The Mercurial Life and Career of Jeff Fenech

By Dennis Taylor on July 28, 2015
The Mercurial Life and Career of Jeff Fenech
“I don’t mind getting hit, getting stabbed, getting shot at. That’s just life for me.”

“To be honest, if I wanted something when I was growing up, I usually had to get it the hard way…”

At age 17, boxing was nowhere on the radar of Jeff Fenech, who, in his childhood dreams, saw himself emerging as a professional rugby star, and, in his nightmares, envisioned living a bleak life on the streets of St. Peters, New South Wales, Australia, and later in Marrickville, four miles from Sydney.

He recalls spending too many days of his youth visiting his sickly father at the local hospital while his mother worked three jobs as a cleaning lady to keep a roof over the heads of her six small children.

Left largely to his own devices, Fenech became a petty criminal, running wild through the mean streets, often with somebody chasing him.

“To be honest, if I wanted something when I was growing up, I usually had to get it the hard way,” he said.

But fate can be exquisitely strange. Six months short of his 18th birthday — quite by accident, he says — the street kid wandered into a gym and plunged his hands into a pair of boxing gloves for the first time in his life. A trainer, Johnny Lewis, watched him trade blows with another fighter and saw a potential star.

Fenech, too small for rugby, abruptly changed sports.

Lewis became a father figure in addition to a trainer. Together, they rode a comet tail over the next 18 months, when Fenech, with just 18 amateur fights, went to the United States to represent his country in the 1984 Olympic Games.

What happened in quarterfinal round in Los Angeles against Redzep Redzepovski in Yugoslavia remains a source of some bitterness today. Fenech appeared to dominate the fight against the European star, who had amassed 100 knockouts in 126 amateur fights, and he was awarded the victory by the Olympic judges.

Then, for the first time in Olympic history, a jury overturned the decision, giving Redzepovski a spot in the semifinals, and Fenech a plane ticket back to Australia.

“That victory would have guaranteed me at least a bronze medal. Instead, in one terrible moment, I went from a points winner to a jury-decision loser and went straight home.”

Redzepovski reached the finals, where he lost the gold medal match to Steve McCrory (younger brother of Milton), a future world champion from the fabled Kronk Gym in Detroit.

The disappointment at the Olympic Games quickly became overshadowed by Fenech’s meteoric ascent as a pro. Two months later, in his first paid fight, he scored a second-round knockout over Bobby Williams, a veteran of 69 professional fights. Over the next six months he KO’d five other opponents, and in April of 1985 he was awarded the opportunity to fight IBF bantamweight champion Satoshi Shingaki in Sydney.

Fenech won, stopping the Japanese title holder in nine rounds to become the fastest fighter in history to win a world title.

He won five more fights that year, including another TKO of Shingaki, then, just 16 months into his pro career, he fought a Mexican legend, future Hall of Famer Daniel Zaragoza, in Perth.

“That was a very, very big event in Australia,” Fenech recounted. “Everybody was saying that if anybody was going to beat me, it would be Zaragoza. You have to realize that our fight took place in 1986, and Zaragoza was still a world champion in 1996. He was such a great fighter.”

The Mexican’s greatness became a measure that day of Fenech’s greatness: Two of the judges gave Fenech every round in the 10-round nontitle bout. The third judge scored one round for Zaragoza.

Sweeter still was his sweet revenge — “Olympic revenge,” he still calls it — over gold medalist McCrory just 97 days later in Sydney. Making his fourth title defense, Fenech dominated the American star throughout their fight, finally finishing McCrory with a 14th-round TKO.

At age 22, less than five years beyond the day he tugged on his first pair of boxing gloves, Jeff Fenech was a superstar in his homeland. He was “The Marrickville Mauler.” And, in retrospect, it was the beginning of the end.

“Fame and fortune changes everybody,” he said. “People who say, ‘Ah, I’m still the same’ … they lie.”

Fenech was celebrated and adored wherever he went. Fans bought him drinks in every pub. Women came onto him from all angles, and he later admitted that, at one point, he was having sex with four or five different females a day.

“Staying the same is likely the most difficult thing in the world. When I got more money, more fans, and more success, I lost that hunger. And when you lose your hunger in the boxing game it becomes very, very difficult to stay successful.”

By October of ’87, when he beat up future Hall of Famer Carlos Zarate — 66-2, with 63 KOs at the time — Fenech also had chronic pain in his hands, a problem that was near its zenith when he traveled to Las Vegas for his first U.S. fight as a pro against Azumah Nelson.

“A friend of mine, a doctor, injected my hands with Marcaine just before that fight to numb the pain,” he remembered. “As I was holding one hand with the other, he stuck the needle all the way through my left hand, through the knuckle, and into my right hand. True story.”

Though the mishap probably had little effect on the fight, it turned into a bad omen. Although most ringside observers thought Fenech dominated the Ghanaian star, two judges split the decision and the third ruled the fight even. It was a draw.

Fenech can’t explain why, but he says he was never the same fighter. Though he was a bigger star in Australia than ever before — 38,000 jammed Princes Park Football Ground in Melbourne to watch the rematch nine months later — his motivation was gone.

