THE BIG HURT: Jeff Fenech on the Rampage in the 1980s


 

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Here come the man
With the look in his eye
Fed on nothing
But full of pride
Look at them go
Look at them kick
Makes you wonder how the other half live

The devil inside
The devil inside
Every single one of us the devil inside

INXS

 
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The closest thing to 1970s Roberto Duran in the 1980s, Jeff Fenech brawled his way to championships in three divisions despite having hands as fragile as Noguchi lamps. Swindled out of an Olympic medal during the 1984 Games by a star chamber known as the International Jury—which reversed the official decision of the ringside judges after his victorious flyweight quarterfinals bout—a bitter Fenech turned pro and conquered the IBF bantamweight title within six months of his ring debut. Unlike other neophyte champions of the time—Davey Moore, for example—Fenech was successful for years against quality opposition. Among the fighters he defeated during his bruising career were Steve McCrory, Daniel Zaragoza, Jerome Coffee, Marcos Villasana, Victor Callejas, Greg Richardson, and a faded Carlos Zarate.

A ferocious pressure fighter with an uncompromising will, Fenech invariably bludgeoned his opponents into submission. At least he did when he had the equipment to do so. More often than not, however, Fenech had to fight with his brittle knuckles splintered in his wraps. Against Marcos Villasana, for example, he broke both hands but went on to grit out a decision in Melbourne. “Since I live in Australia, nobody really knows how bad my hands are, and what I’ve had to go through,” Fenech told KO in 1991. “I’ve stayed awake in the hospital after fights and been in more pain than at in any time in my life. After I fought Victor Callejas, I mostly cried all night, I was in such pain.”

Eventually, Fenech was unable to spar more than a few rounds per training camp—and even then cortisone shots were necessary. By 1990, Fenech had retired from boxing to pursue rugby. But driven by the urge to become one of a handful of fighters to win championships in four different weight divisions—not the cinch it is today—Fenech returned to challenge peerless Azumah Nelson in 1991. But that would be later, after numberless surgeries, months of inactivity, and countless extracurricular scraps.

 

fenech workout

 

In 1987, Fenech obliterated Samart Payakaroon in four rounds to win the WBC junior featherweight title. Payakaroon, a Muay Thai champion and a national hero in Thailand after beating Lupe Pintor and Juan Meza in consecutive fights, brought his dashing nonchalance and playboy sneer to New South Wales. After Fenech was through with him, however, Payakaroon was ready for the Asian equivalent of Palookaville. First, Payakaroon had to be taken to the hospital after he regained consciousness at the Entertainment Centre. Then police had to restrain an angry mob when he arrived at the airport in Bangkok. Add to that the fact that the President of Thailand telephoned to berate poor Payakaroon and you had the makings of yet another boxing tragicomedy. But could things get any stranger? Not surprisingly, the answer is: you have to be kidding, right? Payakaroon was so rattled by his nightmare ordeal that he entered a monastery. And all because of Jeff Fenech, vicious as a starving Dingo, as omnipresent in the ring as the heat is in Marble Bar, who warred like a man with the devil inside.

By the time Fenech answered the opening bell against Azumah Nelson in 1991, he was already past his peak. But not even that was enough to keep the “Marrickville Mauler” from dishing out a 12-round beating that Las Vegas judges somehow scored a draw. When the decision was announced, Fenech—former gang member, reform school student, and police blotter mainstay—embraced his son under the unforgiving lights and wept his grief away. It was the last time Jeff Fenech seemed immortal in the ring.

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