The Rose of a Stolen Generation

By Ted Spoon - It is not only humbling, but startling what age can do to us. When the autumn of life begins the idea that was you gradually fades into a tattered semblance. The degree of change varies from one to the next of course; it is less forgiving in others. Before he left us Lionel Rose could have been another person.

A chiselled figure had become bloated, the features of an expressive face had sunken, and a distinct voice had deepened. To contemplate that this man used to be the best 118lbs fighter in the world was a good exercise for the brain..

Hell, had you pointed him out to a contemporary it would have taken them a few moments before they approached the jaded Aborigine until finally their reservations were no more as he reminisced with that emotive clarity which defines retired boxers.

A cigarette was often in one hand though it was a pipe that fans were familiar with. Unlike some gimmick, Rose had taken up the more ostentatious method of smoking as a result of convincing his folks that it was better for him. Seen as mum enjoyed lighting-up the jury weren’t so incriminating on the tobacco front.

There had been bigger bullets to dodge than nicotine addiction.

Racial backlash, an attempted stabbing and escaping a riot were various lows during a troublesome reign. Inside the ring wasn’t much prettier with every championship victory going the distance, and none were easy.

Problems making the weight had bothered Lionel for some time, but just when he thought he would cut his body some slack a handsome pay-packet forced him to go through the same draining rigmarole. An ambitious and ruthless Ruben Olivares was not the ‘easy nights work’ he needed.

So distant is Australia from other civilizations that you can’t imagine what kind of celebrity Rose enjoyed whilst champion. That he was the first Aborigine to wear the gold meant a great deal but the subsequent celebration erupted like one that had been brewing ever since Les Darcy’s tragic tale.

Victoria’s small Town of Warragul is where his colourful life began. More accurately he sprouted in a place called ‘Jackson’s Track’ where a community of Aborigine’s huddled together. Father did the logical thing and taught his son how to stab the left and drop a right hand. With his regimen being fairly lenient young Lionel had plenty of time to throws his fists into a not-so-forgiving flour bag.

Ultimately this community were moved along which brought Rose into contact with Jack and Shirley Rennie, and in a true stereotype Lionel became part of the family. The back garden was used to practice his nifty moves in and to satisfy his interest trips were made to Melbourne’s West Stadium where local hero George Bracken defended his 135lbs native title.
Watching his countryman entertain the masses was the clincher and an amateur career got underway.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were indeed too good to be true and a measly half-point prevented Rose from entering them. Be it national failure or glory, the logical move usually follows and he turned professional.

Well-muscled and close to 5, 7 you could see that Lionel was a hefty bantamweight from the get-go. Brackens second home (the Festival Hall) was adopted and with each fight Rose fattened his quickly-forming fan base. Little travelling was required; the furthest he ventured was to Christchurch in New Zealand. Dropping a six and ten round decision was as bad as it got for the teenager.

Fitness, often considered a formality, was one of the best things Rose had going for him. Being in great shape and inuring yourself to going the distance are two very different things. Prior to challenging for Australian honours Lionel had gone twelve on eight different occasions. Lasting fifteen wasn't set to cause too much bother and Rose took Noel Kunde's title in the process. Spectators began to realise that they weren't merely watching some domestic king and in the attendances it showed.

Sydney's Rocky Gattellari had challenged for the WBC flyweight title and remained a good body to have on your record. The fight was held in the nation’s capital and the atmosphere was as you'd expect. 14,000 fans were part of a momentous evening but there was more of a battle amongst supporters than there was between the principles.

For a man of just nineteen years it was a performance of alluring maturity. Nothing was hurried, everything slot into place. With a meaningful economy Rose got the fight on his terms and kept it there. Gattellari would not quit pressing but a well-taught head deftly tipped from side-to-side, foiling the punches. Lionel abused Rocky’s eyebrows with a sharp left and then he abused his faculties with a chopping cross.

One thing Rose’s mere 12 knockouts don’t relay was his ability to punch; after being dropped for the second time the fallen was put on a stretcher.

You could have taken a snap of Rose at various points and it would’ve looked just like one of those old-school portraits - relaxed, poised and steady. A hunched shoulder pardoned the low left and the right carefully hovered by the chest resulting in a lovely, sleek posture. So complete were his boxing abilities that he could literally force the more aggressive culprits to box.

A retreating or ‘check’ hook came naturally and developed a close relationship with his flashlight jab. Plenty use of the ring was made, backing into corners, slipping to the side and reclaiming ring centre. This led the way for a high-quality, almost Arguello type of operating; having considered the opponents mannerisms Lionel could fight in virtually faultless spurts, making opponents fall over themselves to get at him only to be planted with oh-so crisp counters.

Rose was ranked only sixth but an auspicious phone call ended with a shot at the world title.

A jaunt to wintry Japan and rumours of a damaged hand did not make for an ideal scenario before challenging Fighting Harada. Morning roadwork proved to be rather hazardous with Lionel twice hitting the deck on icy pavement. He later put his many fans at ease however, insisting that a functional hand and tip-top stamina would be on show come February 27th.

