“Nobody ever beat me when I was a world champion. I moved up [in weight division] each time undefeated. I lost fights, but never for any of my titles. I’ve had five hand operations, pins put in my hands, wedges of bones cut out of my hand so I could make a full fist, because pretty much for every fight I had broken hands.”
Hall-of-Famer Jeff Fenech campaigned in five weight divisions, was a successful three-weight world champion, and beat some of the most recognized names in boxing. He accomplished all of this in thirty-three professional fights. Sydney’s most celebrated sportsman tells us how and why he first decided to become a boxer, which wasn’t his sport of choice. “I played [Aussie rules] football all of my life and wanted to be a rugby league player. Then, when I was about seventeen and a half, I went to a youth club, not to learn to box but to see some guys we wanted to fight with. We searched this youth club, and they weren’t there and the last room we looked in had a sign which said ‘Boxing’ on it. Then I looked through the little window on the door. There was a friend of mine I went to school with who used to box, and we went in and saw him train. I then heard the trainer say they wanted someone to box him. Even though he was a few kilos heavier, I volunteered to fight him.”
“Next day, I went there and I boxed and it wasn’t the best experience. I got winded and beaten up a bit. But the trainer at the end of the session said, ‘Have you boxed before?’ I said ‘No,’ and he said, ‘Are you sure? You did really good. You should come back.’ At the start, I thought he was just bullshitting me to get me back there. In my mind, I didn’t want to go back because it’s not the best feeling when you’re not used to being hit in the stomach and being punched in the face. Anyway, I ended up convincing myself to go back and then a few months later, I was state champion, then six months later, national champion. I think we all have a hidden talent and I kind of found it, totally accidentally.”
Fenech’s amateur pedigree is often overshadowed by his successes in the professional arena. “People don’t know a lot about my career. Even though I only had twenty-six amateur fights, I won the Oceanic flyweight title in 1983, then shortly after went to the World Championships in Rome and got the bronze. Then in 1984 I went to the same Los Angeles Olympics as Evander Holyfield and all those guys.”
Fenech turned professional on October 12, 1984, and, barely four months later, “The Marrickville Mauler” became New South Wales State bantamweight champion. On April 26, 1995, with a record of six wins, all by knockout, he challenged defending IBF world bantamweight champion Satoshi Shingaki for his crown. Fenech recalled the moment. “I actually got the call couple a couple of months earlier, but he [Shingaki] got injured and pulled out. Then when it was all good to go, everyone was saying, ‘He’s never fought fifteen rounds. He won’t beat Shingaki,’ and all that. I trained harder than anybody ever. I could run ten kilometers in thirty and a half minutes. I did twelve and fifteen rounds of sparring a hundred times in the gym prior to the fight. I had three sparring partners in the ring at the same time. One minute each, so they could stay in the ring, and I’d get pushed to the limit.
“Jeff Harding [former WBC light-heavyweight world champion] was one of them. Another was a guy called Alan McNamara [another light-heavyweight] who was world-rated and was my main sparring partner. I always sparred big guys, including heavyweight Justin Fortune.”
Fenech stopped Shingaki in the ninth to claim his first world honors. But how did the newly-crowned champion deal with all the fame and adulation at the age of twenty? “From seventeen to twenty years old, I’d been all around the world boxing as an amateur and been at the Olympic games. I was the first Olympian from 1984 to win a world title and did so within 196 days from turning professional. It was crazy.
“I was one of those guys who used to say that fame and fortune would never change me, but it changes everybody. As much as you want to deny it and pretend you’re still the same person, it automatically changes you. I remember one day, I walked into the gym, I was in training for my rematch with Shingaki and my trainer, Johnny Lewis, said, ‘You see the door you walked through to get in here?’ I replied, ‘Yes, Johnny,’ and he said, ‘Well, turn around and get the fuck out of here.’ Those were his exact words. I’ll never forget that. He noticed the change in my attitude, not only boxing but a lot of other things. What he said refocused me. I had tears in my eyes. I apologized and made the changes I needed to, for a little while at least.
