My father absolutely loved Jeff Fenech. He observed that the Australian whirlwind was the closest thing he ever saw to Roberto Duran in terms of his fighting style and animal magnetism. Fenech was a relentless pressure fighter who, not unlike Duran, was seemingly tireless as he wore you down with body punches and rabid head movement. A style combined with an almost flawless prime that ultimately made him the 44th greatest fighter of the last 45 years.
After an incredible amateur career that saw Fenech get fleeced out of winning a medal at the 1984 Los Angelos Olympics when a fight he originally won by decision was overturned, the then 20-year-old Sydney, Australian native turned pro. Immediately, the Australian whirlwind made an impact, winning the IBF bantamweight title on April 26, 1985 by battering the Japanese world champion Satishi Shingakiinto submission in nine rounds. This was only six months after Jeff turned pro. At the time I was a high school junior who of course had no access to watching him fight. I had no choice but to follow the Ring Magazine monthly Asian reports filed by legendary Japanese boxing scribe Joe Koizumi. Koizumi’s description of Fenech’s ring exploits and dominance made me long to see him fight. Years later when I began to collect Fenech’s early fights on videotape, his explosiveness and dominance lived up to exactly what Koizumi reported.
Fenech’s two year reign as IBF bantamweight champion saw him destroy Shingaki in a rematch and on July 18, 1986 thoroughly defeated the man who won the Olympic gold medal that Fenech was robbed of fighting for, Detroit Kronk gym stalwart Steve McCrory. McCrory had defeated the Yugoslavian fighter Redzep Redzepovski, the same fighter who was given the gift win over Fenech, to win the gold medal. In front of a raucous crowd in his Sydney hometown, Fenech completely mauled and beat the slick boxer McCrory as though it was his fault that Fenech’s Olympic dreams were pilfered, before referee Paul Moore mercifully halted the fight in the 14th round. Four years later I finally got to see this fight along with five other Fenech fights on a videotape I bought from an Australian gentleman via mail. As my father and I watched this fight, we were in amazement at how incredible of an infighter Fenech was. Pop kept saying over and over again how the Australian dynamo reminded him of Duran. Not unlike Duran, Fenech was as fresh late in the fight as he was in round one.
On May 8, 1987, once again in front of his faithful Sydney fans, Fenech moved up to 122 pounds and captured the WBC title with a fourth round demolishing of the Thailand champion Samart Payakaroon. This was a complete one-sided beating that ended when Fenech landed two thunderous rights on the champion’s jaw that resulted in Payakaroon laying on the canvas motionless. Referee Arthur Mercante waved the fight off without registering a count. After two successful defenses of the 122-pound title, Fenech moved up to featherweight and on March 7, 1988, he challenged the Puerto Rican Victor Callejas for the WBC title that had been vacated by Azumah Nelson. In another virtuoso performance in front of his Sydney fans, Fenech stopped Callejas in the 10th round to win his third world title in less than four years as a pro. A few months shy of his 24th birthday, Fenech was already a three division world champion. The sky was the limit for Fenech, or so it seemed.
After successfully defending his WBC 126-pound title three times, Fenech moved up to 130 pounds to attempt to become a four division champion. He would get that opportunity in Las Vegas on the June 28, 1991 undercard of the Mike Tyson-Razor Ruddock rematch against the WBC super featherweight champion Nelson. My father told anyone who would listen that this would be the fight of the night. He felt, and I concurred, that the Tyson-Ruddock rematch was putrid and that the only reason he was going with me to my then girlfriend’s apartment to see the PPV was because of Fenech and Nelson. This was one of the rare occasions that the two greatest fighters ever born in different continents would fight each other, as Nelson was from the African country of Ghana and Fenech was from Australia. My father bet a coworker 200 dollars that Fenech would win. My father should’ve been 200 dollars richer after the fight ended.
Fenech put on an incredible display of infighting that night, landing constantly to Nelson’s rib cage and beating him to the punch over and over again. Nelson looked lethargic and much slower than the always energetic Fenech. After 12 rounds were over, my father couldn’t wait to go get the money he figured he had won. Unfortunately, in one of the worst decisions in the history of the sport, Nelson escaped with a draw and Fenech was denied his fourth world title. Pops was so angry that I had to stop him from punching a wall. Luckily for him that he didn’t bother to place a wager on the rematch that was held in Melbourne, Australia eight months later.
On March 1, 1992, in front of a huge and equally rabid Fenech fans in Melbourne, Australia, Nelson put on one of the greatest performances of his career. Nelson boxed the Australian great’s ears off, landing stiff left jabs and right cross counters at will against Fenech. Fenech looked to have lost a step since their first fight eight months prior and was talking a shellacking until referee Mercante stopped the fight in round eight. Ironically, despite being totally outclassed, Fenech was even on two of the three judges scorecards.
Fenech was never the same after the lost to Nelson. He looked even more listless a year later while getting stopped by Calvin Grove and announced his first retirement at the age of 29. Two years later he would embark on a comeback that after two fights secured him with another opportunity to win a fourth world title, this time on May 18, 1996 against the South African IBF lightweight champion Phillip Holiday. Once again in Melbourne he suffered a one-sided thrashing as Holiday stopped him in the second round. At 33, the years of fighting at such a relentless pace had left Fenech with absolutely nothing left in the gas tank, so he once again announced his retirement. Inexplicably, both Fenech and Nelson came out of retirement 12 years later to fight each other a third and final time. The soon to be 45-year-old Fenech defeated the soon-to-be 50 Nelson in a fight that should’ve been held in a nursing home, not in a Melbourne arena. Thankfully, neither man ever fought again after this monstrosity of an exhibition. More on the legendary Nelson’s career later.
The history of boxing has proven time and time again that fighters with ultra aggressive styles like Fenech flame out early. For all intents and purposes, the Australian legend was past his prime at the age of 28. Yet, from 1985-1991, Fenech was a dynamic pressure fighter who was as mentally and physically tough as any fighter who ever lived. Like the man my father compared him to, Roberto Duran, Fenech fought with an intensity that first suffocated and then drowned his opponents. Had he gotten the decision in his first fight against Nelson, there would’ve been a decent chance he would’ve finished higher than number 44 on my list of the 45 greatest fighters of the last 45 years. That being said, Fenech put his stamp as the greatest fighter that was ever born in Australia, finishing with a record of 29-3-1 with 21 knockouts.