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Ikenna Okoli: Remembering Dick Tiger; Once The Pride Of Nigeria
Richard Ihetu, a boxer, who fought under the nom de guerre Dick Tiger, was reputed to possess fists of iron. In a charity bout, in February, 1967 against the then Nigerian middleweight champion, Abraham Tonica, to raise funds for refugees swarming into then Eastern region as a result of the killings in Northern Nigeria, he was reputed to have hit Abraham Tonica with such ferocity, that Tonica, just before throwing in the towel, wondered aloud whether he was being hit with human fists or iron. That story is apocryphal by the way.
Dick Tiger was born on 14th August, 1929 in Amaigbo in present day Imo State. Probably only a few people outside the immediate family would have remembered the great man on the anniversary of his birth, but there are a few who remembered including this writer. And having remembered, there is a need to call attention to the neglect of the great man’s memory by the Federal Government and all the States of the old Eastern region.
Dick Tiger became a world champion when on 23rd October, 1962 he defeated Gene Fullmer to win the N.B.A. (later W.B.A.) world middleweight title. The Nigerian government in a show of support sent an official delegation, led by the Federal Minister of Labour and Sports, Chief Modupe Johnson, to the fight. The Governor-General, Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe cabled a goodwill message urging him to fight a good fight in the tradition of the manly art.
Dick Tiger won a unanimous decision over Fullmer after comprehensively beating the American in his own backyard. After the fight many Nigerians who kept vigil monitoring proceedings on radio trooped out in celebrations congratulating each other on the great feat achieved by a Nigerian. Meanwhile a party was organised after the fight where Chief Modupe Johnson toasted Dick Tiger as “our champion”. Dick Tiger came back to Nigeria as a hero and was feted by the governments of the Eastern and Western regions amongst several events lined up to celebrate the worthy champion.
In August, 1963 Dick Tiger knocked out Gene Fullmer in Ibadan at the Liberty Stadium to retain his middleweight title in what was the first world title fight to be staged in Black Africa. The fight was made possible by the combined efforts of the Federal Government, the East, West and North Regional Governments. It was one fight that brought Nigerians together in celebration of one of their own who had excelled at the world stage. At this point Dick Tiger was no longer just the pride of Nigeria but had been appropriated by Black Africa. After defeating Fullmer, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah congratulated him on his successful defence of his middleweight crown, remarking that the victory added another testimony to the ability of the African to scale the highest ladder of human achievement.
Dick Tiger lost his middleweight crown in December, 1963 but regained same in October, 1965 to become the oldest active world champion. On 16th December, 1966 Dick Tiger defeated Jose Torres to become only the second fighter in 63 years to win the world light heavyweight title in addition to winning a middleweight championship
By May, 1967 hostilities had broken out between Nigeria and Biafra. Dick Tiger pledged his loyalty to Biafra and declared Nigeria dead. He made a plea to sports writers all over the world not to continue to associate his name with Nigeria. He aborted his retirement plans so as to put Biafra on the sporting map. This singular act caused Dick Tiger to lose much of his wealth and assets which he had accumulated in Nigeria. The Federal Government labelled him a traitor.
By July, 1971 Dick Tiger was diagnosed with cancer of the liver in New York City. He was home sick and wanted to come back to Nigeria, but given his wartime activities he sought assurances from the authorities that he was free to come back to Nigeria. He came back to Nigeria on 18th July, 1971. His international passport was confiscated and the Government refused his request to go out of Nigeria to undergo radical treatment for his cancer. He died on 14th December, 1971.
It is instructive that Dick Tiger was never officially honoured by the Nigerian Government and till date has not been so honoured. The governments of the old Eastern region comprising of present day Imo, Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi, Rivers, Bayelsa, Cross River and Akwa Ibom States have also not deemed it fit to honour the memory of this great Nigerian.
My appeal to the authorities is that in these times where all sorts of characters are honoured for dubious achievements, Dick Tiger should be posthumously honoured. We need to show appreciation to this great and committed compatriot, who is undoubtedly Nigeria’s greatest sports personality. I therefore suggest that the great Dick Tiger be conferred with a national honour and at a minimum the Abuja stadium named after him. As for the governments of Imo, Abia, Anambra, Enugu, Ebonyi, Rivers, Cross-River and Bayelsa States they should take urgent steps to immortalize this most illustrious Nigerian.
Ikenna Okoli, FCIArb.
6 Ilesanmi Street,