In Nigeria last week a howling mob stormed a jail trying to rescue a chieftain on trial with 20 countrymen for treason. A farmer walked into a police station carrying his right hand, chopped off in a neighborhood quarrel. A hippopotamus upset a dugout canoe, drowning six. But to the 40 million citizens of freshly independent Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, all this was humdrum stuff. The big news was taking place in Liberty Stadium in Ibadan, a city of almost a million, where Dick Tiger of the Ibo tribe was to meet Gene Fullmer, from some faraway place called Utah, for the middleweight championship of the world.
The prospect of the fight, the first major sports event held in the emerging nations of Black Africa, had the whole country in an uproar. Into tin-roofed Ibadan flocked thunder worshipers, crocodile cultists and Yoruba tribesmen, garbed in their conservatively colored three-piece robes which are fast becoming the Brooks Brothers suit of Nigeria. With the fight backed by the government, all of Nigeria was exhorted to buy tickets. Government employees who planned to be at the fight were given the day off with pay. "Do Not Procrastinate, Do Not Hesitate," urged one sign. "Buy Your Tickets Now and Join Thousands of Boxing Fans. It Is Going to Be One of the Most Significant International Events Ever Witnessed on the Continent of Africa. Come Along! Join Lovers of Heroes All over the World!!!"
The sign should have told the lovers of heroes to bring their raincoats. For three days before Saturday night's fight, it rained and it rained and it rained. Chief Joseph Modupe Johnson, Nigeria's Minister of Labour and Social Welfare, called in some tribal rain doctors who demanded $14,000 for clear weather. "The people have this rain business in their heads now," the chief declared, fearful of the gate, and with that he embarked on an open-car tour of Ibadan with a rain doctor. "The rain doctor," the chief allowed, "is on our side."
On Saturday the rain doctors delivered. The downpours stopped. That night a crowd of 25,000 rocked Liberty Stadium as National Hero Tiger belted Fullmer in one of the bloodiest, most one-sided title fights ever seen. From the time the bell rang for the start of the first until the end of the seventh, when Fullmer's manager, Marv Jenson, called surrender, Tiger was in complete control. He was too tough, too strong and too effective for the American.
Ever since Tiger won the title from Fullmer in San Francisco last October, his nation had been clamoring to see him defend at home. A Tiger defense in Nigeria became a matter of patriotic pride as well as a way of putting Nigeria on the map. The man chiefly responsible for bringing Tiger back home to fight was Chief Johnson, in some charming ways an incarnation of Novelist Joyce Cary's wheeling, dealing Mister Johnson.
A strapping 6-footer, Chief Johnson has been in charge of all Nigerian sports since 1957. Now 51, he has had an active athletic career spanning 30 years, and, according to the chief, "It will not come to an end until I am in my grave." Besides having been an accomplished swimmer, cricketer, skin diver, long-distance runner and billiards player, Chief Johnson was also once a crack middleweight. After getting the government to guarantee Jack Solomons, the British promoter, and the fighters $280,000 for Saturday's circus, he attempted to prove his own enduring prowess by challenging the best heavyweight from neighboring Ghana to meet him in a four-round preliminary on the championship card. His boss, the Prime Minister, Alhaji Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, said, "Joseph J., I do not care if you box or not, but make sure you insure yourself sufficiently." But the Nigerian Boxing Board of Control, mindful of the chief's 51 years, refused to issue him a license, prompting the chief to declare, "Then I will dissolve the board and appoint a new one." This was easy for the chief to do, since he is the boss of the board. Perhaps fortunately, he refrained from this ultimate step.
The chief was—and is—a beguiling blend of native torn-tomfoolery and big-city sophistication. Seated one night in the living room of his home, he listened to a phonograph blare Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee and Bobby Rydell records while his guests sipped fine cognac and Scotch. The chief talked about his stay at the Waldorf Towers, and his guests marked him as a cosmopolite. In the next second the chief opened a whisky bottle and poured a few drops on the monkey-rugged floor, explaining, "The first few drops are for my ancestors, an ancient tradition here." The guests marked the chief as a superstitious native, and then a friend said, "Don't give your ancestors too much, chief. They might be in training." The chief guffawed, so the guests were right back where they started.
Another unique character in the bizarre cast at Ibadan was Jack Solomons. An ex-fishmonger who is now a millionaire, Solomons is a garish dresser. His taste runs to Hawaiian-style shirts and alligator belts and shoes. He gets daily haircuts, uses clear polish on his fingernails and Miss Dior cologne after his bath. He held court at a $10 million hotel owned by a Greek. The hotel was never more than 30% full and is reported to be slowly sinking into the ground.
Solomons made himself the center of attention by carrying on a war with Nigerian folkways. When Chief Johnson told him that the rain doctors were holding out for a fee of $14,000, Solomons exclaimed, "For that I'll produce snow!" Solomons also had his troubles with the Nigerian inability to say no. Most Nigerians speak tribal tongues, and the only English many of them learn is the word "yes." This prompted the exasperated promoter to tell his waiter, "I wish you were a girl." Said Solomons: "You can ring the boy for breakfast and order one pineapple juice and one tea, and he will say yes and come up with a tomato juice and a bloody coffee."
Solomons never really intended to hold this fight—or any other fight—in Nigeria, but he was so overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of Chief Johnson and the rest of the government that he changed his mind. "When we first came here to talk about the fight," he said, "we had no intention of putting it on. In this bloody Nigeria, where are they going to put on a world championship fight? But we figured—well, why not show the courtesy of talking to them. So, lo and behold, we go to Ibadan, and we find they've got as nice a stadium as you could find, and they're making all these preparations. Gor blimey, I couldn't get out of it."