“Not long after, one of my very close friends had died. He left me $20,000 [Australian dollars]. Now, remember, I got paid $20,000 to fight for the world title, which isn’t a lot, but back then, for somebody who came from the street and never had a dollar, unless I stole something, that was a lot of cash. I remember saying to a friend of mine after winning the world title, ‘Wow. If I could get another $20,000, I’ll retire. I’ll be rich.’ I had no understanding of money and what I’d achieved. When I first started in boxing, the media used to criticize me for ‘Errming’ before giving an answer and all of a sudden I’m doing TV commercials. It was crazy.”
Over the next year, Fenech fought six times, including a second stoppage win over Shingaki, and a lopsided decision over unbeaten American Jerome Coffee [26-0 at the time] over the full fifteen championship rounds, to retain his IBF crown. His first fight of 1986, on April 11, was against ring legend Daniel Zaragoza. Fenech discussed the unenviable task. “The fight wasn’t sanctioned. What happened was, I was waiting to fight again, and he’d just lost his title [against Miguel ‘Happy’ Lora]. The media was saying that this would be a great fight for me because Zaragoza was finished and his career was over, but it would be a good scalp.
“Although I did come out victorious, over the next ten years he beat another twenty-seven opponents, including Paul Banke, Wayne McCullough, you name it. He was a great, great fighter, and even though I won every round, he was my toughest fight to date at that point, without a doubt.”
Three months after Zaragoza, Fenech, now 13-0 with eleven stoppages, took on unbeaten Steve McCrory (younger brother of former welterweight world champion, Milton). “I had a lot of pressure on me for this one because it was billed as ‘Olympic Revenge.’ Although we didn’t fight each other in the Olympics, he was gold medalist in 1984, and I got robbed [against silver medalist Redzep Redzepovski of Yugoslavia]. About two weeks prior to the fight, I broke my hand. I got it x-rayed, spoke to the promoter, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it. We’ll cancel the fight and reschedule it.’ He said he’d announce that the day after I wouldn’t be fighting. So, I went and had some food, as I was starving.
“Then I receive a call in the morning. ‘Listen, Jeff. I’ve done the maths, and if you don’t fight, I’m going to be bankrupt.’ I replied, ‘I went out and put on nine pounds last night.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll put you on a health farm. I spent a week there on the farm, then two days before the fight I moved back into my house, and I was still about six pounds overweight. My promoter said, ‘Just get as close as you can to the weight, and we’ll relinquish the title on the scales. Just try to win the fight.’ I thought, ‘Okay,’ but I woke up that morning and ran 5K because I was still three pounds over. I’d starved myself for a couple of days, hadn’t drunk any water, but even after that run, I’d only lost a pound. I put the heaters on in the house and sat by one of them, but nothing came off. So I ran another 5K. Still a pound and a bit over. So I did another 5K. Then I collapsed. That’s 15K on the day of the fight. Remember, the weigh-in wasn’t twenty-four hours before back then; it was on the same day. We weighed in on the afternoon. My mum’s over at the house crying because I don’t feel good and my face was all drawn in.
“Despite everything, I made weight and I ended up stopping him in the fourteenth round of a tough fight. Under the circumstances, fighting with a broken hand and running 15K the morning of the fight, I did well to get through. Yeah, I lost a bit of energy, but I never lost my willpower to pull through that night.”
After the fight, Fenech had a hand operation, then, nine months later, he beat Tony Miller to pick up the Australian featherweight title. A month later, he took on the unbeaten, defending WBC world super-bantamweight champion, Samart Payakaroon, knocking him out in four rounds to become a two-weight world champion. The affable Aussie recalled the shoot-out with the tough Thai. “I knew he was a very good puncher. He’d knocked out Lupe Pintor and Juan Meza, two of the toughest Mexicans ever. Payakaroon came with a very tough reputation. When he came to Australia, everyone bet massive amounts on him to knock me out, but that was money lost for them. For me, it was one of my five-star performances. I kept the pressure on him and stayed close. I knocked him out so badly he had to spend the night in hospital. Usually, I wasn’t a one punch knockout artist, but that night, I fought one of my great fights.”
