A Ward and A Rose: A Tribute to Two Gone Champions
By Anton Santiago, Doghouse Boxing (May 16, 2011)  
Hang up the Boxing Gloves
In 2009, boxing lost three of it’s brightest stars with the deaths within weeks of Alexis Arguello, Arturo Gatti and Vernon Forrest. This week too, we have lost two great ones. For the record, Lionel Rose and Alice Ward did not do much as far as boxing history is concerned. But records barely ever tell the whole story.

Lionel Rose was an Aboriginal Australian. Now, if you are a minority in a country, you probably know what that meant to him. The Aborigines have been historically treated like the lowest of the human race by the majority of Australians. Not all White Australians are bad or racist, mind you, but among Australians, Aborigine people have had the worse for wear, having survived abusive working conditions, poisoning (by contamination of their water supply using arsenic and by way of introducing rum to their villages), hate, massacres and even “The Lost Generation”, period in which Australian Aborigine children were being kidnapped by the government so that they would not influence politics in the future, kind of like what happened in Chile during General Pinochet’s years and in Argentina during “The Dirty War” years of 1976 to 1983.

John Howard, former Prime Minister of Australia, seems to be a good man. In fact, I received an autograph personally from him a few years ago. But even Howard decided not to ask the great Aborigine people for forgiveness for all that was done to them by past members of the White race there. Kevin Ruud, in turn, made sure to do so when he became Prime Minister. Australians overall are changing their views and treatment of these well deserving people, and now laws protect them from any racial discrimination or attack.

Lionel Rose had a part in the change. Rose was a great fighter, but more importantly, he was a great human being who was fiercely proud of himself and his roots. He was the son of a fighter, born in a very poor area called Jackson’s Track, a full contrast with rich, modern Melbourne, which is only 50 miles away. That is the same Melbourne that only eight years after Rose’s birth in 1948 would host the Summer Olympic Games. Rose chose boxing to escape the dire conditions of his birthplace and the racism given towards his people. It seems that destiny and boxing itself also chose him .

Beginning on a badly set ring where safety was not a worry because there was none, Rose first put on his gloves at the age of 14. He was a prodigy. He trained up and progressed so fast that soon, he was at Jack Rennie’s Melbourne Gym, after having become the Australian National Amateur Flyweight champion and marrying Jenny Oakes, daughter of one of his early trainers.

Raking an impressive number of victories as a pro, and a couple of losses on the side, Rose became a prominent figure in Australia, winning the Australian Bantamweight title and defeating men like Noel Kunde and Rocky Galletari along the way. On February 27, 1968, Rose met International Boxing Hall of Fame member Masahiko “Fighting” Harada for the world Bantamweight title at Nihon Buhokan, Tokyo, Japan. Few outside Australian Aborigine gave Rose a chance, but he boxed, moved, danced and ducked on his way to an artistic, if aesthetically boring, 15 round unanimous decision win. A few days later, Rose arrived at Melbourne’s Tullamarine International Airport to be welcomed by 250,000 people, a Champion not just for Aboriginal people, but for the entire cpuntry of Australia.

He defended the title against excellent challenges from Tadao Sakurai, future world Champion Jesus “Chucho” Castillo-a wholly controversial 15 round split decision win in Los Angeles, California-and Alan Rudkin. All three world class challengers, and all three defeated on points. Then he returned to the United States, to take on one of the most fearsome punchers in history, Mexican bone breaker Ruben “Puas” Olivares. Rose took one of the most frightening beatings in the history of boxing, and after the fight, all newspapers and magazines praised Olivares, highlighting the way in which he stomped over the defending Champion. Lost in the reports was the way Lionel Rose stood for 5 rounds taking Hell and more, not wanting to lose his title that night. It was almost inhuman. Watching the fight recently on Youtube.com, I actually felt nauseous at such a beating. Yet Rose’s will let him stand to it, and it took a whole punishing from Olivares for his body to finally go down. Rose later went on to lose to 8 of his next 16 opponents, but those included Fernando Sotelo, Raul Cruz, Yoshuaki Numata in a challenge for the WBC world Junior Lightweight title, and future 2 time WBC world Junior Lightweight Champion Rafael “Bazooka” Limon. In the meantime, he actually defeated future WBC world Lightweight Champion “Guts” Itshimatsu Suzuki, by a ten round decision.

