- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
At some stage of their lives, most American males idolize a sports figure. Boxing champions lend themselves particularly well to this form of worship. Fighters like James Corbett, Jack Dempsey, Benny Leonard, Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and Muhammad Ali not only were heroes of their times but also put their unique, mythic stamps on very different generations of male American consciousness.
I, too, got caught up in the aura and sweep of the great champions of my lifetime. But the one fighter I identified with—my fighter, in other words—was not in the same league with Leonard or Robinson or Louis or Ali. A knowledgeable boxing critic might rank him a cut above "hell of a fighter." However, if you judged the entire man, boxer and human being, few could match Richard Ihetu, the African who fought under the nom de guerre Dick Tiger.
As with many professional boxers, the last part of Dick Tiger's life was tragic. The difference in Tiger's case is that it wasn't boxing that took the heart out of him; it was the dream that he tried to support with the purses he earned after he had reclaimed the middleweight title and then won the light heavyweight championship.
Years from now, when a bunch of guys in a bar are grumbling about a mismatch on TV and start talking about good, maybe great, light heavyweights, Dick Tiger will not be the name they settle on; it could be Archie Moore, Bob Foster or Philadelphia Jack O'Brien. But if they know their boxing, Tiger's name will at least be mentioned.
Helped by a notation scrawled in a spiral notebook, I recall the day and hour I met Dick Tiger: "Noon—March 10." The year wasn't recorded, but it was 1965. Tiger was meeting the press that day in his dressing room at Madison Square Garden. It was two days before he would fight Rocky Rivero, a tough middleweight from Argentina known for his knockout punch. It didn't figure to be an easy evening for Tiger. He was 35, and 15 months earlier he had lost his middleweight championship in Atlantic City to Joey Giardello on what was conceded to have been, by everyone but Giardello people, a warped hometown decision.
Only four or five reporters had shown up, and we waited outside the door to a 50th Street dressing room while the tap and slide of a jump rope sounded from inside. Chickie Ferrara, Tiger's able trainer, opened the door, and we filed in. I had seen Tiger a couple of times on TV; I remembered one appearance in particular, a vicious 15-round draw with Gene Fullmer. I would never have recognized Tiger in the flesh. He was the darkest man I had ever seen. But that doesn't entirely describe it: There was a dusky, deep plum color to his skin, and even where he glistened with perspiration there were gray patches that looked dry, very much like the skin of the fruit. I stared at the knotty, heavily muscled body. I was almost oblivious to the questions being asked and to his answers, but not quite. Our eyes met momentarily, and I self-consciously scribbled some words in my notebook that make only partial sense as I read them now: "Giardello ducking me. Jersey isn't quitting."
The reason for the intimate press conference quickly became apparent as Tiger gave only the briefest answers to questions about the match with Rivero. His special quality of voice and intelligence hit me when, in a clipped colonial British accent braided with a tribal African lilt, he said, "The present champion refuses to meet me again. He has defended only one time in 15 months and again it was in his home city. I put it that this is not a courageous posture for a so-called champion." Courageous posture? My god, who was this man?
"Why," a reporter asked, "did you agree to fight Giardello in Atlantic City, knowing that it was his backyard? Especially since you were the champ?"
"To a certain extent, it was because of his problem in New York," said Tiger. The euphemistic "problem" was well understood. Giardello hadn't had a license to box in New York since 1957. It had been revoked because of what the athletic commission called his "undesirable connections." Word was out that Giardello's management was mob controlled, or at least mob connected. "But that is not the entire story," Tiger explained patiently. "They offered me more money if I would fight him in Atlantic City. I do not wish to seem the mercenary, gentlemen, but this is my livelihood. I am not utterly disappointed—with my purse I bought a beauty shop for my sister and a bookstore in Lagos. Yes, these are tribal scars."
His last statement didn't make any sense. I didn't realize he was speaking directly to me. I had been staring at his chest. His thick finger moved over a band of thin, vertical scars, each about two inches long, that formed a horizontal stripe almost from armpit to armpit. "Tribal scars," he repeated for my benefit. "All Ibo boys receive them when they have proved their courage."