Fenech defended the world title twice against top opposition in Greg Richardson and ring legend Carlos Zarate [who at that point had only lost twice in sixty-eight fights]. “In his comeback, Zarate had won eleven fights in a row, ten inside the distance. He’d knocked out the number-one contender in the world, the American, Richard Savage. I knew that I had to be precise, keep my hands up high, not let him hit me, but put the pressure on. I wanted to give him something he’d never experienced before, so I really turned it up as much as I could. Whenever I see him today, God love him, he always says, ‘You could have fought in any era and beaten any champion. Nobody could have touched you.’ Coming from Carlos Zarate, that’s always special to hear.”
Five months later, Fenech took on Puerto Rican Victor Callejas for the vacant WBC world featherweight title, stopping him in the tenth round to become a three-weight world champion in a little under three years and five months of his debut. Fenech recalled: “Victor could punch. He hit me in the first round with a shot that nearly knocked me out. He struck me with an uppercut, and my hands dropped to my side and my equilibrium went for a few seconds. He was probably the dirtiest fighter I’ve ever fought, but the toughest. I respected him totally and thought he was a great fighter. I broke my right hand and I used my left hand for 75 percent of the fight. If I had my right hand, I have no doubt it wouldn’t have gone five rounds.”
Fenech defended his latest world title a further three further times over the next thirteen months, then took off the whole of 1990 due to two hand operations. After a tune-up fight against John Kalbhenn on January 19, 1991, Fenech took on “The Professor” and fellow Hall of Famer, the legendary Azumah Nelson, on June 28, 1991, putting his WBC world featherweight crown on the line.
After twelve hard-fought rounds, Fenech had to accept a contentious draw. “I wasn’t one of these fighters who trash-talked before fights. I let my fists do the talking. I’ve watched the tape ten million times, and it’s never more than three rounds to him in that fight. The only reason I admired him so much is because he came to my backyard for the rematch.”
The rematch occurred nine months later and was named The Ring magazine’s “Upset of the Year.” It was also Fenech’s first loss as a professional. “From my side, we just thought it was routine and that I was going to win. He went home, trained hard, and wanted to beat me badly. Whereas I came home, trained, messed about with women, out signing autographs, doing daily appearances. I was certain I was going to win and just didn’t prepare like he did and, on the night, I got a shock. He trained hard, worked twice as hard as I did, and knocked me out.”
Over a year later, on June 7, 1993, Fenech suffered defeat at the hands of American Calvin Grove, getting stopped in seven rounds. “I had another hand operation,” he recalled, “but it was like I had a realization after the last fight [against Nelson]. There came a time where I’d never been hurt in my life in my fights, but then I got knocked down against Nelson, and even when I was sparring for the Grove fight, I started to feel the punches, which I’d never had before. I sparred big guys and never felt it. But after all the years, that’s what happens. It all adds up.
“Emanuel Steward, the greatest trainer in the world by far, who trained me towards the end of my career, said, ‘Jeff, why would they make you fight Calvin Grove? He’s one of those quick guys who is awkward and speedy, and this is your first fight back in fifteen months. The people who looked after me really didn’t know much about the sport like Manny did. Then when I fought Calvin, I thought, ‘Wow. This guy hurt me like I’d never been hurt before. My mentality was, ‘I’ll get back in the office and everything is going to be okay. Once I get in that ring, everything will be fine.’ But in boxing, nothing disappears. All I can say is that on the night, somebody better beat me, and I give Grove all the credit for it.”
Fenech continued. “I retired after that fight, but then I got that boxing bug. That little thing that calls you back in. It’s hard to stay away. I’d never done anything apart from box as a profession, so I craved it all. The notoriety, the success, the action, and when people pat you on the back. I went for it again.”
