He was a sensation in the boxing ring. He had all the imprimatur of a true Igbo: industry, vision and determination. His accomplishments were so outstanding that he was honored as the first African to be inducted into the global prestigious World Boxers Hall of Fame. Although it was Chief Obafemi Awolowo that built the first modern stadium in Nigeria, it was Tiger that made it popular as he knocked out Gene Fulmmer on August 10, 1963 to retain his middleweight title against the American.
It was absolutely sensational. Born as Richard Ihetu on August 14, 1929, Dick Tiger was known among the best boxers of his time, as he held the World Middleweight and World Light Heavyweight Championships. He fought in 81 professional matches, winning 61 (26 by knockouts), losing 17, and drawing three. Tiger hailed from Amaigbo, Nwangele LGA of Imo State, but spent all his life in Aba, Abia State where he helped to keep the city lively in the 50s and 60s. He served as a Lieutenant in the Biafran army during the Nigerian Civil War. Tiger died on December 14, 1971, after battling with cancer. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991. In this interview with News Echo, Tiger’s first son, Richard Ihetu Jnr. Esq narrates the story of his father, the family and life after the Great Dick Tiger
As a son knows the father, let us ask you who was Dick Tiger?
By the grace of God, I’m his first son. When he died, I was about nine going to 10 years old. So, I can emphatically say that I knew him as a child. He was a good family man who took care of his family and those around him. He suffered when he was small, and insisted his children would not suffer. Before he left the earth, he took good care of us to make us whom we are today. He came from a very humble beginning. He did his bottle trading business before going into boxing. He hated arrogance and pomposity. I learnt from him and that’s why I can work into the streets of Aba without anyone knowing I’m the one. He always warned us to remember where we came from.
How many are you in the family?
We were eight, but one died two-three years ago and may her soul rest in peace. We’re now four boys and three girls. Among my brothers, I’m the only male child of his in this country.
Tell us how he was able to switch from bottle trading to boxing?
I give the credit to one Late Mr. Goddy Uzoaro, a goldsmith from Mbieri, in Imo State who was a very good friend of my father. It was at No 4 Clifford Road Aba that he met Uzoaro where he and some men formed a boxing club. From there, they started with some other boxers. Somewhere along the line, I remember there was one man they called Bobby Diamond, a British boxing promoter who was interested in boxing. My dad picked it up and was able to take his career to the next level and the rest is history.
How does his lifestyle, his name affect his family?
Let’s be frank to ourselves because it’s usually necessary to do so. There are places that the name Dick Tiger shuts the doors. If you’re a historian, you’ll remember the role he played during the Biafra, Nigeria Civil War. He played a huge and courageous role that I cannot play. You know what happened then from the genocide and killing of his people and other things that led to the war. He had to send back his Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) award back to the Queen of England together with Mazi Akanu Ibiam because of the problem his people were facing.
Others even Biafrans kept their own, but my father had to send back his. There was one fight that was very controversial where he came in with a Biafran flag and anthem saying that he was a Biafran. That one alone was a diplomatic coup that changed a lot in the Biafra, Nigeria international relations. So, up till now and today, some people in high places have not forgot or forgiven. When I say that my father’s name opens doors some places and shuts doors some places, I know what I’m saying. In Nigeria, it doesn’t open doors as people think. But I thank God all his children are on their own doing well. I employ lawyers myself.
So, if anybody wants to recognize Dick Tiger, let them do if they don’t want, let them leave it. But I gave it to former President Goodluck Jonathan who honoured my father during his time in Abuja. It was the first time a Nigerian president besides Dr. Nnamdi Azikiwe during those days my dad won the middleweight world championship title would honour the name Dick Tiger.
