The Early YearsRichard Ihetu, A.K.A Dick Tiger is undoubtedly one of the greatest boxers in prize-fight history. He is the second middle-weight boxer, of all time, to move up in class from the middleweight division to the light heavyweight class, and remains the only boxer from the African continent ever, to attain such a status. Dick Tiger is credited with helping to rejuvenate boxing during the 1950's and 60's boxing industry recession. His fistic prowess transcended boxing. His exploits in the boxing ring served as a bridge in boosting amicable diplomatic relations between African nations and the USA.
Dick Tiger's reputation in the ring, and his personal aura, served as a catalyst in bringing the first world championship match to the continent of Africa, in 1963. The bout was between Dick Tiger and the formidable Gene Fulmer, at Liberty Stadium in Nigeria, West Africa. Dick Tiger won that history-making fight. That historic duel was the quake that triggered the second epic match in Africa more than a decade later, between boxing titans, Muhammed Ali and George Foreman, aptly dubbed the "Rumble in the Jungle".
This iconic boxer's rise to fame did not come easily, but through sheer determination and raw energy, he was able to bulldoze his way into boxing history. Born to noble, but cash-strapped parents in Amaigbo, Imo State, Nigeria, on August 14th, 1929, he was christened Richard, Iherigbo, Ihetu. One of 4 children, Dick Tiger did not let his humble beginnings deter or derail his drive to excel. He turned the deficits in his environment into benefits. He believed in himself, and achieved, astronomically. From each misstep, and fall, he bounced back, always able to recover and refine his skills to beat down the next opponent. He was always able to upgrade, and reinvent himself.
Recognition and AdmirationAfter Dick Tiger had conquered his opponents in the Nigerian boxing scene, he left the shores of his beloved homeland, and set sail for England. While in England, Dick Tiger's fistic abilities was so impressive that he not only wore the crown as British Empire Middleweight Boxing Champion , but also caught the attention of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of England, who appointed him as Commander of the British Order (CBE), in 1958. In 1959, Dick Tiger immigrated to the USA. It was in the USA that Dick Tiger honed and perfected his boxing skills, to become one of the most sought after by boxing promoters and fight fans, but most avoided by boxing contenders. He became a constant attraction at the famed Madison Square Garden. Fight fans and admirers alike came in droves to witness the enigmatic boxer that is Dick Tiger. Audiences always left his bouts satisfied; entertained. He always gave his all. He never failed them; just as he never failed his family, his country, and his profession.
Dick Tiger was as great a boxer as he was a gentleman. This was evident when in 1962, he met all of Ring Magazines stringent criteria for meriting the cherished title of "Fighter of the Year". He beat out some of Boxing's best, such as Sonny Liston, Emile Griffith, Carlos Ortiz, and the incomparable Muhammed Ali ( then Cassius Clay), to clench the coveted title. Dick Tiger received the award again in 1965.
The next year (1966), Dick Tiger defeated Jose Torres to become the undisputed Light-Heavyweight Champion. He retained that title for 2 years, before relinquishing it to Bob Foster in 1968, by a knockout - the only time in Dick Tiger's stellar career, where he lost by a knockout. That notwithstanding , his resilience as a boxer was irrepressible. In the same year that he gave up the light heavyweight title, he went on to crush more worthy opponents in the ring, most notably, in the fight with Frankie Depaula. Boxing fans, and the viewing public rated that fight the "Fight of the Year".
Last callDick Tiger's last fight was in 1970, with Emile Griffith. He lost that fight, and later in the same year announced his retirement from professional boxing. In less than one year after his announcement from his beloved career, he lost the battle with a different, deadlier kind of opponent- cancer. Dick Tiger, that enigma in boxing, the African battler, succumbed to liver cancer, at the onset of middle age. He was only 42 years old.
Even in his death, he was not defeated. In 1991, Dick Tiger added yet another feather to his cap when he was posthumously inducted into the prestigious International Boxing Hall of Fame, in the USA – the first African boxer ever, to be admitted into this VIP club of Boxing’s greats.Dick Tiger was a sportsman extraordinaire, and remains a credit to boxing, and to his homeland of Nigeria. He never coveted the attention, and accolades that he received, but graciously sought to help others in need. He greatly impacted the lives of his people, his country, and his profession.
It is in his honor that the Dick Tiger Foundation is instituted, to continue his legacy of perseverance and charity, for posterity.
