Jeff Fenech: The Mauler from Down Under
By Emmanuel Rivera, RRT
Mon, 04 Oct 2021
“Jeff Fenech is the mauler from down under. From what I’ve seen and heard, he is one of the stags in this George Bellows painting,” the late Filipino matchmaker Pol Tiglao said to the equally late boxing manager Hermie Rivera. At the time, both men were plotting their next moves for then-newly minted WBA bantamweight champ Luisito Espinosa. Mr. Pol Tiglao knew his boxing and its machinations---craftily guiding, albeit behind the scenes, Filipino and world champions like Rolando Pascua, Luisito Espinosa and Morris East.
Jeff Fenech was (and still) the first Australian to win boxing titles in three weight divisions---bantamweight (118 lb.), featherweight (126 lb.) and super-featherweight (130 lb.).
As a professional, he was a prolific puncher who overwhelmed his opponents with sheer intensity. His final stats in 33 total fights: 29 wins (21 KO), 3 losses, 1 draw. He was a throwback in the mold of Jack Dempsey, Harry Greb and Terry McGovern. Fenech’s trilogy with the great Ghanian Azuma Nelson will be remembered as classics.
Jeff Fenech is one of only seven fighters in the history of boxing since 1892 who have won the bantamweight and featherweight crowns. He was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2002 (Syracuse, New York) and to the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013.
“I would like to think that I was what boxing was all about, giving 100 percent at all times and all respecting the man in the other corner,” the great Jeff Fenech recently expressed to his friends and fans at PhilBoxing.com and PinoyGreats.com. In this photo, he is with his better half Suzee Fenech.
George Wesley Bellows was a novice when it comes to analyzing the fight game.
“I don't know anything about boxing. I'm just painting two men trying to kill each other," the renowned American painter was once quoted about his masterpiece Stag at Sharkey’s (1909, Cleveland Museum, Public domain)
Connoisseurs of the fight game once considered Jeff Fenech as the second coming of Roberto Duran. Serious fight fans dubbed him the Australian Mike Tyson. For me, Iron Mike was the American Jeff Fenech, Manos de Piedra the Panamanian Brick Top.
Jeff Fenech was born on May 28, 1964, Saint Peters, a suburb of Sydney in the state of New South Wales. His parents were originally from Malta before they settled in Australia.
He grew up in the confines of Marrickville, often getting into trouble with the law. In his autobiography, I Love Youse All (with Terry Smith, 1993), he credits the very people who arrested him for turning his life around as a street punk, thief, and petty criminal.
In a documentary called Street Fighter, aired in the United States in the early nineteen-nineties, Fenech admitted, “People say I might have been on the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong side of the law. I was never proud of what I’ve done, grabbing money here, there and everywhere.”
Fenech played rugby before he was introduced to boxing. Johnny Lewis, a boxing coach, and trainer for the Newtown Police Boys Club, instilled in him the discipline he needed to get into the straight and narrow path. Johnny Lewis would become his coach and mentor throughout most of his boxing career.
In the unpaid ranks, Fenech made his mark as the leading amateur boxer in Australia capturing the 1983 and 1984 Oceanic flyweight titles. He placed third in the 1984 World Championships in Rome, Italy. As a flyweight, Fenech was named captain for the National Boxing Team representing Australia as 1984 Olympic Summer Games held in Los Angeles, California.
He reached the quarterfinals by defeating Rene Centellas of Bolivia (KO 3, Round of 32), beat David Mwaba of Tanzania (Points, Round of 16). In the quarterfinals, he lost to Redžep Redžepovski of Yugoslavia on points. Fenech was robbed of a decision after the referee raised his hand. After a furious intervention and recalculation by the International Olympic Committee, the Yugoslavian was given the victory.
The consensus among the ringside observers, press and fellow boxers was that Fenech (for a lack of a better word) ‘wuz robbed.
After the Olympics debacle, Fenech rapidly climbed the ranks in the bantamweight division. In his seventh fight, he challenged and beat defending champion Satoshi Shingaki (TKO 9) for the IBF 118-pound crown. He would defend the title successfully against Shingaki TKO4 in their rematch, beat Jerome Coffee (UD 15), and later Steve McCrory (TKO 24).
Fenech climbed to the featherweight ranks and won the Australian featherweight title by beating Tony Miller by unanimous decision in 12 rounds. Fenech quickly came back down in weight to oblige visiting and reigning WBC 122-pound champion Samart Payakaroon of Thailand.
On June 8, 1987, in Sydney, in a bull-matador classic, Jeff Fenech bludgeoned the classy and elusive Thai champion with relentless combinations, knocking him out in 4 rounds.
Defenses against worthy opponents like Greg Richardson (KO5), former bantamweight champion Carlos Zarate (TD 4) fast tracked his march to greatness.
On March 7, 1988, Jeff Fenech won his third world title in as many weight divisions beating Victor Callejas for the vacant WBC featherweight title. He retained his crown after three defenses against Tyrone Downes (TKO 5), Georgie Navarro (TKO 5) and Marcos Villasana (UD 12). Two non-title fights preceded his climb to the super-featherweight ranks ---wins over Mario Martinez (UD 12) and John Kalbhenn (TKO 4).
At the Mirage Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada on June 28, 1991, Jeff Fenech (25-0-1) met his match in Ghanian great Azuma Nelson (33-2-0). Eager to grab the WBC super-featherweight crown, Fenech pressed the action with his swarming style and had Nelson backing up for most of the fight. Fenech stunned Nelson in the 12th round, but the intelligent Nelson survived. The bout was declared a split draw much to the disappointment of Fenech, ringside observers along with his friend Mike Tyson who was to fight Razor Ruddock on the main event.
Fenech and Nelson would meet two more times, with the Ghanian Professor travelling to Sydney twice. Their rematch happened on March 11, 1992, with Nelson scoring a TKO 8 over Fenech. In his finale, sixteen years later, Jeff Fenech finally got his revenge in The Grudge Match on June 24, 2008.
While training his fighters in Bangkok, Thailand, Jeff Fenech was rushed to the hospital by his team. He was found to be suffering from a lung infection which affected his heart. From reports, he underwent open-heart surgery to repair and replace an infected cardiac valve. He also underwent thoracentesis, a procedure to drain fluid between the lungs and the chest wall. The three-time world champion showed his mettle recovering well enough to see his daughter Jess’ wedding back home in Australia (based on the report by Kylie Stevens, The Daily Mail, Australia, October 9, 2019).
Jeff Fenech and Mike Tyson have remained friends since 2005. Fenech trained Mike Tyson when he came out of retirement. Iron Mike and his wife Lakiha checked on Fenech as he recovered from heart surgery. (Mark Bouris related to The Daily Telegraph, October2019)
More recently, Fenech trained Tyson again for his exhibition fight against Roy Jones, Jr.
Jeff Fenech launched a clothing apparel that bears his last name.
At age 57, he remains one of the most respected trainers in the fight game.
Notes: It is with gratitude and honor to hear from Mr. Jeff Fenech. Congratulations on your recovery from heart surgery. Thank you for the kind quotes and your approval for the photos in this article. As we Filipinos say, Mabuhay (Long Live) to you and your family!
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