Rose enjoyed a singing career that yielded him more #1 hits in Australia than Oscar De La Hoya’s did in the United States, and he enjoyed a life of respect and harmony among other Australians of all kinds. This remarkable man, in 1996, donated his world Championship belt to another brave Aboriginal warrior, T’jandamurra O’Shane, who had been burned over 70 percent of his body as a six year old, in a still unexplained attack which was allegedly carried by a man named Paul Wade Streeton. Rose was also the recipient of an MBE, and the subject of an Australian film, named “Lionel”. In a way, he was like Jack Johnson and Joe Louis all wrapped into one: being the first Champion of his race, he managed to be a hero for all.

Alice Ward, meanwhile, was a champion in her very own style. Ward may have gone unnoticed by many, until her son Dick Ecklund became a good fighter and reasonably talented Middleweight challenger. Her other son, Micky Ward, gained wide celebrity after his three fights with Arturo Gatti, paving the way for Hollywood to pay him tribute with the movie “The Fighter”. Ward was one of the secondary characters in the movie but a first class character in real life. Feisty, intelligent in her own street-wise way, and never a quitter, Ward fought hard. She fought hard against the unwritten rule of no women in boxing. She fought the stereotype of the mother who cannot stand to watch her kids fight, actually being the manager of both Dick and Micky. In her own way, and perhaps without herself knowing it, she can be compared to Susan B. Anthony, WNBA basketball players and Gloria Steinem as women who would not take no for an answer. Like Jackie Kallen, Alice Ward survived in a world where being a woman may be seen as a sin, and she did it by putting her two sons’ best interests ahead of anything else. Most of the time, the fight behind the fight in boxing pits promoters against managers, and both of those against boxer him or herself. The manager calls the promoter an SOB, the promoter calls the manager an A-hole, the boxer says the manager or promoter stole from the fighter, the promoter or manager accuses the boxer of having spilled all the money earned, etc. It’s an un-merry-go-around. That’s why Alice Ward guided the careers of Dick Ecklund and of Micky Ward. Nobody like mom to tell you what line you need to take in life. Nobody like her to tell you when enough is enough.

As we all know now, and as was well documented back in the day by HBO, Dick Ecklund had hard times falling on drugs. That in itself was another battle that Alice Ward had to fight. Her and her son’s courageous fight against the evil but addicting world of drug usage was as painful to fight as any beating from Olivares, Mike Tyson or any other boxer in the world. Yet thanks in part to her love, Dick Ecklund is today an accomplished boxing trainer who has gained wide respect for beating his demons. She had to fight the hard times following Micky’s hand injury at the hands of a boneheaded police officer as Micky had to go through three years of surgery, hard work as a construction worker, and, probably, untold hours of dark depression since he possibly thought he would never again fight. Yet thanks in part to her love, he came back. He came back to beat Shea O’Nary for the-I have to admit, widely unrecognized-WBU Junior Welterweight title, as well as Emmanuel Augustus and Arturo Gatti in their first of three history making classics. He came back to write a book and become the inspiration behind the producing of “The Fighter”.

Alice Ward would not let Cancer beat her. But in the end, Cancer did take life away from the loving and caring woman. Not before she gave it her very best fight until the end, though. The Boston Herald later published that she gave up on her fight against the disease. They were wrong. Alice Ward went down as a willing fighter herself.

We just hope that with this tribute to their memories, our article can reflect, if just a bit, the type of humans that Lionel Rose and Alice Ward were.

May the Ward and the Rose rest in peace.

Please send all Questions and comments to Antonio at TJ69662094@aol.com.

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