July 1, 2014

KO Digest Interview: Jeff Fenech - "Boxing is the real ultimate fighting"

The Marrickville Mauler Training Down Under
In the 1980's, Jeff Fenech was the king of the little guys. Tearing through three weight classes and remaining competitive in a fourth, the “Marrickville Mauler” gradually added weight and career-defining victories throughout the decade. Hailing from Sydney, Australia, his name may have struck curiosity in the minds of American fans who never got the chance to watch him on television during his prime, but he struck fear into his opponents over a ferocious streak of seven years without a loss to begin his career. Stateside, Fenech was an underappreciated fighter in a country that always gravitated towards heavier weights. So as Fenech got progressively more popular as he moved up in weight classes, it seems fitting that he is now finding relevance again as a trainer in the heavyweight division.

Although the partnership did not last long, Fenech was Mike Tyson’s final trainer at the conclusion of Tyson's career, and he now has a future full of potential ahead of him with Lucas Browne, another Australian finding success in the blossoming Aussie boxing scene. For a time however, Fenech lost touch with the sport. “About five years ago, I had enough of boxing,” Fenech told KO Digest long distance from Down Under. “I have a young amateur I’ve been helping. That rekindled my love for the sport. Then I saw "Big Daddy" Browne fight on tape and I said 'Oh my God, what a load of potential this guy has got!' I thought it was going to be wasted. I said 'Lucas, please, don’t be like all these other Australians. Come and let me work with you.' We’ve done a couple of days training and we’ve formed an incredible bond. We’re going to win the heavyweight title.”

Whether or not the 35-year-old Browne will pose a real challenge in the top heavy heavyweight division still remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: if not for the ground broken by Fenech’s Hall of Fame boxing career, Browne and his fighting countrymen would not have had the opportunity to bloom that they now enjoy today.

Training rekindled Fenech's love for boxing
KO Digest's Joel Sebastianelli: Australian boxing is very relevant right now, a change in the typical climate over there. Australia seems to be rising, especially at middleweight. Sam Soliman just won the IBF title, Daniel Geale has been making waves and is fighting Gennady Golovkin soon at Madison Square Garden, and Blake Caparello is undefeated and fighting Sergey Kovalev at light heavyweight for the WBO title. Why is Australia coming on so strong in the sport now?

Jeff Fenech: Many of the Australian fighters are very talented right now. Soliman has been around for a very long time and he’s definitely somebody who is the hardest worker in the world and he deserves it. Caparello is a guy who is willing to fight anybody. I believe that if you aren’t good enough to beat the Australian champion, you should not be able to fight on the world stage. A lot of the fighters in the past could pay for their ratings and they were able to fight whoever they want, which I believe is really wrong. You’ve got to fight and earn your respect like Caparello is doing, like Soliman has done for the last twenty years, like what Geale has done. Geale lost his title, and then he fights the best out there [Golovkin] straight away, that's a fighter.

Browne is 35 years old with a 20-0 record and 18 KO's
KOD: Alex Leapai recently fought Wladimir Klitschko as well. I named some guys above, what’s your take on them? Is there any Australian in particular that stands out to you as having a bright future?

JF: There’s one who is going to be the next heavyweight champion of the world, a guy named Lucas “Big Daddy” Browne. That’s who I’m at the gym training right now. I believe that while he’s got so much skill, he’s like a diamond who has never been polished. Nobody has told him what to do, so at the moment, I’m trying to change that. I’m trying to show him that there’s more to boxing than just being able to throw a right hand and knock somebody out. I’m trying to pick his defensive skills up and trying to do a whole lot of things that so when he gets the opportunity, he’ll take it with both hands. He’s rated #8 in the WBC and he's also rated by all the other organizations. The WBC world champion at the moment [Bermane Stiverne] is very beatable, I think we’ve got the fighter here that, with three or four months of training, doing the right thing, and doing the right sparring, we can give the heavyweight title a real shake and we can win it. Let the world know through KO Digest that Browne is going to be the next WBC heavyweight champion.

More opportunities and more money now
KOD: How has the Australian boxing culture changed since you broke it open back in the day to now, with the sweet science being so much more wide open, international, and global in scope?

