I first became aware of Jeff Fenech after reading an article about him in one of the many popular boxing rags of the day, sometime back in early 1987. “The Marrickville Mauler”, the moniker most often attributed to Fenech, was an undeniable phenomenon in his homeland of Australia, but to the vast majority of boxing fans of that period around the globe and certainly here in North America, he was mostly just a name with a title belt fighting mostly Down Under.
In one of those articles he was described by the writer as a “Mini Marciano” after a particularly impressive win. It was then that I decided that I had to see for myself just what the hoopla was all about. I scoured the various sources with whom I periodically ordered VHS tapes of the hard to find fights and fighters of the day until I came up with a connection in Rockhampton, Australia. I paid a relatively steep premium for the privilege of setting my eyes on “The Marrickville Mauler” in action, hoping that I’d get something noteworthy and perhaps even colorful in return. When the slow boat from China finally arrived and I had my tapes, I wasn’t disappointed.
I was amazed at the whirlwind attack and technique Fenech displayed despite being a relative greenhorn. I found it mind boggling that a 6-0 fighter would be a mandatory fighter in line for a title shot. Sure, at the time the bantamweight division wasn’t particularly deep, but he had only fighting as a pro for some six months when given his first title opportunity. In hindsight, being made the IBF number one contender almost certainly assured a fast track to the opportunity.
It must be pointed out that Jeff Fenech earned the ranking with impressive showings as opposed to being brought into a situation to serve as cannon fodder, such as Mike Weaver was with his WBC Heavyweight Championship title shot against Larry Holmes, or perhaps more fittingly, when Leon Spinks took the opportunity to face an aging Muhammad Ali despite being ill prepared for the world stage. In Jeff Fenech’s case, the seasoning was already there despite the brevity of his record and experience.
“The Marrickville Mauler” did not disappoint, out working and ultimately overpowering Satoshi Shingaki in nine rounds to win the IBF Bantamweight Title in April 1985. Four months later, Fenech underlined the initial win over Shingaki by overwhelming the former champ in their rematch, this time ending matters in just four rounds. Notice had been served to the boxing world. Fenech wasn’t just there to keep the WBC Title belt warm. He was active between title bouts with explosive wins in non-title tune-ups and improving with every showing. Sharpness was a given for his title defenses and he took the role of being an active champion seriously.
Other matches I was sent equally impressed me. In his second defense, Fenech was taken the fifteen round championship distance for the first time with a tactical and at-times action packed win over the seasoned and undefeated American, Jerome Coffee. Despite Coffee’s 26-0 record and sturdy pedigree, “The Marrickville Mauler” made it look easy, demonstrating marked professionalism and patience once it became apparent that the challenger wasn’t about to be sent to the showers early. Watching it, I had to remind myself that Fenech only had eleven fights to his credit by that point. He had the look and composure of a seasoned veteran.
Fenech’s third title defense was another impressive point of note. He stopped Steve McCrory, the much hyped 11-0-1 American hopeful that had won the Flyweight gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics, chopping him down in fourteen rounds.
By the time “The Marrickville Mauler” had moved-up to one-hundred and twenty-two pounds to challenge the undefeated Samart Payakaroon for the WBC Super Bantamweight Title in the spring of 1987, North America and the rest of the world was beginning to take notice. Fenech managed to notch his second major world title, in a second weight class, in less than three years of fighting as a professional. After trouncing Payakaroon in four rounds, he would go on to make two defenses of that title, the only blip being a disappointing four round technical draw with the 66-2 Carlos Zarate after a clash of heads.
In early 1988, Fenech won the WBC Featherweight Title with a tenth round stoppage victory over Victor Callejas, ultimately going on to make three defenses of that title over the next two years. In late 1989, after yet another jump-up in weight, Fenech faced Mario Martinez in a twelve round WBC Super Featherweight Title Eliminator, a bout in which Fenech had to climb off of the canvas in round six to pull out a stiff points win.
