Saturday, May 13, 2017 12:24 pm
By Goodluck Ebelo
If Nigeria had a boxer with uncommon resilience – the ability to move from punishing defeats to major title victories – that boxer undoubtedly was Dick Ihetu. The story of how he came to be nicknamed Tiger, an animal that does not exist anywhere in his native Africa has not really been told but his abilities matched those of the uncommon Felidae. Dick Tiger was an uncommon Fighter.
Dick Tiger fit the slum-to-the-ring model of great fighters but much unlike many of them. Dick Tiger imposed order with his biceps and abilities not mayhem. Aba, the gritty town that played a crucial role to his formative years had a reputation for being tough. Veteran sportscaster, Sebastine Oforum, aptly captured Aba when he said “to win respect, you must be strong or carry your cutlass and use it when you must.”
In place of a machete, Dick Tiger carried his biceps and an unflagging will to throw off the fetters of poverty. Aba, the town he migrated to in 1946, took notice of him. His father with the prophetic name Nmajuogu (the knife that fears no war) was lost early to death. His mother, Rebecca Ihetu, sent him to Holy Trinity (CMS) School Amaigbo Orlu. After his standard six, with a capital which was equivalent to less than 1.25 and perhaps the hopes and prayers of his mother, he took up the job of scavenging for empty bottles and vending them to the warehouses in Aba.
In those days, Aba taps had a reputation for remaining dry during the day and trickling late in the night. This other resulted in short tempers and rowdiness. Rather than bulldoze his way to the taps, Dick Tiger imposed order by forcing everyone into a queue. Dick Tiger had begun exercising his boxing skills in Aba and his fame spread and shouts of “Tiger Power” followed him wherever he went. Years later he became a professional boxer.
Dick Tiger had some success in the ring in the Collister Belt Tournaments. In 1952, seven years, before he landed in Liverpool, he defeated Tommy West in a split decision. In a rematch in January 1953 he lost to Tommy West on points. Four times he fought for the belt but never won it. So in Lagos he hadn’t the kind of following he had taken for granted in Aba but with help from men like Jack Farmworth, he took his trade to Britain. He married Abigail Ogbuji in 1958 and set sail for the United Kingdom in February of the same year.
Britain was not exactly a fertile ground for any pugilist. It took time for Dick Tiger to acclimatize and he lost his first four fights. Just when he started winning, Allan Dean, who was not exactly a top of the range prize fighter beat him.
As it turned out, it was the last interruption Dick Tiger would tolerate. His next fight against Terry Downes at Shoreditch, England on the night of 14 May 1967 came with all the razzmatazz of professional boxing. Bookmakers gave Dick Tiger a 1.3 chance. After the opening rounds, the odds had evened out. Downes had no answers to Dick Tiger’s powerful hooks. Tiger had hardly broken out in a sweat when the fight ended. Teryy Downes himself acknowledged Tiger’s superiority in a post match chat “that Tiger looks big for a middle weight. He does when you’re in the bleeding floor looking up at him.”
Before that time, Tiger had won some garlands. Thrice in 1962, 1963 and 1964, he won the Norwich Union Trophy for “sportsman of the Year” in Nigeria. He also received honourable mention at the 1960 Nigerian Awards. In 1958 he won the British Empire Middle Weight Boxing title by flooring Pat McAteer in Liverpool in the 9th round.
He lost the same title, however to Wilf Greaves in Canada on points but regained the title in a rematch this time TKO-ing Greaves.
Tiger by now had shown his inclination to win laurels at the centre stage of boxing in America. “it is the legitimate ambition of a fighter to fight for titles,’ was how he put. There were two versions of the particular tale that Dick Tiger desired; one, held by Gene Fulmer, recognized in North America and the other a European title held by Paul Pender. Dick Tiger had to wait a frustrating two years to get the chance to fight for the American title because of boxing politics.
When Gene Fulmer finally agreed to meet him, the fight had to be postponed twice. Meanwhile, age was catching up with Tiger, he was 33 years old. The champion said of Tiger “I pay tribute to Dick’s left hooks, but I believe I have fought other guys with good hooks before.” Dick simply retorted “I am not worried I just want the title.” At Candlestick Park, where the fight took place, Gene stretched Tiger to the last round but at the end Tiger won on points. He was now a world champion. In his corner to celebrate that evening where Chief J.M Johnson, federal minister for Labour and Nigeria’s ambassador to America, J.M Udochi.
The following year, 1963, he battled his foe Fulmer to a draw in Las Vegas, Nevada. That same year, Ibadan, Nigeria hosted the last stage of the Tiger/Fulmer contest. It was going to be the first big fight in the country. Tiger’s American manager Jersey Jones arrived to join a phalanx of promoters and agents to publicize the fight. In a show of solidarity, each of the three regions donated 15,000 pounds towards the fight and the central government gave 20,000 pounds.
Before a frenzied crowd of 25,000 of his countrymen, Tiger stopped Fulmer in the 7th round. He then had to contend with Joey Giardello, a hard punching Brooklyn, New York-born pugilist whose shifty style rattled Tiger. On 7 December 1963, Joey beat Tiger in a title fight.
This drew out the indomitable spirit in Dick Tiger. In 1965, at 35 and after a frustrating delay, he met Joey again leaving the champion’s face a mask of blood. That year, ahead of great boxers like Muhammed Ali, Dick Tiger was made fighter of the year by the authoritative Ring magazine. “It is a reward for his standing as a citizen of the world….his faultless ranking as a sportsman and his high contributions to the morals and techniques of the sport.”
With his mark made, he moved to the light heavy weight category, and in Puerto Rico in December 1966, he defeated Jose Torres to win the World Light Heavy Weight Championship. He defended it thrice and lost the title to Bob Foster in Madison Square Garden, New York USA in 1968.
He didn’t quit yet. He slammed Frankie Depaula (judged the fight of the year) Nino Benvenuti and Andy Kendal before being defeated by Emile Griffiti in July 1970.
Though he didn’t know it then, it was the last fight for the warrior. The war raging across his country had taken a heavy toll on him. Some reports had it that he donated much of his purse to his Biafran homeland. Thereafter, he moved back to Nigeria to find a cure for what was a strange illness – cancer. On 17 December 1972, Dickson Ihetu died of cancer of his liver in Aba – a city whose gritty ways he had taken with him to the ring.
Condolences in the superlative followed. Ian Gibb of The Sun wrote, “Tiger was one of the rarest men ever to step into the boxing ring” and The Daily Mail quoting his former manager Tony Vario wrote, “Dick Tiger will be remembered as one who was rated as one of boxing’s all time greats.
Nigeria still nursing the wounds of war, stopped to mourn the passing of a great son.
The writer is greatly indebted to Sebastine Oforum: Dick Tiger. World Boxing Champion two weights who knew what it was to be hungry.
• Originally entitled “An Uncommon Fighter,” Goodluck Ebelo contributed this article to People in TheNEWS, 1900-2000, a special publication of this medium in year 2000