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Dick Tiger was a champion at war

Dick Tiger
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
As Ukrainian legends fight for their country, the story of Dick Tiger is worthy of revisiting

DICK TIGER was a hero, an old-fashioned boxing hero. His journey from Nigeria to Shoreditch Town Hall and to the main ring at Madison Square Garden in the Fifties and Sixties will never be repeated. His journey from the Garden ring and world title fights, to the frontline in the civil war in his homeland is being repeated now. History kills, never forget that.

Tiger was a lieutenant in the Morale Corps of the Biafran Armed Forces. A fighter in a bloody and savage conflict that truly shocked the world briefly in the Sixties. He lost most of his ring earnings in the fighting when his property and investments vanished in a civil war that was finally decided by starvation and evil. Tiger’s side lost and lost heavily; it is calculated that as many as three million died in the conflict, most from starvation. Tiger eventually got some of his investments back.

Tiger went to the troops on the frontline, Tiger delivered planeloads of supplies, spending his prize-money from nights in the Garden ring to feed his people in the struggle for Biafran independence. He was buying stuff in Lisbon, having flown out of New York, with the bruises still on his face, the blood-stained dressing still over his eyes. The Biafran government supplied the planes, he filled them with tinned goods and essential baby supplies in the Portuguese city. It all came out of Tiger’s pocket; world leaders turned away from the famine he was trying to stop.

There were reports that he had died in some battles. He went missing in action. He would then emerge, talk to his people in New York, accept another fight and leave for camp. It was an incredible schedule.

And, back in New York, he kept on fighting. The Civil War lasted for just over 30 months and during that time (July, 1967-January, 1970) Tiger boxed five times, winning four; he retained his world light-heavyweight title in Las Vegas, lost it to Bob Foster at the Garden, beat Frankie DePaula and Nino Benvenuti in the sacred venue in two fights that are forgotten. And, in late 1969, when he was getting old and probably already carrying the cancer that would kill him, he won a 10-rounder at the Garden. The money he made helped keep his people alive. And, more than that, he was a spokesman for the conflict, a crusader desperate to make the world aware of the human tragedy that was happening in his homeland. It was famine like nobody had ever seen before or since and Tiger spread the word.

Dick Tiger

After one visit to the killing fields of Eastern Nigeria, he returned to train for another fight in New York and sat down with some writers in a cramped little flat he kept. He showed them pictures, he shared stories and he opened his heart.

“I read about killing and war, but I had never seen such things,” he said. “Now, I have seen massacres.” He then got some photographs out. He placed them on the bed, the writers looked on. This is real, this happened, it was 1968.

“That is a hand,” he said, pointing. “A little girl’s hand. What does she know of war?” The hand was in the corner of the picture – it had been blown off.

Robert Lipsyte, the iconic boxing writer, watched in silence as Tiger picked another photograph from his personal collection of horror.
“And that bundle on the bed,” Tiger said. “That is a woman, she burned. No, it is not rags; it was a woman.”

He drove injured children from the atrocities in Ogui to a hospital after a bombing raid. The pilots of the Nigerian planes were probably British. He was in the middle of skirmishes. He had been the hero of all Nigeria when he won his first world title in 1962. He was an African fighting god, make no mistake. He was given an MBE in 1963 – he sent that back in 1969. “Nigeria died, I’m now Biafran,” he said. He had Biafra on his robe in the ring the night in 1968 when he lost to Bob Foster. He was prepared to die for his cause and beliefs.

“My people don’t understand money,” he said. “They only know that I am the champion and that is why they care so much.”

At the time he touched gloves with the mighty Foster, the Red Cross estimated that as many as 6,000 Biafrans were dying each day in the famine. Tiger’s head was not in the ring, he had already spent the money he was making on essential food supplies. That is a fighting hero, my friend.
Tiger’s last fight was after the surrender was signed. Tiger lost to Emile Griffith in 1970. His fighting life was finished, his money gone.

He managed to get a job for 96 dollars each week as a security guard at Manhattan’s National History Museum. He was polite, gentle and invisible in the final year. The Tiger was gone. He was 40 and he was working there when his cancer was discovered in July of 1971; he went home a few days later in July; he died in Aba in December of 1971. Dick Tiger was 41; over 15,000 attended his funeral, but his status had changed because of his support for the East in the civil war. He was in death a largely invisible hero and that has, in many ways, never changed.

Writing his obit in these pages, Graham Houston, the editor, suggested that Tiger should be “remembered as one of the ring immortals.”
Dick Tiger’s boxing career is too often neglected, but his fight for a free Biafra is part of a different type of history. “Why should I be afraid to fight to defend my own country?”

Somewhere on a frontline in Ukraine, Tiger’s fighting brothers, Oleksandr, Vasiliy, Wladimir and Vitali will have asked the same question.

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