JF: There’s so many different titles and different weight divisions. There are many more opportunities for fighters to take and there’s more money with pay TV—we didn’t have that when I was boxing in Australia. There’s a lot more opportunity, but still, I would like to see more Australians get an opportunity to fight for the world title or something similar that is good enough. I don’t like these guys who go to the WBA and pay for their ratings, pay to win some regional title, pay for another title, then you fight for a world title and embarrass the sport. It’s good to make money, but I don’t want to embarrass my country. It has happened quite a few times. These guys who are getting these opportunities now—the Blake Caparello’s and Daniel Geale’s—they deserve to be in the ring at the moment.

Geale is the Real Deal Down Under
Jeff Fenech's Top 5 Australia Today:

1. Daniel  Geale (middleweight)
2. Sam Soliman (middleweight) 
3. Lucas  Browne (heavyweight)
4. Billy Dib (featherweight)
5. Will Tomlinson (super featherweight)

KOD: With so many weight classes and with sanctioning bodies operating the way they currently do, do you believe the sport needs some type of reform?

JF: Of course. They’re talking about a fight here in Australia between Danny Green and Anthony Mundine. One guy was 15 kilos heavier in his last fight. How can a sanctioning body even consider sanctioning it? You’ve got to make sure that the fights are competitive and the fighters have the same ability. Listen, when people get hurt in the boxing ring or when there's a fatality, that’s because there’s a mismatch. The guys who put them in there, they know nothing about boxing, they’re thinking about a payday. You’re giving him an opportunity for what, to get brain damage? To get hurt? To never fight again?

KOD: Who has been the best Australian fighter since you’ve retired?

JF: You’ve got to say Vic Darchinyan, but you forget to mention Sakio Bika. Sakio trained and trained. He’s not the prettiest fighter, but he’s a fighter who loves it. About five years ago, I had enough of boxing. I stopped everything. Today, I have a young amateur guy I’ve been helping that rekindled my love for the sport. Then I saw Lucas Browne fight on tape and I said “Oh my God, what a load of potential this guy has got!" I thought it was going to be wasted. I said “Lucas, please, don’t be like all these other Australians. Come and let me work with you and then you can make your mind up.” We’ve done a couple of days training and we’ve formed an incredible bond. We’re going to win the heavyweight title.

The young Fenech was influenced by Duran
KOD: We’ve touched on many fighters who have made a name for themselves and are very prominent out of Australia now. Back when you began your career, were there any fighters that you modeled yourself after?

JF: I never boxed until 17 and a half, I was in the Olympics at 19, and I was world champion when I was 20. I never watched a boxing match life in my life. The only boxer I had ever heard of was Muhammad Ali. When I did start to fight, I watched Roberto Duran and loved the way he fought.

KOD: Seventeen is late to start boxing. What brought you into the sport? 

JF: I went to a youth club looking for people to have a fight with. I was in a gang and they weren’t there, but there was a boxing ring. I sat there and I listened to a friend of mine from school and he said his trainer wanted somebody to box so I said I would box him. I said I’d take the challenge, and the trainer asked me to come back the next day. It was all history then.

KOD: After winning the world title in 1985, you had many title defenses during a stretch of about five years atop the bantamweight, super bantamweight, and the featherweight divisions. 
Who was the best fighter you’ve fought and why?

Rumble with Villasana
JF: I think it would be Marcos Villasana. Azumah Nelson's credentials speak for themselves but he was never my toughest fight. My first fight with him, that wasn’t tough for me. That was just what I had done in every fight and I believe I won at least nine rounds out of twelve. Victor Callejas from Puerto Rico, he was so tough. He was such a big puncher, so tough. And, I fought a guy named Georgie Navarro. He was the most skillful guy, an American who had beaten everybody. He beat Hector Lopez and they were all talking about him as being the next Sugar Ray Leonard.

KOD: What attributes in opponents gave you the most trouble?

JF: None of them. I knew that none of them could handle my pressure. I didn’t have a problem. If they came for me, that was great. If they were boxers, it took me a couple of rounds to catch them and slow them up. I stopped most of the great boxers in the world.

KOD: For American fight fans, the first fights that come to mind are the fights with Azumah Nelson...

