Roger Rouse, who lives in a room with lavender walls in Opportunity, Mont., gets a fan letter from Frankfurt am Main. It is beautifully typed. "Dear Sir," the letter begins. "May I convey today my very sincere compliments and congratulations on you and your excellent and fine and wonderful ring career as the nation's and world's No. 1 and hottest light heavyweight hero in the ring. I do recall and remember and follow your excellent and fine and wonderful ring career best, and you are indeed a great and fine and classy ring hero, a real great and kindly sportsman, and a wonderful and lasting credit for boxing always in U.S...."
Rouse has been the World Boxing Association's first-ranked light heavyweight since November 1965. But he hasn't been so hot. Indeed, until recently he despaired of ever fighting for the championship. Although he was No. 1, Jos� Torres, who was then the champion, instead fought Wayne Thornton, Eddie Cotton, Chic Calderwood and Dick Tiger, the former middleweight champion, to whom he lost the title; Tiger and Torres were subsequently rematched with the same result. Meanwhile, Rouse made three trips to New York to be introduced from the ring in Madison Square Garden, presumably to get exposure; although he has been boxing professionally for 10 years and has won 30 of 38 fights, he has appeared only once east of Butte, Mont., losing to Babe Simmons in a preliminary bout in the Garden in 1960.
Looking somewhat ill at ease, Rouse took a bow before both Tiger-Torres fights and the Muhammad Ali- Zora Folley fight. "I was part of the scenery," he says ruefully. On each occasion Rouse wore a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and a string tie. Upon being introduced he would take off his hat to a smattering of applause, and from fight to fight he grew perceptibly balder. The western regalia was purchased in a store next to the Garden. "I didn't mind the hat and the boots," Rouse recalls. "But that little bow tie! They took my shoes and tried to throw them out the hotel window. I'll wear the boots in the ring, I told them, but not on the sidewalk. Everybody's looking at me."
After Tiger had successfully defended his newly won title, Rouse paid him a visit in his dressing room. Tiger was asked who he was going to fight next. "I'm going to fight that cowboy from Montana," he said, looking at Rouse. "Can you fight, cowboy?"
For a time it seemed that neither Tiger nor anyone else east of Butte would ever learn the answer; when Tiger returned to his native Nigeria, civil war broke out and he couldn't leave the country.
"Every day I'd go to the newsstand and buy $2 worth of papers," says Rouse's manager, Pete Jovanovich, who owns the Gay 90's Saloon in Missoula, Mont. " Los Angeles papers. Seattle papers. New York papers. I'd buy every cockeyed paper on Nigeria. I studied maps and everything, looking for routes that the Tiger could sneak out."
In September, Dick Tiger finally arrived in the U.S., and on November 17 he will defend his title against Rouse in Las Vegas. Life, however, has taught Rouse to take a dim view of things. "I haven't fought for the title yet," he said the other day. "I wouldn't be surprised at anything anymore."
Before I went to Opportunity to interview Rouse, a man who told me he was "Ben Greene with an e" called and said I should have a "meet" with him; this took place the next day in Jack Dempsey's restaurant on Broadway. Greene, who is in his late 40s and has a nose that seems not so much to have been broken as artfully bent, told me he had been in the boxing business for 30 years, did a little public relations for Rouse and was going to fill me in on him.
"My appraisal of the fella here," Greene said, "is he is a college fella who wants to go somewhere. The first time I saw him I wasn't too impressed with him. He had a lot of natural ability, but he hadn't found himself. Some of these white kids take a little longer to mature. In fact, he was a goddamn stripling. To tell you the truth, I wasn't impressed with him and I paid him no mind. The next time I saw him [Henry] Hank knocked him down. Anyone can look like a whirlwind before they're knocked down. It's what they do after they're knocked down. I liked what he did after Hank knocked him down. I tabbed it. And he actually comes out of Montana.
"I hooked up with him and his manager—this is a hotel fella, an affable fella, not a boxing man, what I would call more or less of a buff. I got him [Don] Turner, [Rudolph] Bent; in other words, I started feeding him guys. Before that I got him Eddie Cotton. I liked the style of Cotton. A guy that jabs a lot you can hit over the jab with a right hand. Rouse throws a right hand you very seldom see. You got to watch for it. A very short right hand. The kid is a student. If he sees a jab don't work, he goes with a hook. This guy knows how to think. What made Robinson a great fighter? He could adapt to all styles. This guy got a little of this. The nearest thing to him is Billy Conn.