The bantamweight champion of the world hails from the vicinity of Drouin, a village in Gippsland at the southernmost lump of Australia, about 50 miles out of Melbourne and within sight of Mount Baw Baw. A few Australian sportswriters have come to call him the Drouin Dazzler, but his given name—Lionel Rose—is far more lyrical. Indeed, it has such a gracious, proper sound that it evokes vague visions of Kipling's pukka colonels, of dove-gray top hats and spats at Ascot Heath, of little tsk-tsks over tea about how positively crook it is that Queen Victoria's empire has fallen into such disrepair. Of course, there is seldom any truth in the sound of a name. Lionel Rose is an aborigine, the first of his race ever to be world champion of anything, and he is only 19 years old, at that.
The night Lionel Rose won the championship, last February 27, he was in Tokyo, 5,000 miles away from Drouin, in the elaborate, pagoda-shaped Nippon Budokan Hall, which is on a hill bordering the grounds of the Imperial Palace. The man he defeated was Masahiko (Fighting) Harada, a tough if grossly oversized bantamweight (he had to shed some 30 pounds before he fought Rose), who had held the 118-pound title for nearly three years. The fight was not televised, but all across Australia that night people clung to their radios as if the ringside announcer were Winston Churchill. And when Lionel Rose was awarded the championship, the continent went wild, for Australia has had only one world boxing titlist, and that noble fellow, another bantamweight named Jimmy Carruthers, retired in 1954. Women wept over Lionel Rose and men shouted. Autos pulled off the road so strangers could embrace in the headlight beams and the Prime Minister sent Rose a wire of congratulations. There was elation among nearly all of Australia's 12 million citizens that night.
But among the nation's 130,000 aborigines, Lionel Rose was Hercules, Charles Lindbergh and the Messiah all rolled into one. Men danced in the streets outside soot-stained brick houses in the Redfern slums of Sydney. They fired guns into the air near the tumbledown settlements of bark huts in the dry Todd River bed outside Alice Springs. They threw their hats in the air around drovers' camp-fires on the vast cattle stations of the outback. And they toasted Lionel Rose in long draughts of goom (liquor) in the shabby living rooms of welfare-board houses from Darwin to Drouin. For them, Rose's moment of victory was a millennium, a glimpse of Valhalla from a valley of squalor, a vicarious justification of the hope that their own futures might rise beyond futility.
The people of Lionel Rose, the kooris as they call themselves, are for the most part a docile, downtrodden lot. They have inhabited Australia for some 20,000 years, a tenaciously primitive race that clung to its Stone Age ways long after the descendants of Australia's original convict-colonists had settled in and updated the continent with the ugly accoutrements of progress—wire fences and power lines and factory smokestacks. A few aborigines have made it profitably in the white man's world, as ministers, teachers, insurance agents. And a handful of Australia's kooris still live the prehistoric nomadic existence, roaming the blazing hot reaches of the outback and Arnhem Land with boomerangs and spears, stalking wallabies, lizards, birds and mice for food, subsisting on roots or wood grubs when the game is scarce. They are called The Nakeds. But the great majority of Lionel Rose's people live in an even more uncertain world, bereft of their old simplicity and utterly dependent on the well-intended but inevitably demeaning charity of the white man's welfare board. A lot of them are what Australians call the No Hopers. It has been said that the aborigine crouches on an island of rubbish between two worlds, that of his ancestral blackfellows and the new progressiveness of whitefellow ways.
One morning not long ago Lionel Rose was driving his car, a conservative 1967 Holden station wagon that he jauntily calls a "chariot," along a two-lane highway near Drouin (rhymes with spoon), and he was humming songs like Memories Are Made of This, Way Back Home and Sentimental Journey. He was steering rather casually with one hand and holding a pipe to his mouth with the other; he inhaled the bitter smoke as if it were country-fresh air. He is a handsome little fellow, with coal-black wavy hair, a huge sunny smile and boyish features that reflect only vestiges of the brooding, broad-nosed look of his ancestors. Like most kooris, Lionel is not a full-blood, although he is considered more than a half-caste (which exempts him from the draft). As he drove, he carried on a running commentary about the lush, green landscape. "See that field? My granny used to pick peas there. She'd carry me on her back when I was a little bloke. She and I are great mates. She used to hitchhike with me into Melbourne to see the fights."
