WAIL! BACK ISSUES . . . THE CBZ JOURNAL October 2002
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The 2002 International Boxing Hall of Fame Inductions: Spotlight on Jeff Fenech
By Dave Iamele




The Boxing Hall of Fame faced twin problems in staging this year's induction festivities: much of the boxing world's interest was focused on Memphis for the Tyson/Lewis bout, and this year's class of inductees lacked the superstar drawing power of an Ali or Sugar Ray Leonard. The Hall of Fame overcame these difficulties by providing coverage of the heavyweight title bout and by having an excellent assortment of boxers in attendance to mix with fans. Besides the 2002 inductees-Jeff Fenech, Pipino Cuevas, and Reg Gutteridge (Ingemar Johansson did not make the trip due to poor health)-boxing stars including Kid Gavilan, Jose Napoles, Marvin Hagler, Henry Cooper, Nino Benvenuti, Simon Brown, Marlon Starling, Terry Norris, Paulie Ayala, James Leija, and Micky Ward all participated in another great HOF induction weekend.
While I did hear some disparaging comments made about the inclusion of Ingemar Johansson and Pipino Cuevas among boxing's greats, no one within my earshot questioned the selection of Jeff Fenech. Jeff Fenech arguably is Australia's best boxer ever and undoubtedly the best thing to come from "down under" since Fosters.
After a very short amateur career, Jeff turned pro and captured the IBF bantamweight (118 lb.) title in 1985 in only his seventh pro bout! In 1987, Jeff moved up to 122 lbs. and won the WBC junior- featherweight crown. The next year, Fenech moved up in weight again to 126 lbs, and again won a belt: the WBC featherweight title.
Since virtually all of Fenech's early bouts were held in Australia, many US boxing fans may only know of Jeff because of his two bouts with the legendary Azumah Nelson. While the bouts with Nelson were exciting fights, they only displayed a Fenech in the twilight of his career with only glimpses of the nonstop punching machine and rugged street brawler that tore through everyone in his path.
This year's (modern) induction class included only three boxers: Johansson, who couldn't be there, Cuevas, who speaks no English, and Fenech. Jeff proved to everyone in Canastota, New York, that not only was he a great champion, but he is also a great guy. He relentlessly signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans. At every opportunity, Fenech thrust himself into the crowd, shook hands, and engaged in boxing small talk. A particularly memorable moment came just after a fist casting of Jeff's famous mitt had been completed. After wiping off the goo, he simply leapt off the stage right into the midst of happily surprised autograph seekers.
I can't say if Jeff believed that much of the "pressure" was placed on him to try to ensure that this year's HOF ceremonies went well, but he sure acted like it, and he was more than up to the task.
Jeff was kind enough to share a few words with me, and they follow. I will say that the two things that struck me about Jeff upon meeting him for the first time were the fact that he is very young-- 38 years old--and his hands are a testament to his profession.

