Two Kings

by Andrew Starkie

Down the phone from his home in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, Jack Rennie has a softly scoured, Brando like voice.  He is welcoming, patient and as he speaks, his memory opens and he joyously recounts one of our great sporting moments.

‘He was king of Australia at the time,’ recalls Jack, former trainer of Lionel Rose.

By upsetting Japan’s Fighting Harada in a split decision for the WBA and WBC bantamweight crowns in Tokyo, February 1968, Lionel became boxing’s first Aboriginal world champion; and at 19, his sport’s youngest titleholder.

Approximately 200,000 people welcomed the new champ home.

‘People were lining the streets to greet him down Mount Alexander Road,’ says Jack.

From the airport, Lionel travelled in the back of a convertible to the town hall.  Crowds broke through police barricades hoping to touch their new hero.  A few years after the abandonment of the White Australia Policy, a conservative nation claimed this polite, assured world champion. Lionel declared his victory a triumph not for his race, but the whole of Australia.

His part-time job as a panel beater went by the wayside and his life changed forever.

Lionel had lost twice in twenty-nine bouts and was the sixth ranked contender for the bantamweight crown.  When the phone call came from Japan one night over dinner at Jack and Shirl’s, where Lionel was living since moving from Drouin to the big smoke, he didn’t hesitate.  Fighting Harada’s camp were surprised the inexperienced Australian accepted the offer.

Harada was an attacking, fearless and hardened fighter.  In over fifty fights, he had been bettered on only three occasions.  However, his style left him open to a technically correct boxer of Lionel’s nature.  Lionel was defensive, patient and jarred opponents with a jolting left jab.

Jack and Lionel were confident going into the world title bout and despite a sore hand, Lionel controlled the fight from the outset, continuously repelling and frustrating the world champ.

‘[Lionel] outboxed him all the way,’ Jack recalls.

Lionel’s first defence was quickly arranged.  Again in Tokyo, he chased the contender, Takao Sakurai, around the ring for fifteen rounds.  Post-fight, the victorious Australian was attacked by a knife-wielding assailant.  Lionel escaped uninjured.

Lionel was named Australian of the Year and awarded an MBE.

More offers came in.  Flashy American promoter, George Parmassis, wooed Lionel with promises of bigger purses in the States.  Lionel, Jack and Shirl headed for California where a defence against Mexican, Chucho Castillo, was set up for December.

As Lionel landed in Los Angeles, another monarch’s crown was slipping.

In 1968, it wasn’t cool to like Elvis Presley.  The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’s recording career had stalled since returning from military service and his films weren’t bringing the satisfaction he dreamed of, or the financial rewards studios expected.  At 33, Elvis wasn’t as relevant anymore.

Elvis’s blend of Country, Gospel, Pop and any other genre thinkable, had woken and mesmerized a conservative, 1950’s youth generation.  His vulnerability and boundary pushing sexuality filled a void left by the deceased James Dean.

Stardom had found the bewildered, teenage truck driver at Sam Phillips’ shopfront Sun Records in Memphis.  Beginning with Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis accumulated eleven no.1 hits on America’s Billboard charts between ‘56 and ’58 (his career produced eighteen in total).  Elvis was the undisputed King when national service called in ‘58.

Upon leaving the military two years later, Elvis craved to be taken seriously in Hollywood.  However, manager Colonel Tom Parker, shackled Elvis to contracts that saw him star in one mediocre film after another.  In the eight years from 1960, Elvis made twenty-four films (he would make over thirty in total).  Some made money; others were disasters.  For many, production took a matter of weeks, if not days.  Elvis grew frustrated by shallow, unchallenging plots and dinky soundtracks that failed to offer artistic challenge or draw critical acclaim.

America’s late ‘60s Counter Culture generation wanted more from their musicians.  A rebellious white middle-class sought expression for their anti-war and anti-Establishment message.  Dylan, Hendrix and The Beatles spoke their language. America’s young had passed Elvis by.  There would be no room for him at Woodstock.

Always prone to the paranoia and insecurity that plague many whose careers rise and fall on the fragility of public approval, Elvis observed the changing world with fear and restlessness.

Yet, at this time, he demonstrated surprising foresight.  From inside his Graceland bubble, Elvis realised that in order to reconnect with America’s youth, his songs had to contain a social message, even if this risked alienating his conservative fan base.

The television program, Elvis: ’68 Comeback Special, was the most effective means of touching a wide audience.  Pre-recorded and aired in December, it offered the racially aware, If I Can Dream.  Wearing a white, high-collared Edwardian suit and standing in front of a neon sign flashing his name, Elvis opened nervously before winding into a passionate and longing plea for racial harmony in the wake of the recent assassination of Martin Luther King, Jnr., in Memphis.

The gamble paid off and the special proved to be one of the most magical moments in Elvis’s career.  It was a ratings winner and more importantly for Elvis, If I can Dream spent three months in the Top 40, peaking at number 12, his highest chart position for four years.

Elvis was on the way back.

It was during this time that Elvis Presley and Lionel Rose met.

Elvis was in Hollywood in late ’68 filming ‘The Trouble With Girls (And How To Get Into It)’, when he discovered Lionel was in town preparing for the Castillo fight.  A devoted martial artist, Elvis was eager to meet the world champ.

When word reached Jack and Lionel, they cut short a training session, showered, grabbed Shirl and headed out to MGM Studios.  During a break in filming, Elvis sauntered over and introduced himself.

‘How are you, Sir?’ Jack chuckles as he imitates Elvis’ southern accent.

