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Robert Boyle
May 20, 1968
Taking a temporary leave from Biafra's struggle with Nigeria, the light heavyweight champion gets ready for his own battle of survival against Bob Foster
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May 20, 1968

Dick Tiger Fights Two Wars

Taking a temporary leave from Biafra's struggle with Nigeria, the light heavyweight champion gets ready for his own battle of survival against Bob Foster

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In this corner is Richard Ihetu, alias Dick Tiger. At 39 years of age—he will be 40 on August 14—Tiger is the oldest champion in boxing. He is also probably the oldest 2nd lieutenant in the army of Biafra, the secessionist African state fighting for its independence from Nigeria. In the other corner is Bob Foster, 29, an explosive puncher who used to work, fittingly, in a bomb factory. Foster is 6'3�"; Tiger is 5'8". Tiger likes to work inside, brutalizing the body so the head will collapse, while Foster prefers to flatten an opponent with a single blow. Both men are aggressive to the extreme, and their fight for the light heavyweight title on May 24 in Madison Square Garden promises to be a war.

For Dick Tiger there is another war, the turmoil and terror between Biafra and Nigeria. Early last March, Tiger left Biafra to start training in Manhattan for the Foster fight. He works out weekdays in the New Garden Gym, a walk-up sweatbox on Eighth Avenue, and he passes his off-hours watching TV in his West Side hotel room, window-shopping, writing letters and promoting the cause of Biafra. In his dressing cubicle at the gym, a patriotic poster proclaims the "Days to Remember," such as the massacre of Biafrans in northern Nigeria on May 28, 1966. Tiger is so committed to the cause of Biafran independence that it dismays his co-manager, Jersey Jones. Not long ago, after Tiger had finished giving an interview, Jones stuck his head in the cubicle. "Are you still talking about that Nigerian-Biafran mess?" Jones asked. "Why don't you talk about the fight?"

Softly Tiger said, "Without Biafra, the championship title is no good to me. Without Biafra, my title is nothing."

"C'mon, Dick," Jones said in a gentle tone. "Forget about Biafra. Bring your wife and kids over here and settle down."

"The United States is a very good country, a very nice country," Tiger replied, "but Biafra is my home. I was born in Biafra. I will die in Biafra."

Jones turned away silently.

The most compelling fact in Dick Tiger's life now is not his pressing ring style or his relatively advanced age but that he is an Ibo. The Ibos are the Biafrans. Biafra used to be part of Nigeria, which was an invention of colonial Britain. It was not a single nation but a conglomeration of peoples stuffed inside a boundary line determined by the Great Powers of the 19th century. When the British gave up their hold on Nigeria about seven years ago, the Ibos, 12 million strong, were one of the peoples who made up the new country. Energetic and enterprising, the Ibos were the businessmen, doctors, lawyers, teachers and doers of Nigeria. "Ibo people are not lazy people," Tiger says proudly. "Whatever we are doing, we put all our effort there. If we are studying, we study very hard. We like peace. We like to be jovial. We don't get angry very quick. We play, we laugh and we are good business people. And we respect law. Sometimes God watch for us."

Originally native to eastern Nigeria, the Ibos spread throughout all Nigeria, and their spirit of enterprise often aroused envy or hostility. The Ibos, moreover, are largely English-speaking Christians. Tiger, his wife and their seven children are Anglicans. By contrast, the Hausas of northern Nigeria, the rivals of the Ibos, are Arabic-speaking Moslems who have little truck with newfangled ways. As a result, the short, unhappy history of independent Nigeria has been mostly a struggle between Ibo and Hausa.

In the spring and fall of 1966 the Hausas turned on the Ibos who had settled in the north. The massacres were appalling. "They killed both soldiers and civilians," Tiger says. "About 30,000. They chased everybody from the east. All of them run home." In between massacres the Hausas also overthrew and shot General Aguiyi-Ironsi, an Ibo who was the Nigerian chief of state. (Six months previously, General Ironsi had overthrown the Hausa-oriented regime of Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa.) In May 1967 the Ibos decided that they had had enough of Nigeria. Eastern Nigeria, the Ibo homeland, set itself up as the independent republic of Biafra, so named after a bay on the coast.

Ever since then the Nigerian government, dominated by northerners, has been warring against Biafra in an attempt to end the secession. Biafra has managed to hold out, but the fighting has been vicious, heightened by religious animosities. The Biafrans accuse the Nigerians of conducting a jihad, or Moslem holy war, against them. "They believe that killing me as a Christian will make them go to heaven," says Tiger. "The whole northerners feel that way."

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