Some years back, I still remember Rochas Okorocha as Imo State governor also honoured my father during his days. But the painful irony is that my dad spent most of his life in Aba, Abia State. I’m an Aba man by all standards. Yes, I’m from Amaigbo, in Nwangele Local Government Area of Imo State, but from what I was told, since 1920s, our family has been in Aba. They moved from Amaigbo to Owerrinta in Isiala-Ngwa and from there to this Aba when Aba was still a new township. In one of the ceremonies where he was honoured in Abuja, they mistakenly said he was from Abia State.
There was a drama, Imo State people wanted to protest, but I said they should calm down because we’re one people. At heart, my father loved Aba and spent all his life here. Today, not even a single street is named after him in this entire Aba to remember that man that brought so much honour to this city.
Why do you think Dick Tiger loved Aba?
Well, during that period, many of our people from that part of Orlu Zone: Nkwerre, Amaigbo and Owerre-Nkworji area, migrated to Aba. That’s why, if you look at how Aba is carved out today, settlements are usually occupied by same people from same areas. For instance in Ogbor-Hill: the Ibibios and Ohafia people occupied there. Inside the Aba main town, you’ll see settlements of people from my own area, the Orlu Zone. Then Osisioma axis, you’ll see mostly people from other places. This place is like his taproot because he learnt everything he knew here. From Aba, they picked him to Calabar and from Calabar to Lagos and other places. However, everything he had as property is in Aba. What he did was, after every assignment, he would return to meet his family here. Because of the love Aba people had for him, I don’t think he thought of even leaving this city.
I remember whenever he was on the streets; it would be like a president was moving. He liked trekking, doing shadow boxing and going on his bicycle notwithstanding all the cars he had then. He always did that to mingle with Aba people who always followed him wherever he was going to singing Tiger! Tiger! Tiger! My father was a true “Nwa-Aba”. I was small but I knew a lot then. I remember during his burial, scores of people lined up just to see his corpse. Aba people loved Dick Tiger and he loved Aba people. If you’re saying anything about the current Aba and you’ve not called Dick Tiger, you’ve not started. We had our greats. People like Nnanna Kalu, Ugorji Eke, Ekenna, Anyaehie and many others, including Dick Tiger were one of the greats here. Aba was a very good city before the war. It was a great place to be just that the infrastructure went bad and pushed a lot of people out of Aba.
Tiger was the best in his time, he fought as a Nigerian, why do you think Nigerian best boxers today prefer to fight as citizens of foreign countries?
Let us start with the economy and let us be truthful to ourselves. Most of these boxers come from humble or let us say very poor background. Somewhere along the line, you see them going abroad, enjoying a lot of incentives like scholarship and what have you, and you want them to just come back here and answer Nigerians? They’ll just answer Britain with Nigerian ancestry. That’s not a problem because they still remember where they came from. Like Anthony Joshua, he’s still a Nigerian by all ramifications, but because of his profession, he’s now a British, same with Lawrence Okolie.
What can be done to get the best of Nigerian boxers compete for Nigeria?
As I said, most of them still identify with this place as their father land. But you can’t just keep them here when there’s no proper foundation. Firstly, you must start from the grassroots. For instance, go to the Aba Stadium and see what’s happening there. Most times I go there unidentified to see things myself. The last time I went there, I cried. If you see the boxers there with their torn gloves and nothing to support them, you pity them. After practicing, they’ll go and take local whiskey (Kaikai) and do other businesses because there’s no money and proper guide. Government is not helping nor providing for them. Most of those that you see being celebrated today are either through somebody or self help. They don’t even encourage athletics. Even the much talked about football, nothing is happening much. Is football the only sports we have? I thank God our boxers are progressing nowadays. Just look at Lawrence Okolie who recently won a WBO World Cruiserweight Championship. We’re losing a lot of people. Government should provide sporting facilities and help these athletes. I give it to Michael Okpara (Power Mike), there was a time he had this sporting gymnasium although I don’t know if it’s still in existence now.
What happened to the boxing tournament established in memory of your father by Power Mike?