Tokyo’s mighty impressive looking ‘Nihon Budokan’ stadium had its isles prepared for over 10,000 predominantly oriental fans. A national treasure is exactly what Harada was and the majority were there to see the man who had toppled Eder Jofre register defence number five.

With each semi-successful attack the crowd erupted?, amplifying the champion’s efforts. Repeated warnings for allegedly slapping with his left, a valuable point was eventually taken off Rose. For the first time in a world title fight all three officials were Japanese, and while we wouldn’t want to insinuate a bias, given the circumstances, it would be fair to assume that Rose was running up a slight incline.

…That he took the decision quite clearly gives you an idea of how well he performed.

It would not be excessive to award Rose with ten of the fifteen rounds. The tempestuous assault that had spoiled Jofre’s explosive boxing ran into an assortment of stinging jabs and swift hooks. The position of Harada’s blocky head seemed to be perfect for Lionel’s whipping left. Not only did he land the much cleaner blows but the challenger’s blissful footwork made Harada look very average at times.

Down for a no-count in the ninth and rocked in the fourteenth, the face of the champion also told a story with a cut brow, bloody nose and tender skin. A majority decision went the right way and, at just nineteen years, Rose became both the first Aborigine world champion and the youngest world champion.

For people familiar with the work of bush artist Albert Namatjira that made Lionel only the second Aborigine to become famous period.

When the new champion flew back scenes akin to Leamington Spa after Randolph Turpin’s victory over the Sugar man were in full swing. Thousands coated the street of Melbourne to applaud their little hero who was paraded through the masses in an open-top car. Lionel was indifferent to the idea but, recalling Japan’s actions in WWII, many felt this was a victory for Australia.

This international needle was reciprocated when after out-pointing Takao Sakurai a lone fan attempted to stab Rose with a six-inch knife. Fortunately the police disrupted his mission, and, as Rose fondly remembered, they proceeded to “beat the shit out of him.”

It was close again against Chucho Castillo but instead of one an estimated 500 Mexican’s showed their dissatisfaction, and you know what they say about insanity thriving in large groups. Seats were slashed, bottles were chucked, fires were started and vehicles were capsized in the parking lot. Around $200,000 of damage was done, many were injured including referee Dick Young and the victor was forced to seek refuge until 4:00am in a restaurant.

When the champion agreed to face England’s Alan Rudkin there was a good chance much of his time was taken speculating what delights were around the corner.

Not outside disturbances but the age-old pitfall of weight complications were pestering Rose. Failing to make the weight on first attempt meant the champion had to lose his draws to make 118lbs.

Staged in Melbourne, this time it was Rose’s punches that triggered roars, though in little spots. Combinations were virtually non-existent for a man who fought like one not merely trying to conserve his energy, but one who knew he didn’t have much to expend. Cleaner punching and ring generalship titled a split decision in his favour but Lionel was grateful to hear the final bell.

The classic ‘train hard, fight easy’ ruling had become more a case of ‘train desperately, fight with difficulty’. Between fights Rose naturally added 20lbs to his frame. Reducing back down was turning into a trap. Featherweight looked mighty tempting but trainer Jack Rennie insisted that Rose defend against Ruben Olivares for a cool $90,000 - a tremendous amount for a bantamweight in the ‘60s.

It is difficult to say what Rose could have done about Mexico’s mini-butcher hacking away at him, but that it was not the same guy in there who had whipped Harada is non-negotiable. Never more did Lionel need to call upon that graceful tact but part of him seemed to accept his beating as if a guilty conscious had sentenced him to penance for the Castillo ‘robbery’.
In the fifth round Rose was dumped twice and both his corner and Ruben came to his aid.

Aside from being clearly outfought some believed Rose to have lost the will to compete; it’s not something you’re use to hearing for a boxer of 21 years but you need only refer to Mike Tyson to witness the effects of ‘too much, too soon’. Around $375,000 had been accumulated in a career not a decade old. Retirement was urged.

Pure muscle memory kept Rose chipping away on a body of work that was only going to run the risk of inheriting cracks. Illustrating how difficult it had been for him temper his weight he was a lightweight within the year! It was possible for him to make super-featherweight for a title bout with Yoshiaki Numata but a decision was dropped.

Retired in ’71, a comeback in ’75 played out much like Eder Jofre’s should have and Rose was all washed up at 28. Life went on after the ring, as did his celebrity which naturally diminished but continues to gleam. In '87 an unhealthy lifestyle came close to finishing him with a heart attack but he recovered and many more years were enjoyed with Caucasian wife Jenny.

Twenty years later a stroke left Rose to live out the remainder of his life with speech and movement difficulties. Four years later and he was no more.

Close to his demise the ex-boxer put on a tape of the Olivares bout. Upon the second knockdown Rose asked of his siblings, "Give your old man a hand."

With withered appearances also comes plenty of time to think.

In those rare contended moments, in between the bittersweet memories of a full life, Rose may have comprehended just how improbable it was for a little Aborigine boy who managed to become not only an idol to his people, but a champion of the world.

Article posted on 14.06.2012

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