“Thank you for your smile, And the love that’s in your eyes, And thank you for the heart that’s big and true, Thank you for the many things you are my love,
Let me thank you for just being you” Lionel Rose – I Thank You
I first spied Lionel Rose sitting on a bar stool at the ‘Friend in Hand’, a hardscrabble inner city Sydney pub with the unofficial name of ‘Fist in Face’.
A place where money is referred to as ‘Loot’.
Surrounded by regulars, the great man was holding court bright and early at midday.
“Play some Slim Dusty,” he yelled to the jukebox custodian.
“It’s all American crap,” Came the piercing reply.
I had one job.
To keep Lionel in shape ahead of his 60th birthday celebration that night on the Sweet Science boxing show live on Koori Radio.
The two hour tribute was to be broadcast around the nation to 60 stations on the National Indigenous Radio Service.
We had done our research, watched his big fights in black and white, listened to his songs, called his old friends for stories.
The live interviews had been set for the tribute and with the afternoon off work, all I had to do was make sure Lionel got to the studio at six.
Even though he is not a local, with thousands of friends in Sydney and on his birthday, it was not hard to see him getting side-tracked.
Like a human time capsule, he still lived in the late 1960s.
No mobile, he stayed at friend’s houses and wandered along his East Coast songline bringing joy to everyone he touched.
He had suffered a stroke the year before and was partially paralysed – the greatest Australian hero was seemingly on his last legs.
I waited for a break in traffic and introduced myself.
Lionel replied: “So you’re the one goin’ to all this effort for my 60th birthday.”
“It’s a pleasure to do it for the champ,” I announced proudly.
“Its Lionel’s 60th yelled the barman prompting a swarm to congratulate him.”
“So you’re my minder for today eh?” Lionel said once the crowd had thinned.
“Good luck,” yelled a ratty but well-meaning member of his entourage, prompting laughter across the bar.
“Watch him, he’ll slip ya,” said another drinker with an empty schooner.
“You ain’t taking him anywhere,” said one feisty, orthodontically-challenged patron.
I said to Lionel, “I’ll be out the back and get lunch for you.”
The ‘No Names’ bistro was a welcome light-filled cathedral compared to the dark and dank front bar.
Lionel’s song “I Thank You” was my nagging earworm for the day.
“When a boy becomes a man, He must do the best he can, To live his life and find his childhood dream.”
After 15 minutes of hooting and hollering in the front bar, Lionel arrived for a schnitzel, joined by Aboriginal activist Lyall Munro Jr.
I had met Lyall two years before when he gave a stirring speech to mark the late Aboriginal boxing legend Dave Sands’ 80th birthday.
Lyall looked at me, tilted his head. “We’ve got birthday plans for him today as well brotha, they might clash with yours.”
I countered sharply. “With respect Lyall, we’ve got 60 stations waiting for Lionel tonight – I have to get him to the studio.”
“I’ve taken the afternoon off work to make sure he gets there.”
“It’s a story we have to tell.”
We eyeballed briefly and I offered to buy him lunch, which he accepted with a round arm shoulder slap.
Lyall’s father Lyall Munro Sr was a Kamilaroi elder who had been a highly respected warrior for land rights in Moree and wider Australia.
Lyall Munro Jr was a firebrand from the same mould.
After lunch was devoured, I nodded to Lyall and whisked Lionel out the side door and into the car for a destinationless drive.
Lionel was quiet at first, taking in the sights, linking them to people he knew, answering my occasional questions.
One answer that stood out was about his footy career. He had been a small but skilful player for the Warragul Football Club in Gippsland and been shockingly abused by the racist crowds with opposition players targeting him with cheap shots.
“Still happening today. People just can’t imagine how it feels.”
He escaped racism by choosing boxing, now a shell of its glorious past but the only sport in Australia not to draw the colour line and for many Aboriginal men, the only way off the mission.
It was amazing how tiny Lionel looked sitting next to me in the car.
How did a bantamweight boy of 19 come from a rural Victorian humpy to shock the world in the uber-city of Tokyo against the monstrous Japanese world champion Fighting Harada?
Who would have thought this tiny mass of humanity would have a state funeral that would stop the whole of Melbourne.
I recalled the many pub arguments I had engaged in on the importance of this man to Australia’s nationhood.
My case was that Lionel was the first ‘both sides’ Australian after the 1967 referendum in which 90% of Australians voted to formally acknowledge his people’s existence.
After 200 years of pain and suffering of his people, he had stepped up and straddled the chasm of old and new Australia.
