The Marrickville Muler Unmasked

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The Marrickville Muler Unmasked

Post  shakefree on Fri Sep 28, 2012 4:21 pm

HIS blood was all over me, spurting from a huge divot in his face opened by the base of a bottle being wielded like a club.

You could see right down to the exposed jawbone as the hot summer breeze wafted over the road from Botany Bay.

Jeff Fenech was spitting abuse at the police trying to take a statement from him outside a restaurant he half-owned in Brighton-Le-Sands.

He had grown up on the wrong side of the law and old habits die hard. He wasn’t going to give anyone up and was refusing to co-operate as the sirens of a rushing ambulance came closer.

Instead, fuelled by a belly full of $500-a-bottle Penfold’s Grange and the adrenalin coursing through him, he had turned feral, promising to hand out his own justice to the four assailants who had tried to blind him. He had to be restrained as he tried to run down the road after the speeding cars carrying the four men who had just attacked him.

As ambulance officers stopped the bleeding, Fenech’s wife Suzee cried her eyes out.

Four days after New Year’s Eve, 2004, he had been in a buoyant mood as he invited me and some other friends, including the footballer Mario Fenech, to celebrate his new restaurant venture and the recent success in Montreal of Danny Green, the first world champion he had trained.

While Fenech’s guests feasted inside, he was skylarking on the footpath outside, getting into a scuffle with a bunch of louts. After his friends and the ambulance men calmed him down, I mentioned to Fenech that brawling in public wasn’t such a good look for a sports star.

He was still thinking over the advice as he travelled to the Prince of Wales Hospital for plastic surgery, where his first visitor was close friend and Kings Cross identity John Ibrahim. Doctors told Fenech that a centimetre higher and he would have had a glass eye. But he was more interested in his reputation as a fighter.

A couple of hours past midnight, he rang from the hospital, pleased that he had given me a front-page exclusive, but with something weighing heavily on his mind.

“What do you think of the fight?’’ he asks. “How do you reckon I went?’’

A few months later, seven bullets roared through the walls of his Five Dock house.

“I sometimes rolled with the wrong people,’’ Fenech says. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes in life.’’

He’s rushing around the huge Five Dock pleasure palace where he has lived for 25 years, a quarter of a century in which he acquired an eclectic circle of friends from the likes of media heavyweights James Packer and David Gyngell to fighters such as Marvin Hagler and Evander Holyfield.

Even the wasted Jackass Johnny Knoxville could once be found sprawled on his couch watching Fenech’s favourite football team, the Parramatta Eels, and wondering aloud what it would be like to get trampled by Eric Grothe Jr as a stunt for one of his shows.

Fenech has lived here since he won the second of his three world titles and shares the home with his wife and two of his three children, daughters Jessica, 18, and Kayla, 16. Son Beau, 22, lives with his mother.

Today, he’s talking at the speed of sound about another boxing tribute.

The president of the World Boxing Council, Jose Sulaiman, has named Fenech as one of the 12 World Boxing Legends of modern times, along with Sugar Ray Leonard, Thomas Hearns, Mike Tyson, Julio Cesar Chavez, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Larry Holmes, Lennox Lewis, Roberto Duran, Oscar De La Hoya, and Fenech’s great rival Azumah Nelson.

“It’s an enormous honour,’’ Fenech says. “To be named alongside those guys is great for me and for the sport in Australia. Roberto Duran was always a favourite. People say I fought a lot like him with that sort of intensity and drive.’’

The 12 “Legends’’ come together this Saturday night on the red carpet at the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas on a fund-raising exercise to help boxers less fortunate than the little bloke I labelled The Marrickville Mauler back in 1984.

Back then he lived in a tiny flat in Livingstone Rd, Marrickville, and drove a hotted up Toyota Celica. For nearly two decades, Fenech symbolised the reckless, larrikin fighting spirit of Australia, a scrawny battler who grew up in St Peters and Marrickville and brought a streetfighter’s rage into the ring.

At his peak he was an irresistible force, but he admits that once the final bell sounded on his glory days he became his own worst enemy.

There was the shooting at his house, the fiasco in a Gold Coast jewellery store that saw him plead guilty in 2007 to theft of two cheap watches and a front page in The Daily Telegraph in 2009 in which his lifelong mate Peter Mitrevski labelled him “a dog’’ after losing a tooth in a punch up.

There have been other run-ins too, and a fighter who was fuelled by ego as much as angst feels real pain over his tarnished reputation.

“It hurts me that some people now think less of my sporting achievements because of the mistakes I’ve made outside of the ring,’’ Fenech says.

“Everybody makes mistakes – everybody has done things they’re not proud of – and I’ve made plenty of mistakes in life. Who knows, I might make even more. But you can’t take away what I achieved in boxing. No one can do that.

“I loved to compete. I loved to make my family and Australia proud. I loved the cheering – I loved the fact I came from nothing and made it big.

“I had to have painkillers before just about every fight. Most of the time I fought with busted hands. You tell me one other athlete that won a big race with a torn hamstring – tell me another fighter who won three world titles on painkillers.

“And tell me one who didn’t just beat great opponents – (Carlos) Zarate, (Daniel) Zaragoza, (Marcos) Villasana, (Mario) Martinez – but battered them every round.’’

Since Fenech, now 48, had his first amateur fight 31 years ago, he has been promoting himself and his brand, networking himself around the world to parlay every ounce of his fame into an income.

He bought the house in Five Dock after bowling over Samart Payakaroon, a Thai southpaw with a big left hand and a massive headache after Fenech left him a quivering wreck on the canvas of the Sydney Entertainment Centre in 1987.

