Back When Dick Tiger Became Light Heavyweight Champion

15.10.06 - By Pete Madzelan: When Bernard Hopkins surgically dismantled Antonio Tarver to win the light heavyweight championship, he accomplished what another former middleweight champion did forty years earlier.

On December 16, 1966, Dick Tiger, a gentle lunch pail workman challenged Jose “Chegui” Torres for the title. Tiger wasn’t supposed to win. The odds were stacked against him. He was going in against a man who had the height, weight, and reach on his side. And then, there were the speculating whispers that at 37, Tiger’s best days were already in the pages of history. The speculation about age helped to install Torres as a solid 12-5 favorite, gaining credibility eight months earlier when Tiger lost his middleweight championship to Emile Griffith, the welterweight champion. Not only did he lose, but he was decked for the first time in his career. And though the decision was debatable, it added fuel the belief that Tiger’s career was on the downward spiral.

Don’t get me wrong, as challengers went, Tiger was as valid as anyone else. He was a two-time champion; a systematic puncher, who could still ring the bell of opponents who traded with him. Beyond that, the promoters knew that his gate appeal of being a longtime Madison Square Garden favorite would generate more greenbacks than #1 challenger Roger Rouse.

The Torres/Tiger fight wasn’t a classic in the annals of fistic history, but there was interest because Jose Torres brought with him the promise of being something special. He was a fighter with style and speed, possessing a brilliant variety of fistic attributes, and who overcame being stalled in his title quest by Cus D’Amato. Not only that but he was a renaissance man, attracting a literary and political following from Pete Hamill, Norman Mailer to Mayor John Lindsay.

For Tiger, the move up to light heavyweight was a kind of rebirth. He no longer had to concern himself with the 160 pound weight limit. For the Torres fight, he packed 167 pounds into his compact 5’8” frame. And though his body still appeared to be sculpted by Auguste Rodin, rippling with tightly knotted muscles bulging beneath the skin, there remained the incessant questions about the wear and tear of the years; was anything left in the tank?

Those whispers about age echoed like a siren. Nick Florio, adviser to Torres, and who was in Tiger’s corner when he lost to Emile Griffith said, “Fighters of Tiger’s age sometimes lose it all in one fight…Tiger might have reached that…point.”

Tiger acknowledged the years. He told Arthur Daley of the New York Times that his roadwork around the Central Park reservoir was now different. It wasn’t about running, but rather, walking or jogging, to just to keep moving for an hour.

Round one prefaced the night as the usually slow starting Tiger quickly took the role of aggressor and fought in a different style, out of a semi-crouch. He ducked and bounced out of his crouch to land flurries to the body. Tiger’s body punching not only won him the round, but began paving his road to victory.

In this fight, Tiger wrote new pages to his legacy by showing diversity; the ability to change styles. In the years leading up to this fight, he was dogmatically labeled as a stubborn head-hunter who craved for opponents to accept his invitation to trade punches so he could counterpunch.

It wasn’t that body punching was unfamiliar territory, it was that for this fight it had to become the focal point. Back in 1959, when he first arrived in the states from England that wasn’t the case. Body punching wasn’t part of his resume, but he proved to be a good student. In fact, his proficiency got so good that it was a dominant reason why his management took the short money just to get Gene Fullmer into the ring in 1962.

In rounds two and three, Tiger continued to work downstairs as Torres fought out of his customary peek-a-boo stance and landed some head shots, but the punches were long and didn’t have power.

Torres needed and wanted an impressive victory. Though his recent bouts were against top contenders, he didn’t show the fire of a masterpiece in progress that was on display March 30, 1965, when he KO’d Willie Pastrano to win the title.

His first title defense was against Wayne Thornton, and after an explosive first round, the fight degenerated into a mulling affair without electricity. Then, he desperately needed the last two rounds to regain his title against the aging and fatigued Eddie Cotton. The only notable defense was a second round knockout over Chic Calderwood.

Round four followed the script of the preceding three. Torres continued to fight out of the peek-a-boo, flicking punches at his smaller rival while Tiger fought with hands high, inching forward, bobbing and weaving in an attempt to get inside.

The reasoning to attack the body was spurned on because of Torres’ pancreas condition which occurred after his July 31, 1965 non-title tilt with Tom McNeeley. The health condition shelved Torres for nine months. Though given the go ahead to fight, the condition weighed on his mind. It left a mental and psychological imprint that wasn’t easily erased. And certainly, that imprint wasn’t helped by Tiger’s tattooing body attack.

As Tiger continued his body assault in the fifth, Torres landed a few long right hands, one of which hurt Tiger. But strangely, and uncharacteristically, Torres didn’t follow up.

After five rounds, the official scoring was 3-2 Torres; 3-2 Torres; 2-2-1.

The sixth round and seventh rounds slowed to a crawl with Tiger’s body shots edging Jose’s head shots on the scorecards. Torres seemed content to jab, move and hold.