“I don’t go in for all this black and white thing. To me, we’re all Australians.” Lionel had said in an interview.
A simple message of reconciliation, without blame, and forward-looking.
Lionel avoided politics but also confronted it when he had to, showing real leadership by refusing to fight in apartheid South Africa and badgering Prime Minister Paul Keating at official functions to improve the situation for Aboriginal people.
We called in at Jubilee Park in Glebe and sat and talked on a bench for a glorious couple of hours.
It was a crisp, blue sky day amongst the Moreton Bay Figs and Canary Island Date Palms as Lionel talked about his life before boxing, his time in the fighting tents, how his Gunditjmara people had fought for every inch of ground against the settlers, the joys of living in Jacksons track, how much he loved his wife Jenny, how he had come to Melbourne as a young boy to meet his hero George Bracken, the old Melbourne v Sydney boxing rivalry, the great win against Fighting Harada, how his nickname was Slim after his great music hero Slim Dusty.
“Will there ever be a treaty?”
After a long pause Lionel answered “Not in my lifetime!”
Your favourite fighter?
“The great George Bracken!”
Long silences came before the answers to each question as if Lionel was time travelling and wanted to feel each question in historical context.
The slide guitar of his Number 1 Hit “I Thank You” was still jangling around in my head.
It was amazing that he had managed to fit in a Gold Record musical career as well, country and western music, a genre so fitting to his rollercoaster journey.
“Every man must make a few mistakes, And put a few feet wrong, And sometimes I feel I want to say forget it, But with my baby by my side, I can swallow foolish pride, And stand upright to fight another day.” Lionel Rose – I Thank You.
Amidst the silences I reflected on the heroes of our nation.
It was always stunning to me that some need their heroes to be wholesome from womb to tomb.
Especially the first Aboriginal ‘Australian of the Year’.
Lionel had a few flaws that for most made the diamond more precious.
More often his trouble came from his generous Aboriginal spirit of sharing and never turning anybody away that needed help.
About three o’clock Lionel had a minor panic – he had to see some friends before he went home to Melbourne and we headed off to the ‘Duke’.
The Duke of Wellington was a seedy pub in the middle of Redfern and Lionel joyously blended into a boisterous group of Kooris all pumped to celebrate his birthday.
Lyall Munro Jr was in the thick of things so I waded in and reminded him to go gently with Lionel and keep him in shape for tonight’s show.
A wild big Koori focused on me. “Who’s the smart mouth, tellin us what we can and can’t do with Lionel.”
Lyall Munro said: “He’s from the boxing show!”
“How bout we go outside and I’ll test ya out.”
I mustered a steely glare and politely declined his offer.
“Leave him alone,” Said Lyall Munro Jr.
“He’s my guardian angel,” shouted Lionel prompting thigh-slapping belly laughs.
I decided to make some work calls and took a break from the dingy innards of the Duke.
Twenty minutes later I came back into the pub and it was empty.
Not a soul in sight except the barman who offered a big grin. “They’ve gone walkabout,” he said.
I did an angst-ridden lap of the block but nobody had seen him.
I had lost Lionel.
They had shaken me off like Colonel Hogan slipping Colonel Klink.1
My one hope of avoiding radio disaster was that Lyall Munro Jr was a boxing man, a Koori Radio fan and had a great sense of history.
He didn’t have a mobile or a watch – we were now on Koori time.
I was pessimistic to the marrow – there was no chance they would make it to the studio and we would have to conjure an excuse and disappoint listeners.
At the time Koori Radio was broadcasting on fumes out of the old decrepit and some say haunted former Marrickville Hospital, a far cry from its current state of the art facility in Redfern.
Fifteen minutes before the show started I was pacing out the front of the hospital.
That song kept nagging me.
‘Now I’m 21 and grown, And I know I’m not alone, In this great big world of wars and fear of dying, I wear a smile and not a frown, Cause I know You’ll be around, To keep me full of happiness and love.’ Lionel Rose- I Thank you.
Please Lionel you superhero– appear from nowhere.
I had already warned my fellow panelists ABC NRL commentator Brad ‘the Cookie Monster’ Cooke and Claude ‘the Black Diamond’ Williams of my schoolboy error.
The ‘Black Diamond’ is a former Rabbitoh turned NBL star who became the first Aboriginal coach in the NBL, pacing the boards for the Sydney Kings first season.
One of Comedian Andrew Denton’s great childhood moments involved the ‘Black Diamond’.