After almost two and a half years out, Fenech had a pair of tune-up fights before taking on unbeaten 27-0 defending champion Phillip Holiday for his IBF world lightweight crown. He was stopped in the second round. This was to prove his third and final defeat.
Six years later, in 2002, Fenech got the call all fighters wait for. “It was my first year of eligibility for the International Boxing Hall of Fame, and I got in on my first go, which I was delighted about. People sometimes wait twenty years to get in. Being inducted means more than any of my world titles. When you get recognition from your peers who have made it within the sport, that’s when you know you’ve made it. That’s the ultimate accolade.”
After retirement, Fenech didn’t stray far from boxing, training several fighters, including Danny Green. However, it was his time tutoring Mike Tyson that generated the most media attention. “For years, I’d been doing stuff with Mike. Going on runs, doing pads. I was always the guy in the background. What people don’t realize is, when he fought Clifford Etienne [February 22, 2003], I trained him for the whole fight. I’d trained him for the full eight weeks. Lived with him and did everything together, then about two or three days before the fight he walks in with this big tattoo all over his face. I didn’t think they were going to let him fight with a fresh tattoo, so I jumped on a plane and went home. I was obviously very disappointed with him.”
Fenech was in Iron Mike’s corner for his last contest against Kevin McBride on June 11, 2005. “I pulled Mike out [retired in the sixth round]. First and foremost, he’s my friend. A great friend, in fact. I promised Mike’s family that I wouldn’t let him get hurt. That’s my job. I could see he didn’t have what it takes. I could see it in his eyes that he didn’t want to be in there, so I got in the ring and stopped the fight.”
But where did Fenech see a peak Tyson among the all-time heavyweight greats? “A fit Mike Tyson? Look toward the end of his career. All those guys were hitting him with no problem, whereas in his prime, his speed was just amazing. They would have never hit him. Then throw in that speed with his power, and he was devastating. He could have been the greatest of all time, ever. At his peak, I don’t think there’s anybody that could beat him.”
Twelve years after hanging up the gloves, Fenech was back in the ring to complete the trilogy with Nelson. However, the fight was never planned as many believed. “I don’t even look at that as a fight. I was in Thailand and somebody said to me, ‘Why don’t we put on a rematch between you and Samart Payakaroon?’ I said, ‘Let’s do it!’ I’d organized all this stuff and thought, ‘This is going to be great.’ Then all of a sudden, as we’re close to sorting a deal, he rings up and says, ‘Listen, Samart’s asking for silly money, so we can’t do it.’ So he approached Azumah Nelson and asked if he’d take the fight and he said, ‘Yes.’ Listen, we both trained hard and it was a great fight, but I don’t take credit for beating Azumah Nelson in that fight. I was forty-four and he was forty-nine. We put on a good show, and that was it.” Fenech added. “I don’t talk to him [Nelson] all the time, but I rate him as one of the greatest fighters in the sport. To be able to come back the way he did, represent his country, he’s an amazing human being. It was great sharing a ring with him.”
Fenech signed off with a nostalgic grudge and an endearing homage to his fans. “I have billions of regrets in boxing. Trainers, promoters, they robbed me, lied to me and deceived me. When I look back and evaluate, it’s a sad story. When you work hard, I think you deserve to get paid what you’re worth, and I didn’t. Guys fighting on my undercards were earning bigger money than me. I would have loved to have fought more in the US, but that’s been and gone now.”
“But listen, one thing I will always be grateful for is the boxing fans. If it wasn’t for the public, Australia, the people who paid to watch me fight, I’d be nobody. My time will always be 110 percent to the normal person. I’m no different to other guys. If there’s five people asking for an autograph, I’ll sign five. If there’s a hundred thousand, I’ll make sure I sign each and every last one. Without those people, I’d be a nobody and have nothing. I’ll always be grateful for them. Thank you.”