"Flick, flick, flick, like a snake’s tongue."
That’s how they talked about Lionel Rose’s left jab. The way it kept coming at you. Rhythmic, relentless. Smashing hard against chin and ribs. Crunching on the bone.
He’d learnt to punch like that back in Jacksons Track, when he was the oldest of nine kids living in a bark hut. All the boys were crazy about boxing, but Lionel breathed the sport. Wanted to know everything there was to know about the art of knocking a grown man senseless. Later on he’d say he was throwing punches before he could walk: “As soon as I was old enough to hold my hands up, [Dad] started to teach me.”
And it was that same punch that made the impossible happen, taking him eight thousand miles from home to Tokyo to fight for the world title.
27 February 1968, dead of a Japanese winter.
He was nineteen years old.
It was a fight that stopped the country. Years on, people would remember precisely where they’d been when the young Australian stepped into the ring against the great Japanese champion Masahiko ‘Fighting’ Harada:
“I was glued to the radio in my brother's bedroom…”
“I was listening on an old Bakelite radio at Lindrum’s Billiard and Snooker Hall in Flinders Lane Melbourne ...When the fight started, Lindrum’s went deathly quiet …”
For his part, Rose said he was nervous, but "not much" as he took in the crowd of 14,000 at the Budokan, the three local judges. Then, the bell rang and it was all up to him. That was the loneliest feeling in the world:
"All the best trainers and supporters in the world can't help you once it's started".
Harada didn’t hesitate. He came at Lionel from every direction, lunging and hurling and slinging. Somehow the Australian was never shaken. He knew what to do.
Pretty soon he’d worked himself into the rhythm he’d maintain for the next forty-five minutes: flick, flick, flick. Two left jabs followed by a right to Harada's chin. Thwack of a fist right on the bone.
The pictures in the papers the next day were their own kind of shorthand; the beads of sweat breaking on Lionel’s forehead mid-fight. His arms raised high in victory. That smile. His satin shorts spattered with the blood of the Japanese champion.
The headline: Lionel is the World Champ.
Australia went nuts.
“The reception that greeted Australia's first Indigenous world champion as the door of the DC-9 opened was unlike anything ever seen in this country,“ said veteran boxing writer Grantlee Kieza. An estimated 250,000 people turned out. “Nobody—not The Beatles, not the Queen, not the recent visitor to Melbourne, US President Lyndon Johnson—had ever drawn a cheering crowd like Lionel did.”
Asked about that reception, Rose focused in on his mum’s face in that crowd.
“We didn't have to say anything,” he told The Age.
“She just said: ‘You've done well, son.’
And I said: 'It was sweet, wasn't it.'”
I’m Your Man explores the diverse history of some of Australia’s best-known boxing legends and utilises innovative technology to create a fully interactive and immersive experience. Enter the ring and fight alongside the boxers at: www.sbs.com.au/imyourman