Fenech beat Nelson only to get robbed by judges
JF: That’s what hurts me the most. They always bring that up and that’s what they all see, but if they had seen me fight Villasana, who had basically beaten Nelson, it was a very controversial decision, or Mario Martinez when I had won every round, or Daniel Zaragoza, I had beaten these guys in every round. It was 120-108 every fight, no other fighter had done what I had done to these champions. After the first Nelson fight, I have no excuses, but I was never the same. It took something away from me. I was going to be the first boxer ever to win four world titles undefeated. I was the first fighter to win three undefeated. Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, and Roberto Duran, they all lost before winning their fourth titles. I was the first undefeated three time world champion. After that draw, I was never the same. I can’t put my finger on it, but something left me that day.

KOD: Do you believe you won that first fight?

JF: Absolutely. Can anybody watch that fight and give Azumah Nelson more than three rounds? I threw a hundred punches more. The fight wasn’t even close. Of course, it was a great fight, it was one of the greatest fights in history, but it wasn’t close. At the end of the twelfth round, if I hadn’t held him up, he would have fallen down. If they didn’t hide his mouth guard at the end of the ninth round, I may have knocked him out. If this was a 15-round fight, I’d have stopped him.

Boxing magazines knew Fenech was special
KOD: Early in your career, you had a lot of extensive print coverage in magazine like The Ring and KO, but American fight fans didn’t get a chance to see you fight often on TV, instead reading and learning about you in these publications. 

JF: And that was the thing, I was robbed by my promoter. Of course I wanted to fight overseas. My fight against Zaragoza was a ten round war. My fight against Marcos Villasana was a twelve round war. Americans would have loved what I did to those guys! Those guys gave Azumah Nelson not just fights, but decisions that were controversial. I beat these guys every round. I beat Jerome Coffee, I boxed his brains in, I beat them all,  the Olympic gold medalist, but Americans didn’t get to see me until the end. You’ve got to think of this also, not just to give myself a pat on the back. I fought every fight, about 80 percent of my fights, with two broken hands. Tell me one Olympic runner that won a race with a broken toe! My hands were broken every fight. I broke them every fight and I still won every round. Watch my fights against Villasana and Callejas and see how dominant I was. I had done some things that nobody had ever done, but I never got the credit because I fought in Australia. Of course, Australians loved me, but I wanted to be recognized internationally for what I had done because nobody had ever done it.

Nelson and Fenech are respectful rivals for life
KOD: The first two fights against Azumah Nelson were in 1991 and 1992, but the third came over a decade later in 2008. How exactly did that fight come about and how do you think about that fight now?

JF: I don’t even classify that as a fight. I was training and had lost a lot of weight and somebody said we should have a fight. I was going to try to go to Thailand to fight the Thai guy Samart Payakaroon again, and look at him—he knocked out Lupe Pintor, but I knocked him out in four rounds. I was training and all of a sudden, somebody called Azumah Nelson and said “would you be willing to fight Jeff Fenech again?” And of course, he said yes, being the warrior that he is, and we boxed again. I didn’t count that as a fight for me, it was just something I did at 44. It was a great experience, training, losing weight, and doing all that stuff, but it didn’t really mean much to me.

KOD: Some American fans have suggested that you are a borderline entry into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. You know why you belong in the IBHOF, but looking at the fights that Americans have seen—the Nelson loses and the KO loss to Calvin Grove—do you think this is just because they are unfamiliar with you? 

Legends Tyson and Fenech together at the IBHOF
JF: They don’t even know what I’ve done in my life. If the Americans knew that I fought as an amateur for two and a half years, went to the Olympics after 24 fights, then turned professional and won my first title in 196 days. I defended against the Olympic gold medalist Steve McCrory, I defended against Jerome Coffee. I was undefeated bantamweight, super bantamweight, and featherweight champion. I never lost any of my titles. I moved up in weight a few times. At the end of my career, the guys that beat me didn’t beat the Jeff Fenech that I know. I won a bronze medal before they overturned the decision. I was world champion in my seventh fight. Three time world champion, all with broken hands. In between fights, I had an operations to put pins in my broken hand, nobody in boxing has ever done that. Tell me somebody who has done it—nobody!

KOD: Obviously, you have many skills and were successful for a long period of time. But looking back on your prime, what was the one thing you can say that Jeff Fenech did better in the ring than anyone else? What were you most proud of?