As the fight progressed, an interesting, though not exciting, paradox was developing. As Torres later commented, “Every time I tried to press the guy, he moved back.” The paradox was cemented when Tiger attempted to bait and coax Torres. Torres knew of Tiger’s brutal counterpunching, and thus, didn’t take the bait.

Robert Lipstye, writing in the New York Times observed these paradoxical moves without many punches, as leaving Tiger and Torres in the middle of the ring, moving the shoulders and feet “in a strange little dance.”

To Torres, a thinking man, the paradox was puzzling because it was contrary to what he had expected.

During training up in the Catskills at the Concord Hotel in Kiamesha Lake, the Torres camp studied replays of Tiger’s fight against Rubin Carter, which they felt showed Tiger at his best. And though Tiger won convincingly, they saw that when Carter stayed away and boxed, Tiger was left groping, unable to counterpunch.

The message was simple: box and you win. Tiger always had problems with fighters who used the finer points of the sweet science. There was Griffith, and before that Joey Archer and Joey Giardello, and before that Gene Fullmer, who uncharacteristically boxed Tiger in their second fight.

By using guile and boxing, you could frustrate Tiger’s counterpunching rhythm, making him hesitate whereupon his stalking became mere following. At times during his career, Tiger’s frustration surfaced during bouts.

In reporting on the first Tiger/Fullmer bout, A.J. Liebling wrote that during the eleventh round Tiger, who was easily winning, “paused in his pursuit and, raising his hands, motioned the champion (Fullmer) to come to him again and fight.”

So, before the fight, when all the pros and cons were added up on paper, it looked like an easy Torres victory, whereby one could speculate that maybe Tiger was underestimated.

After all, Torres wasn’t one of those previously mentioned middleweights; he was a solid light heavyweight with the advantages of age, speed, weight and height. Not only that, but he was a rising star, full of a champion’s bravado that had him constantly campaigning, clamoring for a fight against Muhammad Ali. To some it may have been just another light heavyweight dreaming, but it did make for good copy.

As the fight ticked into its second half, the championship fire in Torres seemed to only be smoldering, waiting for one of his classic volleys to ignite the embers into a blaze. The blaze never happened.

The perfect plan went awry because the Torres camp pigeon-holed Tiger, believing he was an aging inflexible head-hunter. In reality, beyond changing his fighting style, Tiger wasn’t as crude as perceived. He wasn’t an aimless head-hunter, but rather was a disciplined stalking counterpuncher throwing short meaningful punches.

The eighth was close as Torres landed with punches to the head, while Tiger continued to press the issue downstairs. At one point, it seemed that Tiger was hurt, but Torres didn’t follow up. He didn’t appear to want to expend energy beyond a certain point. He seemed unwilling or simply unable to do it. When they did mix it up, it was Torres who gave ground.

In the ninth, Torres rocked Dick’s head back, but Tiger came right back ripping to the body and then landed a left hook to the head, his best punch of the night. It should be noted that Tiger didn’t make many meaningful attempts at Torres’ head, concentrating on the body, which he continued through round ten. At one point during the round, Tiger forced Torres to hold after a flurry.

After ten rounds the official scoring was 7-3 Tiger; 5-4-1 Tiger; 7-2-1 Tiger.

Torres came back strong in the eleventh round, hurting Tiger with a series of lefts and rights. But like in the fifth round, instead of following up, he went back to jabs. Torres seemed to tire in the eleventh and twelfth rounds, and ringside whispers wondered if Torres was in the best of shape.

When right, Torres was a picture book fighter, a quick flashing artist. In this fight, the flashy artistic combination punching was a memory. He was taken out of his game. The fight wasn’t being dictated by him.

Later, Torres disclosed that because of his health condition, he had trained only ten days for the fight even though he was at camp for a month. If true, this could explain why he was lethargic and lacked drive, but it would be an injustice not to give Tiger credit. Throughout the fight, his fighting heart pulsated; he kept punching, and his punches were crisper.

The thirteenth and fourteenth rounds were give and take rounds with Tiger starting fast and Torres rallying and then Tiger coming on as the rounds ended. The final stanza witnessed Torres rallying with combinations as the round and the fight ended.

The late rally harkened back to the Cotton fight, when it saved his title. This time it didn’t work. The decision was unanimous for Tiger: 10-5; 8-6-1; 10-4-1. Tiger’s ability to change; his constant body attack excavated the light heavyweight championship from Torres, making him, at the time, the fifth oldest man to achieve a championship.

As for Torres, he fought a cautious fight; fighting in spurts, attempting to use his quickness and jab to keep Tiger at bay; and when Tiger got inside, he held. There are those who said that Torres looked good in only the 5th and 11th rounds, when he hurt Tiger, but in both cases didn’t follow-up the advantage.

Before the fight Torres was considered an artist painting a masterpiece in progress. Afterwards, it was Tiger’s painting that would hang in the gallery of light heavyweight history. After all the years, fourteen years as a professional, Tiger fought with the pride of a champion and made the most out of what remained in his tank. That’s what blue-collar guys tend to do.

Article posted on 16.10.2006

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