In March of ’92, Nelson dealt the champion the first defeat of his career, an eighth-round TKO. In June of ’93, Fenech was knocked out again, in his very next fight, by Calvin Grove.

It would be 2½ years before he’d make another ring appearance. He returned with back-to-back KOs of pedestrian opponents, got KO’d in the second round by undefeated Philip Holiday, then, after another 12-year hiatus, made a curtain call with a 10-round majority-decision over Nelson in their third meeting.

“I had never been hurt in the ring in my life, but after that draw with Azumah Nelson in Las Vegas, I suddenly started feeling the punches,” he said. “You can fix your knee. You can fix your hands. But you can’t fix your chin.

“It was an easy decision to retire, but when I did, there was a void. The more I thought, the more I felt like I should have been a four-time world champion, instead of a three-timer,” Fenech said. “I kept thinking that if I just went back into the gym and did things properly, it could happen again. But I could never find that old Jeff Fenech.”

In retirement, Fenech’s fame — and some infamy — has continued to evolve. He became a prominent trainer in Australia, working with Vic Darchinyan, Sakio Bika, and Hussein Hussein.

In 2002 he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Two years later he was attacked and stabbed by four men in Sydney, receiving facial cuts that required plastic surgery. Six months later, unknown people fired seven bullets into Fenech’s family home — an assault believed by police to be connected to a 2003 bar fight he had with a Lebanese gangster. In 2007 he pled guilty to stealing three watches, valued at $327, from a Gold Coast boutique.

“If I could change all of that, I’d change it,” he said. “My biggest regret is that my family went through so much heartache, you know? I don’t mind getting hit, getting stabbed, getting shot at … that’s just life for me. But when you’ve got a wife and children and parents who have to go through it with you, that’s different thing altogether.”

Fenech’s current passion is touring the world as a professional poker player.

Dennis Taylor is editor/publisher of www.ringsideboxingshow.com and host of The Ringside Boxing Show, which airs every Sunday at 4 p.m. Pacific, 5 Mountain, 6 Central, 7 Eastern at www.radiomonterey.com.

The Jeff Fenech story is an except from his book, “A Puncher’s Chance,” which may be ordered for $6.95 at www.dennistaylorbooks.com.

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Jeff Fenech v Daniel Zaragoza 11 April 1986 Entertainment Centre, Perth, WA, Australia



Jeff Fenech v Samart Payakaroon 8 May 1987 Entertainment Centre, Sydney, NSW, Australia



Jeff Fenech v Azumah Nelson I 26 June 1991 Las Vegas, Nevada, USA



Jeff Fenech - I Love Youse All



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  1. Bill Angresano 10:57am, 08/05/2015


    Fenech v Nelson 1 , in the top 5 worst decisions of all time. Jeff Fenech seemed to glean every “lesson” life had to offer him and benefit! One of the few thoughtful Champions to actually respond to a letter concerning a Australian American Priest who prayed for his complete recovery following the unfortunate street attack.

  2. Pete The Sneak 04:04am, 07/30/2015

    Wow! Great read on Jeff, one of my favorite fighters at the time. Thanks Dennis.

  3. nicolas 07:01am, 07/29/2015

    Before the internet, and thanks to Spanish television, I remember Univision had a show called El Mundo del Box, I got to see some of Fenech’s fights. They even showed the one with Payakaroon, though neither was of Hispanic background of course. If you read the newspapers though, the result of the fight was already known. While many decry the many boxing organizations that factor our world titles, I would suggest that the coming of the IBF allowed Mr. Fenech to become a world champion, and gave him the opportunity which might not have happened otherwise. Think about it, in the late 60’s, to early 70’s, Australia had world champs in Lionel Rose and Johnny Famechon. But after that, except for Rocky Mateoli, born in Italy, grew up in Australia, but went to Italy which had that time had boxing opportunities, no Australian had a world champ, though a few contenders like Hector Thompson, all who had to ravel to hostile territories for title fights. The IBF at the time allowed for promoters from that country to stage these title fights. It brought Lester Ellis and Barry Micahels the opportunity to become world champs, though I would suggest for the Psudo world champs. Fenech on the other hand became a true champion.

  4. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 06:08am, 07/29/2015

    Payakaroon with a shitty look on his face for the prefight instructions from referee…..simply beautiful example of a life changing attitude adjustment administered by Jeff.

  5. Dennis Taylor 05:48pm, 07/28/2015

    Thanks for reading, guys. Much appreciated.
    —dt

  6. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 05:15pm, 07/28/2015

    Dennis Taylor-I enjoyed this article too…..“I suddenly started feeling the punches.”....ah….there it is. As I’ve posted before, it’s surprising or maybe not so surprising how little it takes to render the average Joe Blow unconscious. I personally witnessed a guy getting KOd as the result of a good hard open handed slap on the side of his face. This innate ability to receive hard blows to the head in thousands of rounds of sparring and hundreds of rounds of amateur and pro bouts is, if you really give it some thought….unnatural.

  7. Eric 04:45pm, 07/28/2015

    One of my faves back in the day. Nice article!

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