“I lived in the Blue Mountains as a kid and I only ever listened to Frank Hyde calling their games on the radio. I still remember walking up and down my bedroom eating my fingernails. That was my entire diet in those days. In one game against St George we were behind by one point and we got a penalty on full-time on halfway. I remember Frank saying that Eric Simms can’t make the distance. So there was a guy called Claude Williams, who only played nine games for the club, and he kicked the goal.”
Claude calmly backed Lionel. “He’ll be here brotha.”
At five minutes to six, an old Holden station wagon pulled up and seven men cascaded from the car onto the footpath roaring in drunken cacophony.
Lyall Munro Jr led the pack and said to me through a toothy grin: “Have faith brotha, he’s here.”
Lionel hugged me with a huge grin. “My guardian, where did you go?”
I ushered the group inside amidst cackling laughter and regrouped in the Green room where we had a big spread laid on for the night – fruit platter, wraps, soft drinks, juice and rice paper rolls.
Lionel and posse attacked the food with gusto, Lionel concentrating on the fruit.
Brad Cooke made sure Lionel signed his copy of ‘Black Gold’ the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Hall of Fame Book.
Later Brad said: “Uncle Lionel signed my book and smudged his strawberry fingers all over the page. I’ve got Uncle’s DNA in my book forever.”
Lionel was in great shape for a 60th birthday party and clearly in no shape for a two hour interview.
My only option was Caffeine so I handed him a cold Coke which gave him an instant attack of hiccups and hyper-burps.
Leaving the posse behind in the Green room we headed into the studio.
I settled a wobbly Lionel into the chair.
As the news finished, the butter smooth Brad Cooke slipped into gear:
“Welcome to show 101 of the Sweet Science national boxing program and tonight is a celebration of the 60th birthday and the life of the first ever Aboriginal world boxing champion, first ever Aboriginal Australian of the year and deadly Gunditjmara uncle, Lionel Edward Rose MBE.
The Sweet Science is brought to you from Koori Radio in Marrickville in Sydney and delivered around the nation via the National Indigenous Radio Service. A big welcome to all our deadly listeners on the following networks – Sydney – 93.7FM, Melbourne – 1503AM, Townsville – 107.1FM, Alice Springs – 100.5FM, Geraldton, Taree, Nambucca, Walgett, Bourke, Cairns, Rockhampton, CAAMA, TAAMA, Kalgoorlie, Port Augusta, Torres Strait and the rest of you mob we’ve got a big one for you.
To celebrate a Pioneers birthday we’ve got the great man Uncle Lionel Rose in Studio and we’ll be talking with Lionel’s hero George Bracken, his old opponent Rocky Gattellari, his old mate and legend Tony Mundine and a host of other people on our big national birthday party.”
As Claude and I prepared for our intros, Lionel slumped in his chair, the warm studio and a big run at the fruit platter had put him into semi-consciousness.
Miraculously he snapped out of it in time for his intro from Brad.
“Wonderful to join the three of you and hello to everybody.”
We were rolling.
The first hour was harrowing as Lionel answered questions between microsleeps, a high-wire act that caused stress mixed with bellylaughs from Lionel’s interactions with his friends.
We rattled through different live interviews trying to keep them short.
Actor Billy Macpherson said, “When Lionel’s first movie came out, we were all lining up to audition for that.”
“Don’t go Gammon2.” said Lionel to Billy Mac.
A couple of Lionel’s snores and wheezes were starting to come through on air, causing Brad all sorts of issues managing the control panel.
But he never missed a question.
Boxing legend Tony Mundine said: “My old mate, I met Lionel Rose when he came back from Tokyo, I went to the airport and met him,”
“He inspired a lot of Aboriginal kids and is the greatest fighter Australia has ever produced.”
Lionel said to Tony: “I love you my brotha.”
“See ya when I’m lookin’ at ya” he added.
Former World Kickboxing Champion Chris “The Aboriginal Warrior” Collard said “Lionel presented me with my world kickboxing belt at Collingwood Town Hall. He inspired me to get in the ring and give it a go.”
Lionel replied “Kick moom3, that’s your job. Its all ahead of you”
Always positive, filling those around him with confidence.
At one stage I was sure Lionel had gone to sleep and in deathly fear of dead air, I gave him a gentle but meaningful nudge in the shins. He opened one eye, smiled, winked and answered the question I was sure he hadn’t heard.
Never underestimate the champ!
