Dick Tiger Stands Up
I don’t want to question the judges too much. Boxing people tell me I’m lucky to be one of the few guys whose reputation improves even when I lose…
It’s already 1971. Where do the years go? How are my wife and eight children in Biafra? All right, I suppose I can’t call my home Biafra anymore, not publicly. I want to go home to Nigeria. I’m forty-one and my boxing career’s over and my money’s gone and I’m a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and my right side’s killing me and the doctor says it doesn’t look good.
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I’m just a short guy barely five-eight and don’t do much talking and when I do I speak softly and in the dusty streets of Aba in southern Nigeria that makes me a target and I’m scared at first but learn I’m naturally moving my head and making guys miss punches as I get underneath arms and pound their bodies and heads and pretty soon the word’s out, better not fight with Richard Ihetu. He’s built like a rock. Some people tell me to put on the gloves and try to make some money. I start when I’m twenty-three and lose my first two fights but in two years beat my next eight opponents and, being an uneducated husband and father in a poor country I have to say goodbye and move to Liverpool late in 1955.
I’m homesick and don’t understand the British scoring system because I think I’m beating guys who’re primarily jabbing and moving and maybe I should say running, and I lose my first four decisions. Next time I pounce on my opponent and knock him out in the first round and figure that’s a good way to convince the judges. Afterward, I’m told a fan shouted I fought like a tiger and that sounds pretty good: Dick Tiger. I start stopping about half my opponents and don’t worry about an occasional loss because fans like my style and know I’m a fighter.
Early in 1958 I knock out Pat McAteer to win the Commonwealth middleweight title and by June 1959 I’m fighting in Madison Square Garden. Maybe I’m not aggressive enough against Rory Calhoun, drawing the first time and losing the second. I don’t want to question the judges too much. Boxing people tell me I’m lucky to be one of the few guys whose reputation improves even when I lose. That fall I beat clever Joey Giardello but he wins next time, and I lose my Commonwealth title in Canada to underrated Wilf Greaves then stop him in the rematch and defeat six straight guys, breaking the nose of hard-punching Florentino Fernandez and dominating very fine Henry Hank. Now it’s time to be the first Nigerian to win a world championship. I know Gene Fullmer is very strong but he’s not fast enough and I take almost all the rounds and, like a king, am carried from the ring in San Francisco as all of Nigeria and much of Africa celebrate. Three months later I fight Fullmer again and the judges call it a draw. All right. It wasn’t a draw but at least I still have my title and in August 1963 defend it in Ibadan, Nigeria.
My people are chanting and cheering. They know this is a Nigerian celebration, Africa’s first world championship fight, and their man Dick Tiger is landing heavy shots to the head of tough Gene Fullmer who’s hard to hurt but his eyes are cut and he can’t continue after round seven. I’m the most popular man in the country, probably on the continent, and that doesn’t change when I lose the title in a close fight with Joey Giardello. He’s a fine boxer but hasn’t really wanted to fight any of the three times we’ve met and definitely doesn’t want to see me again so I beat Fullmer’s brother Don, lose an inaccurate decision to Joey Archer, and twice knock down Rubin “Hurricane” Carter during a brawl. By October 1965 Joey Giardello can’t avoid me any more. I get underneath him and pound all night to win by many points.
I lose my middleweight title to Emile Griffith in 1966 but don’t cry for myself. I mourn for my Igbo people, industrious and Christian folks who usually live in the south but are needed in the north where Moslems shouting Jihad butcher thirty thousand. I’m going to do something but first surprise many in boxing by moving up to light heavyweight and giving up several pounds and years to champion Jose Torres and beating him pretty good. In May 1967 I win a split-decision rematch and hurry home to turn over most of the money to Biafra, our new nation.
I want to help. I need to fight the enemy. I yearn to destroy him but our leaders say I’m more helpful other ways. I fight exhibitions and establish physical training programs for soldiers and visit wherever I’m needed to boost morale. Our spirits are sliding as bodies pile up, so I show people how to pick up corpses and dispose of them. Many victims are civilians bombed by planes or killed by soldiers.
I return to the United States and every day wherever I go, even walking toward the ring in Madison Square Garden to stop Roger Rouse, or get knocked out, the only time in my life, by long Bob Foster’s horrendous left hook, or to be decked twice in the second round by Frankie DePaula before flattening him twice in the third and winning a decision the fight of the year, I pass out pamphlets about the plight of the Biafran people and the barbarism of the Nigerian government and the bloodthirsty British and their political and military support of genocide that now totals a million dead. Whenever I can I go home with my latest purse. I want to help more but we’re being crushed, and the Nigerian army wants to kill Dick Tiger. I pray they’ll spare my family if I leave.
Back in New York I fight the last time in July 1970, against Emile Griffith, and agree he handily wins. I’ll be forty-one in a few months and have had more than eighty fights, most against fine opponents, and I’m feeling rather old. My new job as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art shouldn’t be so painful. I go to the doctor, and he tells me I have liver cancer and not long to live.
Please, I ask the Nigerian government victorious since early 1970 over a Biafra that exists only as rotting flesh and shattered buildings, let me come home. You can come home, they say, but better not cause trouble. In the summer of 1971 I return, skinny in the way of the very ill, and am ordered to turn over my passport while they blister me with three hours of questions. I cooperate. I’m so happy to again be with my wife and children. I won’t leave again, I promise. I won’t except to get this extraordinary new treatment of liver cancer. Please let me leave just a little while, I ask the government. They say no and keep my passport. I’m disappointed but not bitter. I know. I’m not going to get better. I’m being carried through the streets.
George Thomas Clark is the author of several books, most recently Death in the Ring, a collection of boxing stories, and The Bold Investor, a short story collection. See the author’s website at www.GeorgeThomasClark.com.