A short conversation followed and Jack recalls Elvis as polite and respectful.  Elvis spoke of his interest in boxing and admiration for Lionel.  He wanted to attend the upcoming fight, however, that would be difficult, his life being as it was.  He laughed and suggested he’d have to wear a beard to avoid recognition.  Shirl grabbed an autograph.

It was suggested the two kings be photographed together and a studio camera was used to take the shot.  A member of the Memphis Mafia had earlier confiscated Lionel’s camera.

The photograph shows both men in orthodox boxing pose.  Lionel is shorter and slightly hunched.  He’s in a defensive stance with clenched fists.  Lionel is lean, natural, trained.  He’s wearing a collared shirt and V-neck jumper.  Elvis has his weight slightly on his back leg.  He’s loose, confident, with relaxed hands.  Elvis is athletic; able to move gracefully around a ring.  Again, he’s sporting a white suit and garish wedding ring.  The dark walls of the studio serve as backdrop.  Both men are smiling, clearly enjoying themselves.

The meeting over, Elvis went back to filming and well, being Elvis.  The starstruck visitors from Melbourne returned to training.

A few days later, despite being knocked down in the 10th Round, Lionel won a split decision over the Mexican.  The decision sparked a riot.  Fires were set, chairs were thrown in the ring and cars were upturned in the parking lot.  Jack was hit by a flying bottle.  The Australians hid in the change rooms until the fuss died down.

The following August, the lives of Elvis and Lionel headed down opposite roads.  Elvis conquered Las Vegas, selling-out two shows a night for an eight week stretch.  He would become the most successful act in Vegas history, even bigger than Sinatra.  The weary Suspicious Minds became Elvis’s first no.1 since 1962.  He was performing again; he was relevant.

The King had reclaimed his throne.

Lionel lost his title in the 5th Round to the hard punching and undefeated Ruben Olivares.  Jack sensed an early night when his fighter copped a heavy one in the opening exchanges.  That’s the thing about boxing: no matter how good you are, there’s always someone who can beat you.

Lionel never held another world title.  He fought on, winning some, losing too many.  He retired, tried other things, and then came back.  According to Jack, Lionel had lost interest and put on weight.  Christmas 1976, Lionel Rose was knocked out in the second round of his final bout and the career of an Australian sporting legend, who was once king, ended.

Less than a year later, the American dream, lived by Elvis Presley, killed him.  The King of Rock ’n’ Roll was 42.

Comments

  1. Danielle says:

    Gotta admit, Elvis was a stunner back in the day.
    You can bet that as soon as i’m off my L plates (which could take a while LOL)
    Elvis tunes will be blasting from my speakers, with a bit of Michael Buble!

    Danni

  2. Faith Foster says:

    who could have not known the greatest musician of the decade. Elvis is the king.”*’

  3. What a champion Lionel Rose was – a giant of Australian sport.

  4. John Butler says:

    Agreed Litza

    As a matter of fact, you’ve prompted us to re-post this as a tribute.

  5. PeterB says:

    Thanks Andrew. Great memories.
    I can remember listening to Ron Casey’s radio broadcast of the Harada fight from Tokyo. Don’t think it was on TV live. Not in country SA anyway.
    Boxing was such a big deal in the 60’s. My Dad was (and is) a peaceful man, but sport was God. I adored being allowed to stay up late enough to watch ‘TV Ringside’ from Festival Hall in Melbourne. I think it was on Monday nights, so school next day was a big consideration.
    Ron called the fights and Merv Williams did the special comments. Merv was Dennis Commetti on steroids (or more likely Abbots Lager). If a fighter needed a big last round to win, then “like the boy with the ‘barrow, he’s got the job in front of him”. If a fighter was getting a pounding, then “like the boy who fell out of the balloon, he’s just not in it”. We got Damon Runyon with an Australian accent, live to our lounge rooms.
    And the fighters. Lionel Rose (the fighter) and Johnny Famechon (the boxer) were the World Champs and stars. But so were Hector Thompson (of the tragically lethal fists); Tony Mundine (a bigger puncher than his son) and Bobby Dunlop (the fighting garbo – bins not movies).
    But my heart and memory always lingered on the tragic battlers. The endless line of imported battlers who provided endless cannon fodder in the preliminaries before the main bout. I recall a Philipino lightweight (Alberto Jangalay was his name from memory). He seemed to fight almost every week for a while, regardless of the punishment of the preceding weeks’ bout. As he rose through the grades he was clearly outclassed, but he was a fighter who simply refused to go down. I recollect him seemingly ‘swinging in the breeze’ unable to raise a response, but unwilling to take the ‘easy option’ of the canvas. His opponent stared wide-eyed, knowing that he already had already pocketed the night’s purse, almost unwilling to further punish the crazy brave Jangalay. “What’s the point”, he seemed to be asking himself?
    In my mind there was only one explanation. The canvas risked no future bouts or purses. Manila slums or stay on your feet, swaying with a lunatic grin. Easy choice really.
    Vale, Lionel and the other crazy brave men of the ring. I hope you have found a better place now, than promised in the mirage of a promoter’s purse.

  6. Super piece of work Andrew.

  7. Shane Johnson says:

    I listend to Ron Casey’s call of the fight on radio when I was 14 on my transistor in my bedroom in Tassy
    The call and the win is still one of life’s highlights
    Do yourselves a favour and Google u the call and listen to the last round and the decision.
    It is pure magic
    A great moment in Aus sport

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