Daughter to Father
A prize fighter is generally believed to be one who duels, or fights with another boxer, in a boxing ring; for a set fee or prize. That term though, could be attributed to the general public – in our daily hustle and bustle for a prize or pay-check, to make ends meet. When put into perspective, we are all prizefighters of sorts.
I was reading excerpts of an interview granted by the late Dick Tiger some time ago (1962), in the widely read sports magazine, “Sports Illustrated”. The interview was conducted right after Dick Tiger’s victory over the titanic boxer, Gene Fullmer, to claim the middleweight boxing Championship of the world.
Dick Tiger was understandably, in high spirits after the win, and during the course of the interview, reporter, Gilbert Rogin, inquired from Dick Tiger the source of his inspiration for taking up boxing as a career. Dick Tiger replied that he was inspired by prize-fighters, or boxers that he saw in books and in the cinemas. He went on to quirp “… I’m a prizefighter, otherwise, I know nothing.”
Those words cut through my heart. “How erroneous!” I thought. Not from a man who is the greatest boxer out of Africa… Not from a man who, though without the benefits of a formal education, saw it fit to invest in the lives of people, and country. Not from a man who, despite a lack of secondary school education, single-handedly built one, so that other children in need, might be empowered through education… That Statement begged for a redress!
Dick Tiger, you never were one to live on self-aggrandizement. You never coveted the fame and recognition, and would rather not be noticed. Your greatest endowment was not in the gift of the garb, either. NO. Your endowment was in the superfluous way with which you executed your skills as a show-man, in the boxing ring. You claimed by acts of deeds, not just words, your devotion, and regard for fellow man.
By all measures you are a great man. You not only conquered your environment, you transcended it – and in humility; you gave back to your people and your community. You put your life on the line to serve others! There is no greater sacrifice… God does not ask more of us than that – and you did all this before the age of 42.
Dick Tiger, you were not just a prizefighter. You did not just ‘fight’ inside, or outside of the ring, for a prize. Richard Iherigbo Ihetu (Dick Tiger) is a prize - a grand prize, won by Nigeria, through the Grace of God Almighty - A prize at just the right time! You helped put your fledgling country on the world map. I am so proud of you!
You are not just a prizefighter Papa, you are a national treasure! You are the grand prize, and your beloved country, Nigeria, is the grand prize winner! Nigeria and Nigerians should come to terms that truly, no amount of pomp and pageantry would prove too much for an individual of your caliber.
“…The labor of our heroes past, shall never be in vain.” So reads a verse etched into the Nigerian National Anthem. We should uphold those truths, that our past may continue to illuminate our future; so that our spirit walk not in darkness.
Papa, you will forever live in our hearts and minds… You achieved fame and acclaim, honored your nation, and supported your community. The goal of the Dick Tiger Foundation is to promote these principles as your legacy. God bless you. God bless America. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.
With loving memories from your daughter,
A Champion For All Times
Mr. Richard Ihetu of Nigeria was born on August 14, 1929 in Amaigbo, Imo State. He died 42 years later at his home in Aba, Abia State, on December 14, 1971. He left behind a wife and 8 children.
If this was all anyone knew of Richard (aka Dick Tiger), it would be an unremarkable African life. And it would be wrong. Nothing about Dick Tiger was unremarkable; his children have achieved much in life. His grandchildren are numerous, and his beloved widow, Abigail, lived for 73 years, passing in 2008.
While Dick Tiger’s death was premature, his life was far from tragic; indeed his life was a tale of progress and self-improvement; from humble beginnings to a wealthy realtor; from street fighter in obscure boxing booths to world champion in the greatest pinnacle of boxing venues; from a short stocky local man to global recognition and acclaim. He hosted Africa’s first world title bout in Ibadan, Nigeria; defending his N.B.A middleweight belt for the second time against Gene Fullmer; 11 years before the more popular Zaire’s “Rumble in the Jungle”. For a boxer of his time to insist on staging a world championship fight in his homeland was remarkably patriotic; for boxing authorities to accede, was testament to his determination and credibility.
Dick Tiger was quiet, soft-spoken, simple and uncomplicated, stocky and sinewy. In the streets of Aba, quiet and soft-spoken meant you got picked on, but he quickly developed a street-fighter reputation. In 1948, at age 19, he began to box in inter-club contests organized by British military officers as a way to escape the drudgery of urban life. How did Richard Ihetu become Dick Tiger? In the West, people named Richard are often called, Dick, just as those named William, are called Bill. The history of Western name shortening is beyond our scope here. However, one day, an Englishman watched him jump in the air to clobber his opponent. “What tenacity he thought, almost like a Tiger. A Tiger is what he is! He shouted”. Thus was born the nickname, Dick Tiger. In 1955, he left Nigeria for Liverpool by mail boat. Life in Britain was challenging, but he eventually adjusted to the weather, the cuisine, being alone, and remade his boxing style after a succession of losses. In 1959, he moved to New York City to be guided by a new, more progressive boxing brain trust.
