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"I had hoped the retirement would be a happy ending to his story," says John Lewis, Fenech's trainer. "But I knew the pain would eventually go, and he'd want a fourth title. A lot of guys are called born fighters, but Jeff really is a born fighter."
"He's a limited kid in terms of skill," says Wallau. "He has no defense at all. But he's relentless. It's going to take a lot of man to beat him."
It is an attitude that was nurtured in St. Peters and, later, Marrickville, the working-class sections of Sydney where Fenech was raised. His father, Paul, suffered from heart disease almost from the day Jeff was born and, until Paul's death in 1988, was shuttled in and out of hospitals. His mother, Mary, worked at three jobs to pay the medical bills and support Jeff, his three brothers and two sisters. With no supervision at home, Jeff was running with a street gang called the Newtown Hoods by the age of 10. Friday and Saturday nights were spent at a local speedway, exchanging punches and kicks with rival gangs. When he was 12, a nasty brawl at a train station got him sentenced to a two-month stint at a reform school.
Fenech's transformation from street thug to ring terror came about by accident. One day when he was 17, he and a fellow Hood went to a boys' club in Sydney to lift weights. Lewis was training fighters there at the time and needed a sparring partner for one of them. Fenech volunteered and survived. He started coming to the club regularly.
He entered the L.A. Olympics in 1984 after only 20 amateur fights. One win away from a guaranteed bronze medal in the flyweight class, he earned a 3-2 decision on the judges' scorecards over Yugoslavia's Redzep Redzepovski. But a five-man jury overruled the original verdict and awarded the bout to Redzepovski.
Revenge would come two years later, when Fenech was the IBF bantamweight champion. In a hard-fought title defense in Sydney, he stopped Steve McCrory, the U.S. fighter who eventually won the flyweight gold in Los Angeles. Fenech dealt him a frightful beating before the bout was halted in the 14th round.
"Get Jeff angry," says Lewis, "and he can become the most vicious person alive."
When Thai super bantamweight Samart Payakarun angered Fenech by flooring him in the first round of a 1987 bout, Fenech responded by knocking out his foe in the fourth round, leaving him unconscious for four minutes. Payakarun returned home and entered a monastery.
"That aggressiveness, that power, is what the fans in Australia love," says Mordey. "Jeff is solely responsible for the rebirth of interest in the game here. At a time when Australia was getting beat in football, cricket and swimming in the mid-'80s and we were looking for a sports hero, he came along with all his magnetism. He loves fighting for his people. Of course, the remaining criticism of him is that he's fought only in his backyard."