The Will of the Marrickville Mauler

By Daniel Attias on February 24, 2015
The Will of the Marrickville Mauler
“I came back home, obviously heartbroken and disappointed, I was never the same.”

“I can’t put my finger on it and tell you exactly what it done to me but I can tell you factually that I was never the same fighter afterwards…”

“A champion has to have the skill and the will, but the will must be stronger than the skill.”—Muhammad Ali

Desire, determination and attitude can be the difference between good and great fighters. These traits are a must for those who step into the ring; a place where no man can hide and where one’s true spirit and will are tested. One must undoubtedly possess both the will and the skill to be successful in one of the toughest sports there is. Muhammad Ali certainly didn’t lack skill inside those ropes but it was his will that ultimately made him — arguably — the greatest heavyweight to ever lace up gloves.

Jeff Fenech first stepped into a gym as a young man around the end of 1981, the same time that Ali had decided to hang the gloves up, and it was trainer Johnny Lewis who saw a certain fighting spirit inside of a young Fenech that Joe Martin undoubtedly saw in a 12-year-old Cassius Clay back in 1954.

Jeff may not have dreamed of being a world champion in those early days but Lewis was always there to show him he could achieve whatever he set his mind to.

“He told that me I had talent and I could fight and if I kept training I could be state champion and it happened, I could be Australian champion and it happened. He just set me these little achievable goals and I kept achieving and loving the sport.”

Fenech’s style may not have had the polish of many other highly touted young fighters the world over but few could match the intensity, work rate and determination of the kid from Marrickville.

A whirlwind amateur career included Commonwealth and World Championship medals before an appearance at the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 where he lost a close fight in the quarterfinals. After the loss, Fenech wanted another crack at the Olympics and a medal but wasn’t prepared to do it without trainer Johnny Lewis.

“Back then I really wanted to stay amateur for another four years because I believed that after doing what I’d done after 20 odd fights, I believed I could have won a gold medal at the next Olympics. My question was whether Johnny Lewis could train me for the next Olympics instead of people I didn’t know and the answer was no, so I turned pro.”

The transition was an easy one for Fenech who had always trained hard during his time as an amateur and his training methods were already more suited to professional fighting than amateur contests and it was a sign of the times that the gap between the two wasn’t what it is today.

“Back then my gym was full of pro fighters, I boxed professionals every day. I trained as an amateur to be professional. I never boxed three rounds, my first pro fight was a ten-rounder, and I’d always be ready to fight as many rounds as I needed. I used to spar eight, ten and twelve rounds when I was an amateur boxer and I was kind of ready for it.”

Dubbed the “Marrickville Mauler” by Ray Conley after his first professional fight, it was obvious that Fenech was a class above the first few opponents he had faced and it was in his seventh fight that he was given a shot at the IBF world bantamweight title against Satoshi Shingaki. Such a fight so early in one’s career can be the undoing of many a talented fighter but Fenech and his team knew he was up to the challenge.

“For that fight Johnny Lewis had me sparring guys who were much bigger than me and I boxed 15 rounds on numerous occasions with three or four different opponents. I was nervous but I was confident, I believed in myself, I believed in whatever Johnny Lewis said and he said I was ready and that I could win the title so I believed him.”

Fenech was a brawler, a tough man inside the ring and a man that showed more will than most could muster. It was that will that saw him continue to rack up impressive victories against fighters such as Daniel Zaragoza, Steve McCrory, who went on to win gold in the ’84 Olympics, Samart Payakaroon and Carlos Zarate whilst picking up a second title in the super bantamweight division along the way.

The true test of ones will though, comes when faced with adversity and on the 7th of March 1988 Jeff Fenech was faced with a big problem against Victor Callejas. Fenech had badly broken his right hand early on in the fight but rather than let it stop him he put a beating on Callejas by using just his left hand for the majority of the fight. Not surprisingly it rates as one of his most satisfying bouts.

“My third world title against Victor Callejas gave me the most satisfaction. I fought a great, great fighter with one hand that night. I used my left hand for 80% of the fight as my right hand was badly broken.”

Three successful title defenses of the WBC featherweight title followed for Fenech before jumping up in weight again, this time to battle with the legendary Azumah Nelson for the WBC super featherweight title.

The bright lights of Las Vegas have long held a special place in boxing. Sin City has hosted some of the biggest fights of the modern era and it was to be here that Jeff Fenech was to debut in the United States of America. There was a great build-up to the fight and Nelson was undoubtedly the best fighter Jeff had ever faced.

The fight began with Nelson outboxing Fenech for the first two rounds. Fenech found his mark with some good punches in the third before the two men went at it at in such close proximity that the fight very well could have been fought in a phone booth.

Fenech set about taking his more fancied rival apart with a display of superior infighting and it could be argued he won the next 10 rounds. In the final round Fenech landed some big shots and it looked as though he was on the verge of knocking out Nelson but the Ghanaian held on.

With the fight complete Jeff Fenech was about to be in the most esteemed of company as just the fourth man to win world titles in four weight divisions joining Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns and Roberto Duran. But boxing is a cruel mistress, in more ways than one, and astonishingly the judges handed out scores that saw the fight called a draw. Fenech protested loudly, and rightly so and you could sense that maybe this was the kind of injustice that was enough to change a man.

“I can’t put my finger on it and tell you exactly what it done to me but I can tell you factually that I was never the same fighter afterwards. I don’t believe that was a hard fight for me, I’d had lots of fights that were similar. After the fight I came back home, obviously heartbroken and disappointed, I was never the same. I started to get hurt in spars, I was never the same fighter and we never really seen the guy that fought Azumah Nelson in Vegas again.”

Fenech was soundly beaten less than a year later by Nelson; knocked out in the eighth round of the rematch. Despite claims he was never the same man after their first fight he was quick to point out that Nelson was deserving of the victory.