Tiger’s reputation preceded him to New York. The two holders (Gene Fullmer and Paul Pender) of the now-fragmented middleweight titles blatantly avoided him, with Pender commenting that Tiger “is one of those fighters who just keep coming… the kind you don’t fight unless you have to.” Tiger was a modest man, not given to self-promotion. His “quiet dignity”, “lack of braggadocio”, “tendency towards introspection”, avoiding pressmen, and speaking in “monosyllabic tones”, disappointed promoters “in their quest for higher box office receipts”; but in the ring, it was “classic exhibition of pugilism”.
On October 1962, at San Francisco’s Candle Stick Park, Gene Fullmer granted Dick Tiger a fight for the middleweight crown. Afterwards, people in Nigeria listening on the radio “burst out of their homes and into the streets to sing and dance in unbridled jubilation”. Months later, he won a decision over Fullmer in Las Vegas, and then requested that the next fight be staged in his home country.
All career fighters experience peaks and valleys and Tiger had his share, but he remained undaunted. In 1965, he thrice dropped “Hurricane” Rubin Carter, to earn a long awaited rematch with Joey Giardello; to become only the 4th boxer in history to regain the middleweight championship! He lost the title the following year, and most of the subsequent contenders refused to fight him. Despite his small stature, he moved up in weight class to fight the Cus D’Amato nurtured Jose Torres who was younger, taller, heavier, and a more naturally talented boxer; but Tiger prevailed to become the world light heavyweight champion. In an obituary for Tiger, Jose Torres recounted, “a moment in their fight when he saw an opening and connected solidly with a combination of punches before stepping back to watch Tiger fall to the canvas; a pause long enough for Tiger to riposte with a stunning left hook. The first thing Torres noticed when his head cleared and his vision returned was the exposed brown-colored mouthpiece of Tiger’s: Tiger was smiling”; upset the odds in a unanimous verdict, to become only the second man in 63 years to have won both the middle and light heavyweight titles.
In 1967, Dick Tiger returned home to give his support to his native Eastern Region in the vicious ethnic pogrom executed in the Northern part of the country; leading to the eventual proclamation of the republic of Biafra and the ensuing civil conflict. He staged charity bouts in Port Harcourt to raise funds for Eastern refugees who escaped mass killing in the North. He became the celebrity who boosted the national morale. He led efforts to collect dead bodies of victims of air raids that primarily targeted civilian populations.
He returned to the United States, but failed to successfully defend his title against a six-foot-three Bob Foster. The war, and his pride, would not permit him the luxury of retirement. “The thing about Dick Tiger is that he has an honest heart and willing hands”. By this time, his boxing career had come to an end, and at the end of the civil war in 1970, he longed to return home, but feared reprisals for his role in the war. This quest was made more urgent when in 1971, he was diagnosed with liver cancer, in New York.
Under the banner, “no victor, no vanquished” a general amnesty was granted to Nigerians who played a part in the war. His role in the Biafran cause angered the Nigerian military officials. In numerous interviews he alluded to war crimes committed by the Nigerian side; he distributed leaflets alleging same at fights in Madison Square Garden; he insisted that the Biafran Anthem be played before his bouts. He returned his M.B.E. civil medal to Queen Elizabeth II of England, and condemned the British for their moral and military support for Nigeria. These were considered highly provocative and unforgivable by Nigerian military officials, and despite formal guarantee of safe passage by the Nigerian consulate in New York, he was interrogated for 3 hours upon arrival, his passport was confiscated, never to be returned; later the military refused his request to leave the country in order to undergo proposed radical treatment for his ailment, thus dooming his chances for recovery and sealing his fate, to which he eventually succumbed.
It says more about Nigeria, and Igbos in particular, that this patriot, rebel, humanitarian, philanthropist and world champion, has never been honored with a proclamation, plaque or statue in his homeland. This generous man of many parts; a devoted family man, courageous fighter, Nigerian patriot, Biafran rebel who built schools, provided start-up capital, offered scholarships, and served his people, deserves more than has heretofore been accorded him. It is in honor of this illustrious son, father, husband and friend that this Foundation is established.