Australian Super middleweight Champion Jamie Pittman said: “I watch his movie ‘Rose Against the Odds’ before every fight,”
“He lived his dream. No matter how much people put him down, especially in the racism era, he put that behind him and showed anyone can do anything.”
Lionel reflected on that wild time of his life 40 years ago when he won the world title.
“When we left to go to Tokyo (to fight for the world title), there were ten people at the airport, prior to leaving and when I came back there were 250,000.”
A couple of times, Lionel leaned back and lolled from side to side and I was sure he was asleep, sometimes a two or three second gap before answering, seemingly on autopilot.
Lionel’s memory was holding up staunchly, remembering fighter’s wives names, career details, journalists names.
We were well on the road to recovery.
We made it to the break and went back to the Green room where all but the untouched rice paper rolls had been demolished by Lionel’s posse.
They rose as one from the couch thinking the show was over and time to resume proceedings at the Friend in Hand.
After a short Mexican standoff we whisked Lionel back into the studio for the second hour this time with half a Coke in his belly.
Lionel had now clicked into gear and was in rare form.
One interview I was looking forward to was with George Bracken, Lionel’s hero and inspiration.
Lionel had come down from Gippsland to Melbourne as a young boy to see the Aboriginal Australian lightweight champion who had left notorious Palm Island Mission to become the boxing darling of Melbourne, drawing big crowds to Festival Hall.
George related the story of first meeting Lionel. “Lionel came into the dressing room, and it was fantastic to see this young fella come in, only about ten years old, he looked up at me, idolising me, and I thought golly this here is what I am fighting for.”
“Then they brought Lionel into the ring, held him up around the ring, introduced him to the crowd, he never forgot it”
Lionel sat slumped in his chair with a huge smile, and then lurched forward to the microphone to announce: “I remember George Bracken,”
“My idol, my hero.”
Lionel’s lifelong friend John McColl who trained Koori legend boxer Wally Carr, remembers Lionel’s first ever fight. “I was much older than Lionel and the first time I saw him he had no boxing boots, he was just a kid but I said he is going to be a world champion.”
Lionel replied “Don’t tell them about the room we shared in Hobart,”
“Keep it dark.”
The warmth between each of the interviewees and Lionel crackled down the line.
In 1967 Lionel travelled to Sydney to take on the darling of the Italian migrant community, Rocky Gattellari, for the vacant Australian bantamweight title in front of a packed Sydney Stadium.
It was Lionel’s coming out party as a great fighter, the 18 year old stopping Gattellari in the 13th round, pounding him with his signature left hooks.
The reunion of these two was a thing of beauty.
We got Rocky on the line. “Lionel my boy, how are you doing”
“All my love Rock,” said Lionel.
Rocky replied: “I can say without fear of contradiction that Lionel was the best pound for pound fighter Australia has ever produced.”
“I was unfortunate to be there that night,” Rocky added.
The camaraderie of old boxers is unlike any other sport.
Back and forth they went.
Rocky: “Listen Lionel, I am challenging you now to a return fight.”
Lionel: “Well git into training.”
Rocky: “One of the highlights of my career was getting done by Lionel Rose.”
Lionel: “We both had a good night that night, we got the good money didn’t we, it was pounds in those days.”
Lionel: “Love you Rock.”
Rocky: “Lionel take care my boy, give us a call if you’re in town.”
Lionel: “If I need the loot, I’ll be calling.”
As the show wound to a close Lionel gave some final thoughts on his world title win in 1968.
“We went over there we did the right thing, got the job done, and came home with the title.”
We made it to the end of the night and like that he was gone, out the door and into the winter night.
Slim was off to share his magic elsewhere, reminding me of the beautiful last line of his documentary ‘Lionel’ where he summarised his career coming to a close “I just faded out…like an old cowboy“.
I wish he was still with us – I’d thank him for just being him.
Happy 66th birthday Slim!
- From the brilliant comedy Hogans Heroes
- Aboriginal slang for false, fake, pretend
- Buttocks in various Victorian Aboriginal languages
The Lionel Rose 60th Birthday Koori Radio Interviews:
Billy McPherson – https://soundcloud.com/user616657381/lionel-rose-tribute-201106
Chris Collard & Jamie Pittman – https://soundcloud.com/user616657381/lionel-rose-tribute-201106-part-3-collard-and-pittman
Lionel Rose – Final word on Fighting Harada – https://soundcloud.com/user616657381/lionel-rose-tribute-201106-part-7-lionel-on-harada-and-wrap-up