It was in a film at the cinema that he saw the vast, heroic shadows of prizefighters and was inspired to quit his job as a delivery boy for a jewelry store in the city of Aba. “I became interested in boxing,” he said. “And it turned out very good. I’ve met a lot of good people. I grew on a farm and we were very poor. If we were rich, I don’t think I would have become a fighter. But if I get plenty money, I want my son to become a politician. I like the way they talk on television. I’m not clever enough to be a politician myself.”
Dick Tiger was born and christened Richard Ihetu, on August the 14th 1929, in Amaigbo in present day Imo State. He was the third child of Ubuagwu and Rebecca Ihetu. Tiger spent most of his early years working on the family farm. His first job was drawing water and fetching firewood from a nearby forest. He also attended the local missionary school where he was known as a bright, hardworking student.
Tiger’s father was a trader and amateur wrestler. He died suddenly, when Tiger was only 13. His mother continued to mind the farm, but money was scarce, and Tiger and his older brothers had to leave school and move to town. There, he worked as a delivery boy, walking bare foot along the unpaved roads; pushing a cart full of goods for local businesses. Sometimes, he would join his older brothers on expeditions to the Rivers town of Ogoni. They would buy monkeys, parrots and cats, which they trained and sold at local markets. Along the way, Tiger developed a reputation as a teenager, who could take care of himself in street fights. He was fairly short, but had powerful, broad shoulders. After reading stories about great American boxing champions, like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray Robinson, Tiger decided to try his luck at boxing.
He found favour with a British military man, who enlisted him in boxing career. As he was fighting as an amateur, he was being observed by this Englishman, Diamen, who was very enthused by this aggressive short and stocky man, jumping up to hit his opponent, and he kind of said: “A Tiger! That’s what he was! A Tiger!” And so being a Richard, they shortened that to ‘Dick Tiger.
Richard Ihetu participated in interclub contests arranged by British military officers in the outskirt of Aba. He practiced and competed with such dexterity, that his career spiralled in the 1950’s. Dick Tiger fought the high-flying pugilists, the likes of Easy Dynamite – Mighty Joe and Super Human Power and became the undefeated boxer of the nation.
Diamen later took Dick Tiger to the United Kingdom to hone his boxing skills. While in the United Kingdom, Dick Tiger lost his first four bouts but was not deterred, rather, he trudged on and like the true champion that he was, with time, he was able to refine his skills to stop his opponents.
While in England, Dick Tiger’s fistic abilities were very impressive and after four victories at a stretch, he not only wore the crown as British Empire Middleweight Boxing Champion, but caught the attention of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II of England, who honoured him as Commander of the British Order (CBE), in 1958.The victories which included three knockouts, earned him the British Empire Middleweight Championship title.
In 1959, Dick Tiger refused to renew his contract with his second British Manager, and consequently, migrated to New York, United States of America. The USA, it was believed, was the country where serious boxing contenders went to prove their worth in the noble sport and while in the US, it did not take long for Dick Tiger to set his sight on the world middleweight title.
Tiger’s reputation took 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. 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 in Las Vegas, and then requested that the next fight be staged in his home country.
Afterwards, people in Nigeria who kept vigil monitoring proceedings on radio trooped out in celebrations into the streets to sing and dance in unbridled jubilation, 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 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. A political truce was declared by opposing parties in the parliament of the Eastern region whose members also passed a resolution granting civil servants a two-day holiday. The Northern parliament out-did them by affording their staff a four-day holiday. All regions negotiated cheaper fare rates with public and private transport services for those travelling to watch the fight in Ibadan.
On fight night, the Liberty Stadium throbbed with excitement as thirty thousand spectators geared up for the bout. At ringside along with Governor-General Nnamdi Azikiwe sat the ambassador of the United States and other political dignitaries. Encircling the ringside and the vantage points leading to the ring were 250 members of the elite Queens regiment, each resplendent in a scarlet and yellow jacket which was topped by a red fez.