“The better man beat me in the rematch, he had a much better preparation than I did, he had a much better corner and a more professional corner. They went home, they done their homework and came back and beat me. The difference was they went back and they had a plan and I just went back to the gym and done the same thing I done every other day, I trained hard and no disrespect to Johnny Lewis but we had no game plan.”

Four more bouts followed for Fenech, with two of them knockout losses to Calvin Grove and Philip Holiday in an IBF lightweight title fight before he hung up the gloves in 1996. Induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame was a sure thing and Jeff was a first ballot selection in 2002 and just this year the WBC named Fenech their best featherweight titlist of the past thirty years.

“What is now proved was once only imagined.” The great English poet William Blake may not have had an Aussie battler like Jeff Fenech in mind when he penned such a line but it’s a line that could very well be about the Marrickville Mauler; a man who had the will to become a great of the ring despite the odds always being against him. The man had his ups and downs in life, like most do, but his amazing accomplishments in the sport of boxing will forever be remembered.

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Jeff Fenech v Satoshi Shingaki I 26 April 1985 Horden Pavillion, Sydney, Australia

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

Jeff Fenech TKO14 Steve McCrory

Jeff Fenech TD4 Carlos Zarate

Jeff Fenech v Victor Callejas 7 March 1988 Entertainment Centre, Sydney, NSW, Australia

Jeff Fenech TD4 Carlos Zarate

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

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  1. Eric 01:04pm, 02/25/2015

    nicolas…Now that you mentioned it, I do recall hearing or reading about Nelson-Fenech III. I don’t keep up with boxing like I did in the 80’s and 90’s, but even if I did, no way would I pay the prices they have been asking for in recent years. Next thing you know the $100 tag will be routine for any “SuperFight.”

  2. nicolas 12:49pm, 02/25/2015

    Forgot to mention, I did go to watch in a closed circuit show the Hearns-Roldan fight, also with the one that Bobby Czyz lost his light heavyweight title, when at the beginning it looked like it might be a short night.

  3. nicolas 12:48pm, 02/25/2015

    ERIC: Funny comment you made about the Fenech-Nelson I. That was the first time I had ever paid for a PPV event, was more interested in that fight than the one between Tyson-Berbick II, was was boring. I was with a bunch of African American gentlemen who I invited over, and they all agreed that Fenech got robbed. I watched other Fenech fights thanks to Spanish television, though I would already know the results. Also if you knot know Eric, they actually had a third fight, after both en were in the HOF and Nelson was in his early 50’s, and Fenech in his late forties. A lot of protests from medical associations about that match, which Fenech got a majority decision. I think we can call that fight the second longest years for revenge of a previous loss that third Fenech Nelson fight. The first would be Hopkins-Jones and the third Maske-Hillm which was the record holder until Fenech Nelson three.

  4. Clarence George 10:16am, 02/25/2015

    Thank you, NYI.  I’ll be here all week.  Try the veal.  And don’t forget to tip your waitress.

  5. NYIrish 09:02am, 02/25/2015

    A laugh is good for the soul. And the blood pressure! Thanks.

  6. Clarence George 07:55am, 02/25/2015

    I’m always happy to answer fan mail, NYI, which I don’t get nearly enough of:

    I rarely smoke a pipe these days, but when I do I use a tobacco called Doubloon that I picked up at De La Concha Tobaconnist on Sixth Avenue in the 50s, and which featured a beaut of a cigar store Indian.  It no longer exists, per se, having morphed with Davidoff.  They used to sell the most wonderful Turkish cigarettes.  Anyway, I also have a chamois tobacco pouch that belonged to my father.  As for the pipe, it was made in Italy.

    A handwritten and signed version of the above is available for a small consideration.

  7. NYIrish 05:58am, 02/25/2015

    Enjoyable and informative article.
    Clarence, what are you smoking in that pipe?

  8. Clarence George 07:50pm, 02/24/2015

    Although weighed down by the awful Blake Edwards, there are indeed amusing moments.  I particularly like the spoof of “The Prisoner of Zenda.”

    Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon):  Leslie escaped?
    General Kushter (George Macready):  With a small friar.
    Professor Fate:  Leslie escaped with a chicken?


  9. Tex Hassler 05:49pm, 02/24/2015

    Jeff came to give his all every time he stepped into the ring for a fight. In other words he came to fight and fight he did.

  10. Daniel Attias 03:47pm, 02/24/2015

    Clarence, your flair for the dramatic brings a smile to my face. I’m merely a modest Aussie bloke you see and such theatrics would be most unlike me. As for the reference to “The Great Race”, I’m afraid I haven’t seen it, so I’m entirely unsure of your meaning!

    Jeff was an easy interview as he was very open and quite candid. The stuff I left out was just as interesting as what was included. I really enjoyed writing this one.

  11. Clarence George 03:18pm, 02/24/2015

    See, I would have begun this differently, something along the lines of, “Having saved Jeff’s bacon from some goombah with a skewed idea of who Ned Kelly was, the Hall of Famer gratefully agreed to a searching and in-depth interview.  Forestall your applause, gentlemen, please!” 

    But not Daniel, who I suspect saw “The Great Race” when too young, never having gotten over Tony Curtis’ The Great Leslie.  Yes, what Daniel’s too modest to reveal is that he scored an interview with Fenech.  No small accomplishment, let me tell youse.  So I’m doing it for him.  Not that he asked me to.  But he didn’t ask me not to, so…

  12. Eric 02:22pm, 02/24/2015

    Last time I actually paid to watch a PPV boxing match was Fenech-Nelson I. What bullsheet. One of the worst decisions ever. Never saw the rematch. Have to see if it is up on YT somewhere.

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