You’re correct but you must look at the economy again. Times are very hard. If you want to revive such a tournament, there have to be cooperation between the person doing it, the government and other great individuals to make it work again and sustain it. But with Covid-19 and other serious challenges, it is difficult. You know the Nigerian factor, but by God’s grace things can happen at any time.
Do you still remember titles won by your father?
I will call those I can remember. He started in Aba and I know there was a time he was the Eastern Region champion. From there, he went to Lagos and became the Middleweight Champion of Nigeria. He went to London and became the British Commonwealth Empire Champion. From there he left for the United States of America where he defeated Gene Fullmer to win the Middleweight Champion of the World. From there he moved into the light‐heavyweight division and won that title from José Torres and became the Light-Heavy Weight Champion of the world.
That made him the first boxer to have shifted from Middleweight to Light-Heavyweight and won it. He was also honored twice by the Boxing Writers Association as Fighter of the Year (Sports Illustrated Magazine), in 1963 and 1966. He lost his Light-Heavyweight title via knockout to Bob Foster in 1968 and that was his only loss by a knockout in his 81‐bout career. As a gentleman, he refused to give excuse, because that was during the heat of the Biafra, Nigeria Civil War. He was not relaxed because the pressure of the war was too much. He simply said that the man who beat him was better and that’s the spirit of Dick Tiger, a true gentleman. After his death in 1971, he became the first African boxer to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
He was up there among the best in his time. You know he did almost majority of his fights at the Madison Square Garden, New York. So, just three years ago, the New York State Boxing Association looked at the history and decided to honour him with an award after many years of his death. I thank God that people outside still remember Dick Tiger even when such honour isn’t coming from home.
This year will make it the 50th anniversary of my dad’s death, so along the line, we’re seeing what we can do to celebrate it. If it doesn’t work out, we celebrate easily and move on. We already have our Dick Tiger Foundation that gives scholarship to indigent students. The Dick Tiger Memorial Secondary was taken over by government and you know how they manage their Schools. We’re seeing if they can give it back to us to revive it. My father built that school personally. A lot of people, I mean known people like Senator Ifeanyi Ararume passed through that school. They have renowned Old Boys that can help make it better. If you go to that school now, you’ll cry.
What do you think should be done in honouring of Dick Tiger?
Well, there’s something I raised initially; President Goodluck Jonathan has already given him such recognition and there’s already a street named after him in Abuja. There are some children of some privileged men in Nigeria that didn’t even attempt what my dad achieved for this that you are seeing in good positions today because of their parents. If a son or a daughter of Dick Tiger gets there is it a crime? Most of them by merit and qualifications don’t know anything. I’m not castigating them at all, but I just want you to understand what I’m saying.
So, I don’t know if it’s because of where I came from, but that’s the situation. When I was associating with children of the other great men during that award, they were shocked because so many of them are in great positions today. Especially politicians, you’ll be surprised of where they are because of their parents’ names. In ours, we must work hard. Even if I tell them, they’ll just exclaim as I continue to work hard for myself. I work harder because of my father’s name. Many feel you have it all and there’s no reason to give you attention. However, it’s not my job to tell Abia State Government what to do. After all, the current governor is Nwa-Aba.
He grew up in this town, so he should know. If he wants, let him do something, if he doesn’t, there’s no problem. It’s not my job to tell anyone what to do. We’ve had higher honours by the grace of God. The facts are there that there’s nothing about the memory of Dick Tiger in Aba. We don’t even have a street named after him here.
Your father was buried in a kind of mausoleum that is usually seen a tourism centre, how is it now?
You’re correct. In terms of that tomb, it’s something we have in pipeline. Every December period and Easter, irrespective of the fact that it’s not yet an international tourism centre, people out of curiosity, always come there to ask for Dick Tiger’s Tomb. The person may land in Amaigbo and the next thing is to see the Tomb of Dick Tiger. I’m already working on it. Soon, the place will be a centre people will appreciate. I’m financing it personally. I like doing it myself because I’m fade up with bureaucracy. If you tell even the local government in my place, they can’t do anything.