SI Vault
Jack Olsen
August 19, 1963
Politicians, tribesmen, crocodile cultists and rain doctors celebrate as Dick Tiger demolishes Gene Fullmer in Black Africa's first world title fight
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August 19, 1963

A Smile On The Face Of The Tiger

Politicians, tribesmen, crocodile cultists and rain doctors celebrate as Dick Tiger demolishes Gene Fullmer in Black Africa's first world title fight

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Kill our bum

If all this support for Fullmer seemed odd, it should be kept in mind that the Nigerian fan has been schooled in the ways of British fair play. "Sometimes," said Chief Johnson with a sigh, "this can be very annoying. When a fighter from Ghana comes here and makes a few good moves in the ring, suddenly the people will start chanting ' Ghana! Ghana!' and forget their own countryman."

A couple of days before the fight, the heavy rains washed away the railroad tracks between Lagos and Ibadan, forcing travelers to go by way of a so-called highway that is probably the most dangerous single stretch of road in existence. It has been nicknamed Murder Road. Poorly graded and afflicted with one-lane bridges at interesting intervals, Murder Road brings out the demon in Nigerian drivers, who customarily travel it at 70 and 80 miles per hour on the theory that they will not die until God wants them to die, no matter what they are doing. This fatalism has resulted not only in a fantastic death rate but in trucks bearing such side-panel slogans as "Jesus Watches Me" and "In God I Trust."

Jack Solomons found out for himself what Murder Road is really like when he was traveling to Ibadan with several British sportswriters. Twenty miles out of town a cow loped in front of the car, smashing the windshield into a thousand pieces. For two days the occupants were busy removing shards. Inexplicably, Solomons felt glass in his socks. He took them off and splinters poured out like sand. Of course, the cow was killed by the impact. A typical Nigerian cop appeared on the scene and said he didn't care to be bothered to hear about the accident because he was off duty and on his way home. Later on, to make sure that wrecks did not tie up traffic on Murder Road, the government thoughtfully dispatched four army derricks to dispose of debris.

On Saturday, the morning of the fight, rain doctors were still busy plucking feathers from parrots and draining off chicken blood. At Liberty Stadium several Nigerians showed up toting a life-sized granite statue of Tiger. They wanted a baffled Solomons to sign for it. But since no one knew anything about the statue, he refused and the Nigerians marched off with it. Rich chiefs from such neighboring West African countries as Ghana, Dahomey, Sierra Leone, Togo, Gambia and Guinea began arriving by airplane. Still determined to do combat for Nigeria, Chief Johnson showed up at the weigh-in as a potential participant. Garbed in no more than his undershorts and his considerable dignity, he shook the scales at 238 pounds. Fullmer, who was overweight on Friday, reduced in the final 24 hours to a stripped 160. Tiger had trained down perfectly to 159�.

By late afternoon a crowd of 30,000 was standing outside Liberty Stadium, cheering the 25,000 going in. A capacity house of 46,000 would have given the show a $20,000 profit; but someone, presumably Chief Johnson, had overestimated the Nigerian public's ability to pay anything more than the $1.50 for standing room. The standing-room section, designed to hold 6,000, was oversold. It was filled to the brim three hours before the fight, and newcomers who courageously fought their way to the top row, which afforded the best view of the ring, were, upon arrival, tossed downward bodily until they reached the bottom row with a thud. As a result, terrible fights went on constantly. At an American stadium the situation would have bred a riot, but at Liberty Stadium these melees were received as welcome divertissements, and thousands cheered happily as bodies flew through the air. Spielers delivered commercials for sundry products over the public address system, and vendors hawked such local delicacies as banana cream and Fanta, a popular orange pop.

At 6 o'clock Governor-General Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe, his wife and daughter arrived in a Rolls-Royce as the crowd shouted "Zeke," its nickname for the popular guy. There were also some shouts of joy for Chief Johnson, who—resplendent in green-and-silver robe, wooden beads and green velvet hat with gold braid—waved a gorgeous white feather fan in salutation. The ring announcer drew a big laugh and cheers when he said that Chief Johnson was scheduled to box a man from Ghana, but "the man from Ghana has not arrived so Chief Johnson is the winner."

The preliminaries were wild affairs with the undercard fighters slipping and sliding all over the ring. Said Solomons: "I looked all over the country for resin, but I could only find enough for the main event." Nigerian referees demanded that a fighter be all but dead before he lost. In the first prelim, for instance, a Ghana fistfighter named Tei Dovi was beaten unmercifully by Ray Adigun of Nigeria. Dovi was knocked down nine times in the first four rounds before his corner threw in a red towel.

Just before the main event every light in the stadium was turned out, leaving the whole place as dark as only an African night can be. Then, to the sudden fanfare of trumpets, two spotlights shot into the darkness, lighting up Fullmer as he emerged from an underground walkway. He was wearing a kente, a short robe reaching to the bottom of his trunks, and the crowd roared "Foolmarr" in appreciation. The lights were doused again and then lit up to catch Tiger, who was also wearing a kente, which he topped with Chief Johnson's hat and a broad grin. A phonograph ground out what must have been the first recording ever made of The Star-Spangled Banner, followed by the Nigerian national anthem, and then both fighters were introduced to thunderous applause. That was the end of the cheering for Fullmer as Tiger took over from the start.

Fullmer looked fat, as though he had put back all the pounds he had sweated off to make the weight. He tried to stay away from Tiger but he was not fast enough. Tiger knocked him from corner to corner. By the third round, Fullmer's tactics were reduced to crisscrossing his elbows in front of his face to avoid getting hit. Even so, Tiger opened up cuts on both cheekbones. In the fourth, Fullmer's arms gave out, and Tiger landed at will for a full minute. "Stop it! Stop it!" the crowd chanted. In the sixth, Tiger sliced open a wicked cut over Fullmer's right eye. Fullmer's face was red with blood, and every time Tiger whacked him the gore splashed into the ringside seats. "Fight, Gene, fight!" Jenson yelled from the corner, though it was obvious Fullmer had all he could do just to stand up. At the end of the round, Trainer Angelo Curley said, "Gene, let's stop it. You've got all the money in the world. You don't need this." Fullmer refused, but by the end of the seventh he could not see out of the right eye and he did not demur when Jenson signaled surrender.

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