If the fire and ambition of his earlier years still burned deep within, the power he displayed at Bantam and Super Bantamweight was no longer as effective against the larger men he was facing at the higher weight. Regardless, the win positioned “The Marrickville Mauler” for a shot at the reigning WBC Super Featherweight Champion and a certified, if aging great in Azumah Nelson.
I remember attending the live closed circuit telecast for this bout in mid-1991 at a stifling venue in downtown Toronto. It was the chief feature on the under card of the Mike Tyson/Razor Ruddock rematch. Fenech was the decided favorite going into the bout. Nelson had been showing signs of slowing down for some time and many had him pegged as being ripe to be taken. In the bout, Fenech displayed his usual fire, forcing the match throughout, but intermittently, Nelson’s sharp counters would find the mark, momentarily disrupting Fenech’s forward surge and rhythm. As it would later turn out, Nelson’s periodic offerings were enough, ultimately, to cloud the issue, at least in the minds of the three judges at ringside.
From my humble vantage point, “The Marrickville Mauler” looked to have done enough to walk away with another title and the win, but fate had its say and decided differently, calling the bout a draw. I recall the bitter disappointment Fenech displayed during the post fight interview. Those seated around me were perplexed. Whispers of “Don King” and “fix” flirted with my ears.
In hindsight, this was the bout where I felt “The Marrickville Mauler” made his last appearance. I believe the fire that fueled him had been choked in the utter disappointment of the outcome, and from that point on, it appeared to me that something in Fenech’s game was gone forever. To this day, I always think of Jeff Fenech’s initial challenge of Azumah Nelson as “The Marrickville Mauler’s” last stand even though it wasn’t a defeat.
Almost a year after the their first meeting, Fenech and Nelson crossed swords once again, this time on Jeff’s home turf in Victoria, Australia. Going into it, the general expectation among those in the know was that Fenech would make right the wrongs of the first outcome. Circumstance was seemingly in his corner. The bout was in Australia and Azumah Nelson was nine months older and that much closer to retirement. But circumstance doesn’t always have first say in the sport of boxing and as Nelson went on to prove in their return and later in a few other notable bouts over his Hall of Fame career, he wasn’t about to be out done.
“The Professor” was one of the special ones, a fighter able to perform in surprisingly explosive fashion in rematches, late into his career. For the rematch, he laid to rest the question as to who was the best super featherweight on the planet, emphatically stopping remnants of the man that seemingly routed him months earlier, in eight rounds. I didn’t see the match live, only finding out the outcome via a two line results recap in the Toronto Sun a day or so after the fact. When a copy of the match finally arrived, my suspicions looked to be true. “The Marrickville Mauler” was long gone. All that was left were remnants of Jeff Fenech. Something indeed was lost, never again to be recaptured, lost forever in June of 1991 after the disappointment of the first Nelson match.
After the loss to Nelson in their rematch, Fenech fought just four more times over the next four years, going 2-2, losing notably to the former IBF Featherweight Champion Calvin Grove in seven inglorious rounds, then later to IBF Lightweight Champion Phillip Holiday in two. It was a sad and emphatic ending to a brilliant career.
In 2002, Jeff Fenech was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, New York. Over the past several years, his name has been linked with fighters such as former IBF Flyweight champion Vic Darchinyan, super middleweight contender Sakio Bika and the former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, “Iron” Mike Tyson, in the role of boxing trainer. In his homeland, Down Under, he enjoys celebrity status after easily becoming arguably one of the preeminent names in Australian boxing of all time.
In today’s torrid climate of pugilism, it seems as though the mantle of “greatness” is bestowed far too early on a given fighter after a couple of notable wins. For younger fans looking back, I would suggest a review of “The Marrickville Mauler’s” spectacular ring career. It’s an example of fierce determination, hunger, focus, ferocity, grit and unwavering ring character fused with finely honed ring craft. Jeff Fenech’s rise to the championship level was very quick. His tenure at the top was not. It was drawn-out like the campaigns of past greats before him, simply because like them, he too was truly a great fighter.