THE veins in Jeff Fenech’s neck bulge like sandworms. He’s spitting angry, not with me, thankfully, but with the sport he loves, the sport he feels betrayed him. After a brief but successful amateur career, the “Marrickville Mauler” turned professional in 1984 and 196 days later, was IBF bantamweight champion. Fenech, who went on to become an unbeaten three-weight world champion, now admits the launch from obscurity was hard to cope with, but it was the infamous draw with WBC super-featherweight champion Azumah Nelson in 1991 that remains intolerable. It was his American debut, but the Las Vegas expedition turned sour at the final bell; Fenech looked like the winner to virtually everyone, but it was called a draw. He had been denied a world title in a fourth division. He didn’t know it then, but Fenech – whose record reads 29-3-1 (21) – would never be the same again, losing the rematch as his form plummeted. Now a fit 52, and with all the fearless rage that made him an all-time great, the Aussie sits down with Boxing News.
You were catapulted into fame quickly, which can bring its own problems.
Yes. When I think about the person that I was, coming from the street, I never thought anything could change me. But fame and fortune changes everybody and sometimes I didn’t like the person I became – I got everything for nothing and I could do everything I want to do. It’s great at the time but now I think about it, now I’ve got two daughters, I hate it – I would hate someone to treat my daughters badly. Having children really puts things into perspective. As great as it was, as wild as it was, there are a few things I would change. I’d like to think I could have stayed a little more humble, I could have stayed more grounded, but fame and fortune doesn’t let that happen.
How did that fame and fortune affect your career? You suddenly looked like a different fighter when you faced Azumah Nelson in the rematch.
I thought I was going to win the fight, and I have no excuse because he came and beat me [in eight rounds]. I just thought it was going to be a continuation of the first fight; I’d never been hurt before. After the first Nelson fight I went back to the gym and I started sparring, and I was s**t. I was getting knocked a little bit, and I thought, ‘Is this normal?’ Also before that second Nelson fight I was sleeping with five different girls a day, even the day before the fight, doing [public] appearances, doing things I’d never done before in my life. I thought I was going to win but something had gone, something had left me – my toughness. My chin had gone and once that’s gone, there’s no repair. Suddenly I was getting hurt. My whole career I sparred bigger guys – [former WBC light-heavyweight champions] Jeff Harding and Matthew Saad Muhammad were my sparring partners. I think it all caught up with me, and that’s when I started to get hurt. I took a lot of punches from big guys when I was younger, none of them hurt but it all caught up with me. But Nelson was an amazing fighter, and an amazing human and he beat that version of me, but he didn’t beat Jeff Fenech. He would never have beaten the best of me.
You were only in your 20s when you realised you were slipping, which must have been hard to deal with mentally. After Nelson, you lost to Calvin Grove…[Interrupting] Very hard. When you’ve never been hurt in your life and then you can feel it you wonder if it’s real, if it’s really happening. But let me tell you about Calvin Grove. He hit me with a massive punch.
If he’d have hit anyone with the same punch he would have knocked anybody out, you know? I was knocked out, and on the way to hospital they had to tie me up because my mouth was so badly injured I was trying to rip it off. I was in a bad way. But again, he beat me, but I know those guys wouldn’t have beat me on my day. When I was at my best fighters like Greg Haugen, Roger Mayweather came to spar me and they couldn’t cope, and they left the gym. Not because I punched them hard, but because I punched them too many times. They hated sparring me, and there were times when I had to have three people in the ring so I could do a minute with each. And Harding – I’d spar him for 18 rounds, I’d beat him, I’d bash his brains in every day. I know if I was fighting today, I’d win 25 world titles, I’d fight for the light-heavyweight title.
Despite the hand injuries and the problems at the end, do you miss those days?
No. It was a stage of my life. What hurts me the most is that, first of all, they kept me in Australia when I would have loved to have fought in America more. Then I think about all the people that I helped along the way, paid them, gave them money. Now what of those people? None of them were real. I always used to say they were my best friends, but my best friend in the world is my wife. I learnt lots of lessons in boxing, some that hurt, I was just too nice to people, gave them money, but that’s boxing. I try and warn people about it, but I let it happen to myself.
You came back in 2008 and had the third fight with Nelson, long after your peaks. Was that because it was niggling at you?