He had the house remodelled and renovated several times and a few years ago thought “what the hell’’ and spent a million or two knocking it down and rebuilding it, with a state-of-the art gymnasium in the back just in case he ever thought about fighting again.

At his peak, everyone wanted a piece of him, but he says his indiscretions outside the ring wrecked his business importing boxing gloves bearing the “Fenech’’ brand. His name became damaged goods.

“I made a mistake and I got punished by a company that I helped get a start in boxing,’’ he says. “But everyone makes mistakes. Mike Tyson made mistakes, too, but I’m proud that I helped him turn his life around.’’

Fenech v Nelson - 1992

Jeff Fenech (R) lands a left hand punch during the match against Azumah Nelson at Princes Park in Melbourne, Victoria 01/03/1992. Picture: Martin Johnston Source: The Daily Telegraph

Fenech met Tyson in 1987 at a boxing function in the US when both were at their marauding best, Tyson as the youngest heavyweight champion of all time and Fenech as the most successful fighter ever from Australia.

The pair were kindred spirits who understood each other’s inner turmoil. And both were guided by father figures who harnessed their brute strength and raw rage into something manageable and marketable for sports fans.

Fenech helped his friend through the darkest times that gripped a man who by his own admission was half human, half animal, capable of quoting Machiavelli and Shakespeare but doing three years in jail for rape and blowing $400 million in earnings.

Fenech trained him for his last professional fight, swapping notes with Muhammad Ali in the dressing room. And seven years later Tyson remains an unabashed fan.

“Jeff Fenech, oh boy,’’ Tyson says. “He’s a great friend. And you’re talking about the greatest fighter ever from Australia. A great, great champion, guts, strength and power.’’

Fenech is involved in bringing Tyson to Australia next month and is embarking on a plan to sell Mike Tyson apparel around the world.

He’s just back from Thailand, where he’s been stitching up a deal to have Tyson clothing and gloves manufactured.

While there, he also spent time putting controversy-prone Olympian John Steffensen through his paces and says he would love to train him if the 30-year-old 400m runner ever took up boxing full-time.

When his fighting days were over, Fenech turned to sharing his knowledge gained from 20 years at the top with one of the best fighting stables ever assembled in Australia.

At various times, he coached Daniel Geale, Danny Green, Vic Darchinyan, Billy Dib, Nedal and Hussy Hussein, Nader Hamdan, Sakio Bika, Lovemore Ndou, Adam Watt, Glen and Kevin Kelly, Shannan Taylor and Garth Wood.

But nothing ever gave him the sense of pride he still has in a boxing career that began in 1981 with an Erskineville signwriter named Johnny Lewis at the Police Boys Club around the corner from Newtown railway station.

Their partnership has been stretched and strained and they haven’t spoken for Fenech doesn’t know how long in an off-on situation going back 20 years. But together the pair worked magic as Fenech made the Olympic Games team for Los Angeles in 1984 and rode a wave of national furore after he was denied a medal by some myopic judging.

He turned professional and with an incandescent will and perpetual aggression won a world title in record time, knocked out the gold medallist from the Olympics then set all sorts of fighting milestones by becoming the first Australian to hold two world championships, the first man from anywhere to win three while undefeated.

His controversial 1991 draw with Azumah Nelson in Las Vegas, which most experts felt he deserved to win, robbed him of a fourth world title and broke his fighting heart, sending his career into a nosedive.

“I think part of Jeff died that day,’’ Lewis said later. “He lost that spark that made him invincible and I don’t think he ever had that same competitive fire again.’’

Fenech was 44 when he got the urge to fight again in 2008 in a bid for redemption against Nelson.

He enticed the 50-year-old Ghanian to Australia for a final fling and crowded his own dressing-room with the likes of Shane Warne and another close friend Mick Gatto, who has a painting of Fenech on the wall of his fortified Melbourne home and is best known for killing his one-time pal, the underworld hitman Benji Veniamin.

In a surreal fight performed in slow motion, the two old battlers slugged it out with all the force their ageing bodies could manage and Fenech took a close decision and revenge.

In the bizarre world of boxing, Tyson, convicted rapist and human tank, has established himself as a comedian of some renown in the US, and now wants to sing and dance in musicals.

Fenech, probably the most vicious boxer Australia has produced, says he’s a changed man, too.

The fighter who once threatened to break a least one newspaper photographer’s legs is now touting himself as an ambassador for a Tasmanian based anti-bullying organisation called Angels Goal.

“I admit I’ve always had a short fuse,” he says, “but people change.

“Things are different. In the old days, I’d have an argument with someone and fight and never give it a second thought.

“But my eldest daughter, Jessica, has been a victim of bullying and I know how much it hurts her.

“As parents we have to show kids that bullying is wrong. I want to spread the message that bullying damages so many young people.’’

Some 30 years after he threw his first legal punch in the boxing ring, Fenech still has not exorcised all his demons, but he’s working at it.

In the most brutal and ugly of sports Fenech became a national hero because he was able to dig deep and find beneath its layers of cruelty, avarice and spite that precious kernel of courage and determination that makes boxing the heavyweight champion of sports according to George Foreman, who will be one of the legends at Fenech’s table in Las Vegas.

Over the years Fenech has fallen out with seemingly everyone who stood by him, patched things up again and then fallen out with them once more.

But in his quiet moments, he sits and thinks about the things that made him and his country proud.

He thinks for a while and a tear comes to his eye. The reply almost chokes in his throat.

“Johnny Lewis,’’ he says. “He made me believe in myself. Made me think I was invincible. Made me believe I could achieve anything. Johnny Lewis always brought out the best in me.’’



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