  DI:
"What kind of amateur background did you have?"
  JF:
(smiling) "Nil, really. I had about 20 odd amateur fights, but I went to the Olympics. I won a bronze medal in the World Cup in '83 after only a year of boxing amateur, and 8 months later I was at the Olympics. I was learning all the time. No one in the history of the sport has gone to the Olympics after only 20 amateur fights. Name one! You can't. Tell me one that has done what I've done in such a short time . there's never, ever . I mean, people don't realize there has never been a fighter in the history of the sport who's done what I've done in such a short time. I'd never put a boxing glove on until I was 17."
  DI:
"Then you won your first title in only your seventh pro bout? How did you get the opportunity, and what was your hurry?"
  JF:
"Yeah, 196 days! Obviously, the opportunity presented itself, and I took it. The guy thought he could beat me, of course."
  DI:
"Many US boxing fans only know of you because of the two Nelson fights. Why did it take so long for you to appear in the US?"
  JF:
"Bad management. They promised me a fortune to stay in Australia to fight . that there was no need to go to the US. Well, if you pack the place and get paid $200,000 Australian, that's not what I call a fortune."
  DI:
"And then you got jobbed in your first bout here against Nelson ."
  JF:
"Yeah, I didn't get off to a very good start. I was hurting him to the body even in the early rounds when I didn't get credit. It was a close fight, but I won."
  DI:
"You were moving up in weight for your fourth world title. Did you just finally go too far?"
  JF:
"No. I don't make excuses. I beat myself. People change when they become champion. Anyone who tells you different is a liar. Everything happens for a reason. The draw and the loss made me see I had changed, and they took me down a peg or two and made me back into the old Jeff Fenech."
  DI:
"What about the rematch with Nelson? What happened?"
  JF:
"First, I thought I was going to win too easy so I didn't prepare; I'd lost that hunger. Second, he worked harder and prepared much harder than I did 'cause I thought I was gonna win. If I had fought him at featherweight, I would have destroyed him. But I went from being a hungry fighter to a businessman. I was worried about movie deals and things that were coming down the pipeline, so I'd lost that vital edge."
  DI:
"Were you surprised when you got the call telling you that you had been inducted to the Hall of Fame? By that I mean, so soon?"
  JF:
"Yeah, very surprised. Like I said, I'm a very down-to- earth person (these days). I'm the same as everybody else on the planet; I'm no bigger or better than anyone. For me it's a great honor for my peers to give me the recognition that I know I rightly deserve 'cause I know that at featherweight and at junior featherweight nobody could ever beat me at my best. They couldn't do the rounds; they couldn't last. If my fights against Marcos Villasana, Victor Callejas, or Mario Martinez were on American TV, I would've earned millions and millions of dollars. Ask anybody here. But it never happened because I had a very greedy promoter who was a . you know . like if you can draw 15,000 people in Australia, why take me out of there?"
  DI:
"When you retired, was it because you had lost the desire, became a businessman, like you said?"
  JF:
"Yeah. Well, when I realized what was happening to me, yeah. I wasn't hungry anymore, and this is a sport where you've gotta be hungry. And not just be hungry, you've gotta love it. After that happened to me in Vegas, I stopped loving the sport. I went from somebody who had never, ever been hurt in the sport to starting to feel the punches in sparring. All of a sudden something changed as quick as that gift that I believe I'd gotten from the person up there . He took it away from me. Any why? Who knows? I believe in Karma-maybe I was never supposed to win that fourth title. That's what I believe these days, and I'm content. I'm happy in my life after boxing."
  DI:
"You got such a late start in boxing. What was the initial thing that got you in the gym?"
  JF:
"I just saw this guy in the gym and I thought I could kick his ass, you know? (smiles) So, I just walked in. I heard the trainer say they needed someone to spar with, so I just volunteered straightaway. Ha! I regret it, let me tell you, 'cause he hit me to the body and . Oh! Killed me!"
  DI:
"There must have been something you liked because you obviously went back ."
  JF:
"Well, there was a funny thing in that his trainer at the end of the sparring said to me, 'Aw son, that was really, really good. You wanna come back tomorrow?' And I thought this guy just wants me to get beat up again, but I didn't want to say no 'cause I didn't want this guy to think I was scared. So, I said 'Yeah, I'll be back!' He must have thought I was stupid; I just got the livin' shit beat out of me, and I'm telling him I'll be back tomorrow! I had a reputation of being a little tough kid, so I went back, and a few months down the track, I was beating them all."
  DI:
"What would be the thing you think most people don't realize about Jeff Fenech?"
  JF:
"People don't realize how quick I've done what I've done. They don't realize the caliber of fighters that I've fought. I've fought guys like Villasana-who went on to win a championship. Guys like Zaragoza, who I fought in '86, who was still a world champion in '96. But, these guys now-a-days, like Barrera/Morales . I mean, if you ask who would win with me and Morales, who do you think they'd pick straightaway?"
  DI:
"Who would you say gave you your toughest bout?"
  JF:
"Callegas . well, Villasana was hard, too . but, Callejas was just dirty, you know? Dirty! Sometimes it upsets me that people don't give me the credit I deserve, especially back home."
  DI:
"I thought you were going to come out of retirement to kick Tony Mundine's ass?"
  JF:
"My honest comment: He's not worth talking about. The guy is an embarrassment to his great family name. He's an embarrassment to our country."
  DI:
"Anything you want to say to your fans around the world?"
  JF:
"Thank you. I love you all."

