Vale Lionel Rose

By AAP with AG Staff | May 10, 2011

Lionel Rose was Australia’s first indigenous World Champion and the first Australian of the Year. We remember him.

WHEN LIONEL ROSE, at age 19, stepped into the ring for his world title bout against Japan’s ‘Fighting’ Harada, his manager Jack Rennie believed his boy would need to overcome a lot more than an unbeaten opponent. Three of the judges for the fight in Tokyo were Japanese, and Rennie hoped they hadn’t seen what was being written about the fight in Australia.

“Australian newspapers were saying we’d get robbed,” Rennie said. “It wasn’t all that long after the war and we didn’t know if they were still crook on us.”

It turned out that the Japanese judges gave the verdict to Lionel, making him the first Australian Aboriginal to win a world championship in any sport.

For his efforts in that 1968 fight, Lionel earned around $7,500 against Harada’s $70,000. But for the kid from a Victorian bush settlement that barely existed, it was the beginning of a life that had almost everything – including a personal chat and photograph with Elvis Presley.

He was named Australian of the Year in 1968 in recognition of the world championship achievement, becoming the first indigenous Australian to be awarded this honour. That same year, he was also made a Member of the Order of the British Empire.

Lionel, who died on Sunday aged 62 and whose family has accepted a state funeral, was raised among a collection of humpies at a settlement known as Jackson’s Track, near Warragul, east of Melbourne.


Lionel Rose (left) gets a left-hand punch to the head of defending world
bantamweight champion
Masahiko ‘Fighting’ Harada, during their title
fight in Tokyo, Japan, 27 February, 1968. (Credit: Getty)

Humble beginnings

After winning an Australian amateur title at the age of 15, Lionel turned professional and after a couple of fights began training at Rennie’s gym in the backyard of his home in Marco Polo St, Essendon.

Rennie teed up the world championship bout against Harada and the pair left Sydney airport for Tokyo, farewelled by a crowd of three. They returned to Melbourne two weeks later to a scene Lionel described with typical modesty.

“I saw all these people at the airport; there must have been 500,” Lionel said. “The air hostess came around and I asked her if she had the Beatles or something up the front of the plane. She told me the people were there to see me.”

The 500 who came to Essendon airport to greet him proved to be only a sample of what was to come.

A crowd estimated at 100,000 clogged the streets of Melbourne to cheer a man who had won a world boxing championship at a time when they were about as elusive as recognition for the Aboriginal people he represented.

The WBC bantamweight championship Lionel took from Harada was one of only 16 world titles available in 1968. By comparison, the world championship his contemporary countryman Daniel Geale won last the weekend is one of almost 70.

In a sport not known for deep thinking and altruism, Lionel showed glimpses of both. In 1970, after he’d lost his world title, a big-money bout had been arranged for him in South Africa. Despite the temptation to accept what would have been a worthwhile pay day, Lionel refused to fight in the apartheid state where he would have been given the status of an honorary white to step into the ring.

On the other side of the coin, he also made one of the disastrous comebacks that boxers so often do, and there is every chance it came against him later in his life.

Lionel’s wife Jenny, who divorced him only to return to his side a few years ago when he needed her most, experienced the frustrations of living with a man who would go to take the garbage out and return three days later. “Through everything, he was a brave man and a decent man,” Jenny said.

Tributes

For the past year or so, Lionel couldn’t speak thanks to a series of strokes. But there have always been plenty with something to say for him.

“I believe Lionel would want us to remember him for his life, not his passing,” said Bev Manton, chair of the NSW Aboriginal Land Council. “And it was an amazing life. He was a trail blazer in so many respects…He inspired a lot of Aboriginal people – myself included – at a time when we were barely even considered citizens of this country.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard also paid tribute to the boxing legend, saying that he “was an Australian champion in every sense of the word and an inspiration to all”.

VIDEO: Lionel Rose fights Mexican Ruben Olivares in 1969.

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