At 8.30 p.m, the moment finally arrived. In truth, the first round was the only round of the fight in which both men would compete in a manner approaching parity. From the second, Tiger had settled to a steady rhythm by which he bored towards Fullmer with a jab and followed up with punch combinations to the head and body.
Fullmer gradually but inexorably wilted as Tiger pressed at him with an array of jarring blows. By the end of the third, the 32-year-old Fullmer seemed a spent force. Back at his corner during the minute’s rest, his father and his manager, Jensen both pleaded with him to quit, but his response was to vigorously shake his head from side-to-side.
He fought with raw courage but this was not enough against power and sublime skill of Dick Tiger. The damage being wrought by Tiger’s fists was all too apparent as the din of the bell ended round seven. Jensen had seen enough, he notified referee Joe Hart that the fight should be ended. Hart proceeded to Tiger’s corner to raise his hands to the acclaim of the spectators in the stadium. It was to be the beginning of a night of widespread celebration.
The spirit of unity and national brotherhood which the fight had helped develop and the worldwide publicity and prestige the fight had brought to Nigeria was of the sort which could not be measured in purely financial terms.
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.
All career fighters experience peak and Tiger had his share, but he remained undaunted. Dick Tiger lost his middleweight crown in December, 1963 but regained same in October, 1965 to become the oldest active world champion.
In that 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 on 16th December, 1966, in addition to winning a middleweight championship. 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 mouthpiece of Tiger’s. Tiger’s smiling upset the odds in a unanimous verdict, that he had 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 civilians.
He used his prestige in America to promote the Biafran cause. He used his money. So, before his fights, the Biafran anthem would be played out on live TV. He would donate a lot of his purse towards medical supplies for Biafrans caught up in the conflict. He became a distributor of communications gadgets to the Biafran military and security services and he basically promoted that cause until the end of the civil war in 1970 when the Biafrans were outnumbered, they were outgunned and eventually outmanoeuvered. And they had to surrender.
He retained the title of the heavyweight champion 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”.The war, and his pride, would not permit him the luxury of retirement. The thing about Dick Tiger was that he had 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.
After retiring from boxing, Tiger worked as a guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. One day, he felt a strong pain in his back. Tested by doctors, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Tiger had been banned by the Nigerian government in his country because of his involvement in the Biafran movement; however, the ban was lifted immediately after news about his condition arrived Nigeria.
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 medical treatment for his ailment, thus dooming his chances for recovery and sealing his fate, to which he eventually succumbed. He died on 14th December, 1971.
Dick Tiger was a great man of many parts; a man who started with practically nothing, as a ‘nobody’ but made tremendous impact on those he left behind. His hindsight and wisdom in building a secondary school even though he did not have a secondary education, was very inspiring. His love of education and his passion for it made him (Dick Tiger) to establish a secondary school at Amaigbo.
The school, Amaigbo Memorial Secondary School, has produced a number of notable Nigerians today among whom are Senator Ifeanyi Araraume and Barrister Josiah Uwazuruike, one-time Resident Electoral Commissioner for Ondo, Anambra and Enugu states.
He was also known to have helped his men-folk during the Nigeria/Biafra war. History has it that the late boxer staged free matches. The money raised was used to help ease the worsening conditions of his men-folk in war camps. Dick Tiger indeed has left an equivocal mark which no Amaigbo native has ever matched.
A man of dynamic qualities, endowed with skills, enriched in wisdom, guarded by instinct, prolific in inspiration, enthused with the desire to change the lives of people around him, sadly, haunted by a deplorable and unwelcomed illness, and cheated and conquered by death. Great Dick Tiger’s career, fame, and contributions to humanity had made profound impact on many.
The Dick Tiger Ihetu Foundation established on October 23, 2010, in Nigeria. The fund raiser through the foundation, according to him, would be expended on scholarship and other forms of youth empowerment. So far, over 70 youth have benefitted from the foundation.
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 this great Nigerian.
He was married to Abigail Ogbuji, a kindergarten teacher. She bore him eight children. Among Dick Tiger’s children, Joseph took boxing as a hobby but later dropped it.