JF: I remember back in the day that Ring Magazine said there’s nobody in the world that could cut off a ring better than Jeff Fenech. So, my pressure and the way I could punch. Nobody could do it like me. Nobody. You look at my fights and the caliber of opponents I fought, and see how easily I beat them all. I trained 24 hours a day and did everything properly in training.

Ultimate Fighters Fenech and Tyson
KOD: As trainer, you were only with Tyson for a short period of time at the end of his career, but how did the partnership with Tyson come about?

JF: As fighters, we trained together many times. He’d make me put him through pads, we’d run together—Mike trusted me. Mike knew I had his back and I loved him, and to this day I still do. We have a very good relationship. I won an award in America and Mike was walking through the crowd and said “ah, Jeff Fenech!” He was all excited, gave me a hug, and told me he thought I was great. Our friendship began there. I was always overseas visiting and being with Mike for all his fights. He asked me to help him with his comeback. 

KOD: Tyson is revered as being one of the best fighters in history, but the heavyweight division now is a stark contrast to the division during Tyson’s day. It used to be marked by guys who were brawlers like Tyson, but now it’s ruled by technical guys like Wladimir Klitschko. Do you think that Tyson and his legacy are actually bad for US fight fans in the sense that it spoiled American fans and distorted the way they see the heavyweight division?

JF: No, I just think the he was a freak of nature. He gave people what they wanted: exciting fights and knockouts, and he created this amazing aura. Nobody will ever match him. Nobody can do what Mike did and bring excitement to the ring like Mike. That animal instinct and the whole persona of being the baddest man on the planet, it erupted when he got in the ring. People want to see people beat each other up. We like to see somebody great at something, and Mike was great at what he did. In my opinion, Mike Tyson is the greatest heavyweight in boxing history.

KOD: What elevates Mike Tyson above other great heavyweights? 

JF: You’ve got Muhammad Ali who was an absolute freak of nature. I think Joe Louis was the most perfect boxer I’ve ever seen. He was beautiful, him and Sugar Ray Robinson, but Mike brought a little bit more to the ring. Ali predicted the round. Tyson predicted violence, and that’s what people pay for. People pay to watch people get beat up, that’s just boxing, that’s the truth behind the sport. Mike was great at doing that.

Fenech with his Cus D'Amato, trainer John Lewis
KOD: Some people have even compared you to Mike Tyson. When you were young, you were both ferocious and champs around the same time. Do you see a lot of similarities between the two of you? 

JF: Not just boxing, but life in general, we have so many things in common. When I used to watch Mike fight, it was very motivational. We'd sit and talk about Cus D'Amato. Tyson was the benchmark, the front page of everything. Everybody wanted to be Mike Tyson. I lived with him, trained him, traveled with him. As ferocious and animalistic as he was, he was the most kind hearted person. I was on a plane with him once in first class, I fell asleep, when I woke up and had a look, I was sitting next to an old lady, he'd given up his seat for her. He's a generous man. I've seen him give beggars a thousand dollars just to leave people alone. I've seen him stop the car on the side of the road and give people money. He doesn't do it for attention. He has a heart of gold. As a human being, he's one of the best God ever put on Earth. That's why he was able to come back and be beautiful again. God is rewarding him for all the beautiful things he's done.

KOD: What do you want to see for the future of boxing?

JF: I'm active on the board of governors with the WBC. I think the new WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman will do so good for the sport. I want people to love boxing again, for boxing to be respected. When people make a mistake, the referee or the judges, they need to be punished for there to be credibility back in boxing. If you can't do your job, they're not going to give you another job, so get rid of them idiots. Look, Dana White is a genius in marketing UFC. Boxing needs to do the same and make people love boxing again. There is no sport that compares to boxing. It's the ultimate, best form of fighting.

The Future of Boxing

KO Digest Interview conducted by Joel "The Future" Sebastianelli

Joel joined KO Digest in January 2013 and has been a fixture on press row in the New England area for three years. In 2012, he served as the host of “The Boxing Fix” on Leave it in the Ring Radio. Sebastianelli is the future of boxing journalism and broadcasting.

Joel can be found Tweeting on Twitter @JJSebastianelli