The dairy farms along the road were as prettily cultivated as anything in southern Wisconsin, but he kept referring to them as "the bush," a term Australians use for anything rural. "See that hill," he said. "I like to hunt rabbits there. I drive down here once or twice a week, you know, to get away from the hubbub in Melbourne. Sometimes I don't even bring my rifle; I just go into the bush to hear the birds sing. They say that aborigine blokes go mad with homesickness if they're away for long, but I think I come back just to get away from it all." He speaks with the soft, quasi-Cockney accent common to Australia (eight becomes "ite," but all the "aitches" get said), and his grammar, syntax and vocabulary require no laundering to put them in print as reasonably immaculate Queen's English.
As he drove into Drouin (pop. 1,638), a neat little place that looks like an Australian counterpart of Gopher Prairie, Lionel said, "They think of me as just 'Slim Rose' down here. In Melbourne I don't go to the football matches because little boys climb over people's backs in the stadium to touch me, you know, but in Drouin I'm just a cheeky aborigine kid."
Rose lives in Melbourne (pop. 2,228,000) now, in an unlikely m�nage with Jack Rennie, a printer who is his manager, Rennie's wife, Shirley, and their two little boys. When Lionel is in Drouin he visits his mother and some of his brothers and sisters (he is the eldest of nine); his father died five years ago, and the widowed Regina Rose now lives with her brood in a sturdy-looking, but rather slovenly kept house that is supplied by the welfare board. She is a shy, childlike woman who is in her mid-30s but looks older. She has become fairly accustomed to the questions of reporters now, but she speaks to strangers with downcast eyes and an almost inaudible voice. During this visit of Lionel's, she was talking about his childhood. "Oh, yes, he was a lively chap, you know. He used to play away the days. He'd come home and tell me everything that happened in school that day, and then the teacher'd stop by and ask me where he had been. Me husband paid fines twice because Lionel stayed away from school, and the third time he couldn't afford it and me husband was in jail for 48 hours." Lionel scoffed and said, "They didn't even lock the door. They told him he could go home if he cleaned the place up, didn't they?" She smiled and said softly, "I suppose maybe he was teaching you a lesson."
From Drouin, Lionel Rose drove out into the bush, along meandering dirt roads, and then he turned into a badly rutted track. "My uncle lives up here," he said. "He runs a sawmill where I used to live when I worked with him." After a jouncing half mile, he stopped the car in the yard before a squat, crude house made of rough-cut planks that had turned dark gray in the weather. A few pigs wandered amiably about outside the building, moving easily around the rusting hulks of a couple of auto bodies in the yard. Beyond the house lay a tumbled assortment of other gray lumber structures with tilted beams and a patchwork of board roofs and walls hammered up in a splendid, random manner. "That's the sawmill and those are barns for the pigs," he said. He gazed at the buildings, and a broad smile appeared on his face. "My uncle was not renowned for his carpentry," he said.
His uncle was not there but his Aunty Euphy was and she came out of the house with a jolly chuckle that showed her pink gums and offered a hearty invitation to tea. The interior of Aunty Euphy's home was dark although it was noon. A small cooking fire flickered in a rough cement fireplace, and there was a box of garbage near the door with a friendly swarm of flies above it. Some of the furniture was made from the same weathered lumber and with the same unique skill as the buildings outside. The bantamweight champion of the world sipped at tea from a cracked cup, then strode to a dusty shelf and said, "Hey, you must have 50 pounds worth of silver here." Astonishingly, out of the darkness there appeared a massive assortment of silver trophies, plaques, statuettes and cups. They seemed as out of place in Aunty Euphy's as a Rolls-Royce on Tobacco Road, but Lionel said casually, "My cousins are the badminton champions of Australia."