict.
Tiger did not remain unaffected by events. In February 1967, he staged a charity bout in the city of Port Harcourt with Abraham Tonica, Nigeria's middleweight champion in order to raise funds for the worsening plight of the refugees swarming into the Eastern Region to escape the killings. Tiger himself was not unknowing of the risks Igbos faced. Such was the climate of fear that when in November of 1966 he left to challenge Torres, he did not venture through Lagos airport, controlled now by the North and instead made the first of many circuitous journeys via Francophone Africa and Portugal.
It is a habit of peoples involved in wars to appoint their celebrities to aid the national morale effort. Biafra had Tiger; and after the successful defence of his light heavyweight title against Roger Rouse, he returned to receive a direct commission into the Morale Corps of the rebel army. His remit was to put recruits into shape at Biafran army training camps and to keep up the spirits of townfolk suffering from devastating raids of the Nigerian Air Force. Never far from the terror (he recounted a story of serving as a body collector in the aftermath of an air raid of a market town) he grew bitter at what he perceived to be the indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets.
Before the end of 1967, Biafra was blockaded by the Federal side and virtually cut off from the outside world. But Tiger found his way out to fight Bob Foster. The huge $100,000 guarantee extracted from Foster's handlers by Jersey Jones represented the risk that Tiger would be taking against the man avoided by light heavyweight champions Willie Pestrano and Jose Torres as well as the need for the level of funds Tiger would need to support his family and the cause. At six-foot-three, Foster's spindly physique bore a certain resemblance to the freakish anatomies of Panama Al Brown and Sandy Saddler. But his punches carried tremendous power. Indeed, the right upper cut and left hook that devastated Tiger in the fourth round at the fourth incarnation of Madison Square Garden was one of the hardest combinations seen in a boxing ring. Gamely, Tiger tried raising himself up, but could not recover. Afterwards, he intrigued the reporters who visited him with an insightful rendition of the sensations felt by the fighting man trapped in the throes of the 'blacklights': "I do not see anything. I do not hear anything. Everything is all quiet and it is dark." It was the first and only time that he was counted out in his career.
But the war, and perhaps pride, would not permit him the luxury of retirement. So fighting only for what he termed 'daily bread,' he prolonged his career. In October 1968, he tussled memorably with a hard hitting New Jersey fighter named Frankie DePaula. Both men visited the canvas on two occasions each, before Tiger was awarded the unanimous verdict. It was voted Ring magazine's fight of the year. The contest also received Tiger's vote: four large sized photographs capturing the scene of each knockdown were framed and mounted onto his living room wall. In May of 1969, he outpointed world middleweight champion, Nino Benvenuti in an over the weight contest. But an offer from the Garden to stage a title bout between both men was declined on account of Tiger's belief in the futility of maintaining strength and stamina at the one hundred and sixty pound weight limit. These battles in his twilight years endeared Tiger to the New York fight public in a manner few non-American fighters succeeded in doing. "The thing about Dick Tiger," commented Teddy Brenner, "is that he has an honest heart and willing hands. If he gets beat, it's only because the other guy was a better fighter that night. He usually gives away height and weight and age, but he never gives heart."
A dreary, albeit winning duel, against light heavyweight contender Andy Kendall and a decision loss to Emile Griffith in July 1970 rounded up his eighteen-year career. There had been an ending to the Nigerian civil war. Outnumbered, outgunned and finally outmanoeuvered, the Biafran rebels capitulated in January 1970. Tiger remained in New York an exile from his reunited homeland. His wife and children who initially had resided in Portugal had since joined him. After his defeat to Griffith, he struggled to remain in the top flight visiting gyms and Harry Markson's offices at the Garden desperately trying to make one last 'big time' fight. When this failed to materialise, he took a job as a security guard in New York's Natural History Museum -not as has been frequently claimed due to financial emaciation, but according to his family as a means of fulfilling a natural urge to keep himself occupied.
Then came the prognosis of liver cancer made during a week long stay at the New York Polyclinic Hospital in July of 1971. Given a few months to live, Tiger resolved to go back to Nigeria where a generous peace had been formulated by General Gowon, the head of state. Under the banner slogan 'No victor, No vanquished,' a general amnesty had been granted to those who had played a part in the rebellion. But Tiger continued to have doubts about this and feared reprisals in the event of his return. And not for good reason. His propagandizing of the Biafran effort caused anger among many military officials. In numerous interviews he had alluded to war crimes committed by the Nigerian armed forces. Leaflets alleging the same had been distributed at fights at Madison Square Garden. Furthermore, Tiger's insistence that the Biafran anthem be played before his bouts and the return of his M.B.E. civil medal, albeit British but, nevertheless complete with publicised note condemning its moral and military support for Nigeria in its "genocidal war against the people of Biafra," were all considered highly provocative and virtually unforgivable by influential officers in the ruling junta. Tiger's doubts could not be quelled by the assurances given by the Nigerian authorities that he would be allowed to return safely and so he called on Larry Merchant, then a columnist with the New York Post to bear witness to a formal guarantee of safe passage issued by a Nigerian consulate official in Manhattan.
He returned unmolested (apart from a three hour interview conducted by Nigerian security agents who confiscated his passport) and was able to account for most of his properties. One was never returned. Neither was his passport. In an act of spitefulness, the military regime refused to his request to be let out of the country in order to undergo radical treatment for his ailment. He succumbed finally, aged 42 on December 14 1971. The funeral five days later brought out mourners in their thousands. Among the graveside rites was a 21-gun salute.
His premature death, occasioned as it was in the wake of the defeat suffered by the renegade Biafran state on which he staked so much on, has unsurprisingly served to cast an enduring pall which has tended to overemphasize the tragic aspect of his life. But while his ending was tragic, his life was far from being a tragedy, indeed it is a tale of progress and self improvement; from humble bottle trader to wealthy realtor, from obscure boxing booths to that pinnacle of boxing venues: Madison Square Garden. Dick Tiger was a man of many parts; a courageous fighter, a Nigerian patriot, Biafran rebel, a devoted family man and a gentleman, all roles which he underscored with a rich vein of integrity.
"He was," eulogized Ted Carroll, "that rare individual whose abilities in his chosen profession matched his qualities as a man."
Copyright Adeyinka Makinde 2001. Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal (ISBN 1-59571-042-6) is published by Word Association Publishers and is available to purchase at amazon.com