Jeff was very generous with his time, and graciously signed autographs and posed for pictures while I was interviewing him. He didn't disappoint anyone who came out to see him. I will close out our spotlight on Jeff Fenech with his words from his induction speech:

Lou Duva's Introduction: "Jeff Fenech-he knows everything about boxing, he's studied boxing, he's dazzling. He's quickly becoming one of the best trainers in boxing. He's a real gentleman, in fact, I used to be in the gym with him, and a lot of times he's the only guy I know that steps out the shower to take a leak! He's that great, you know?" (much applause and laughter) Jeff Fenech takes the dais along with his trainer, Johnny Lewis.
Don Ackerman's Introduction: "A hero in his native land, known as an intelligent and aggressive boxer. As a pro, he incredibly won three world titles in three weight divisions with only 20 bouts in 3 years' time. He captured the IBF bantamweight title in 1985 in only his seventh fight, then the WBC junior- featherweight title in 1987, and the WBC featherweight title in 1988. He's still active as a trainer/manager. From Sydney, Australia-Jeff Fenech!" (much applause)
Jeff Fenech's Induction Speech: "Thank you very much. First of all, let me say how great it is to be here among the great old fighters whom I've read about and watched throughout my career-Marvin Hagler, Ken Norton, and all you guys. It's an honor to be able to sit with you guys and also the active boxers-Leija, Ayala, Ward, and Terry Norris. This week in Canastota is very, very special to me; I'm sure I'm going to take home some new, very special friendships.
Having my trainer here with me today means more than anything to me. There's another man here today in the crowd by the name of Don Majeski, who was my matchmaker throughout my career. Don, I want to thank you for everything you've done for me-making sure everyone I fought was the right opponent-and I'm very, very honored to have you working for me. To all of you people who are here-it's you who I think the most of. I love the sport of boxing, but I think I owe more to you fans than to anybody else because without the fans, there's no boxing. So to all you fans, thank you very, very much. (applause) This man beside me [J. Lewis] met me when I was a young kid going nowhere--maybe behind bars--until I met Johnny Lewis, who took me out of the streets and into the gym and transformed me into a person who respects everybody--somebody who is very honored. I'm proud of everything I've done, and I know that I wouldn't have been able to do it without the guidance of Johnny Lewis.
Hopefully, the one thing that I'll be able to give back to the sport today is the same kind of friendship and guidance that Johnny Lewis gave me, and this award is maybe the peak of my boxing career. At the end of this sport, you can get no more or nothing better than to be recognized by the International Boxing Hall of Fame. I want to thank Ed Brophy, and my wife. The one thing I want everyone to know is that a lot of things happen in life for a reason. I think a lot of people recognize me from my fight with Azumah Nelson, and I got a draw and then I had a loss against that great fighter. But, it was that draw and that loss that turned me into the person that I am today. Prior to that, I was a three-time world champion and undefeated, and success and fame changes everybody, and anybody who says different is tilling you lies. Let me tell you, it changed me tremendously. But, having that draw and loss to Azumah Nelson certainly changed my life today. I'm very proud of the way I am today, and if it takes a loss to teach you a valuable lesson, then that defeat certainly taught me. This is a weekend I'll never forget, and I'm looking forward to coming back and spending many, many more weeks with all you friends and family here. Thank you very, very much." (end)

There you have it, boxing fans, Jeff Fenech-a classy champion and a classy guy. Come to Canastota in June and meet your heroes.

- END -
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