No, no. I don’t even count that as a fight, that was just two old guys. I was doing some training, and I was getting fitter. I was in Thailand so someone said I should fight [Samart] Payakaroon again, so I had it all organised but it all fell through, so we rang Azumah Nelson. That’s all it was. It was a victory [pts 10] but it doesn’t count really. But that first fight, I beat him, and for him to say it was even close, that’s what I don’t like about boxing. You know if you’ve been punched in the face more than you punched him. You know! But fighters just put their hands up straight away [at the final bell] whether or not they win or lose, hoping that some dumb mother-f*****g judge is going to give them decision. I couldn’t do that! If I knew a guy beat me, I wouldn’t put my hands up, I’d give him my belt. I’m old school. You know if someone has hit you more than you have hit them.
It clearly upsets you. How hard is being on the wrong end of a bad decision?
I was the first guy to be a three-weight undefeated champion. That would have been my fourth weight – undefeated. It had never been done but because of, let’s call them plain f*****g stupid dumb f******g judges because they are, it doesn’t happen. These f*****s just keep getting employed again. They work a fight in January, they f**k up, they work again in January, then they’re working another fight in March where they’ll probably f**k up again because they’re so f*****g stupid. If these people are not held accountable, boxing will always be second to everything else. That’s why we don’t get corporate sponsorship, that’s why we don’t get what we deserve. It should simply have been a case after the fight with Nelson, watch a video, sack those guys, and give me my belt. It wasn’t close. Judges ruined my career, ruined my career. I’ll punch them in the face and then they’ll know what it’s like.
What else bothers you about the sport?
Did you see the fight with [Andy] Ruiz and [Joseph] Parker [in December]? F*****g hell. That’s for the [WBO] heavyweight championship of the world? They’re shaking hands every round and hugging each other. This guy is trying to take your livelihood from you. Don’t do that. Wait until the end of the fight if you want to cuddle him or do what you want to him. But this is supposed to be the fight game, you’ve got to despise your opponent. Earn your money! Look, I love the sport. But you see things in the sport that aren’t right. If you’re a judge and a promoter pays for a hooker to go to your room, even though you’ve got a wife at home, it doesn’t mean you have to rob a fighter. They’re the ones that have trained their arses off.
When I was training Mike [Tyson], I walk out of my hotel room, and we’re in Vegas, Planet Hollywood, and a man walks up to me. I was overweight, I was fat. He said, ‘Jeff Fenech?’ I said, ‘Yes sir’. He told me he had never watched another boxing match since that Azumah Nelson fight. A lot of people feel that way when they see things like that, and it happens too much. You see some of these guys who are No.1 in the world and they couldn’t beat my mother. They’ve beaten 24 idiots to get their ranking. We’ve got to get it right, this can’t go on. The best guys have to fight the best guys, and it has to be fair. When the two best guys in the world fight each other, it’s the best sport in the world.
There have always been bad decisions and sheltered fighters. Will that ever change? How would you make the sport fair?
You need real men on the board of governors. I don’t believe they [officials] cheat, but they know who pays their bills, who sends them to get their c**k sucked. They’re brainwashed without even knowing it. They shouldn’t be put in a position to be brainwashed. We need people who are going to fight for our sport. Do you remember when Danny Green fought Marcus Beyer, the first fight [Green – trained by Fenech – was controversially disqualified in 2003]? Man, they wanted to do a p**s sample, so I threw the p**s all over them. I don’t like the people who represent our sport, and that’s why I’m not involved as much as I’d like to be.
You did have a distinguished career as a trainer, and you mention Mike Tyson, who you trained for his last fight. Describe your relationship with Mike.
I love Mike, and it was a major opportunity for me to train him. I travelled the whole world with him, and that part of my career I loved. I loved it more because it wasn’t just about me training him, it was about looking after him. I stopped the fight [vs Kevin McBride, who won when Tyson retired after six rounds] because I wasn’t going to let my friend get hurt, his time was up. The other guys were saying ‘Let him fight!’ Let him fight? Let him fight? Don’t tell me what to do, I’m the trainer. Shut the f**k up, I’ll stop the fight, you know? Send him out there to get punched and knocked down? For what? That’s another thing that’s wrong with the sport. You have to look at some of these idiots who let the kids get beat up. You’ve made a mistake, you’ve overmatched them, stop the fight.
What does make you happy when you look back?
When I won my third world title [WBC featherweight] against Victor Callejas. He was tough. I’d broke my hand prior, if you watch the fight you’ll see it was my right hand, and I used my left hand 85 per cent of the time – so to beat that quality of a fighter [w rsf 10] with one hand, I talk about that as my best fight. The first one [world title, vs Santoshi Shingaki] too, I got 20 grand for that. Man, that was a lot of money for me back then. I remember saying to my friend afterwards, ‘All I need to do is have one more fight, make another 20 grand and I’m out of this game forever.’ Oh s**t, I had no idea.
But I look back with pride, even the losses made me a better person. Sometimes it takes that adversity to really find yourself, you know?