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New Dick Tiger, Nephew of Old Champ, Is Great Nigerian Hope

September 24, 1986|STEVE SPRINGER | Times Staff Writer

Dick Tiger.

To old-time boxing fans, the mere mention of the name conjures an image of controlled savagery, of a relentless attacker, of a . . . well, of a tiger.

His real name was Richard Ihetu. He was born to poverty, the son of a Nigerian chicken farmer. But he used incredible reflexes and strength to forge a better life in the ring. He won the Nigerian middleweight championship, went to England where he won the British Empire middleweight title, then came to the United States in 1959.

In 1962, he won the world middleweight crown from Gene Fullmer, later added the light heavyweight championship and went on to amass a 61-17-3 record before retiring in 1970. Ihetu died in 1971 of liver cancer at the age of 42.

Those who saw him fight figured they'd never see his like again.

Charles Nwokolo was seven years old in 1971. He knew his uncle, Dick Tiger, was a fighter. But at the time, his mind was preoccupied with fighting of a different, more serious nature. His nation had been racked by civil war from 1967-70, and his main concern was the family car and other possessions that had been confiscated by soldiers.

By the time his uncle died, the war was over and Nwokolo, his family having survived the conflict, was ready to turn his attention to sports. His first passion was soccer, and it wasn't until his teens that he discovered boxing.

When he did, his father was horrified. James Nwokolo was Dick Tiger's brother.

"He didn't want me to fight," Nwokolo said. "He thought his brother had died from boxing. I explained to him that he had died from cancer. Then he felt better."

James Nwokolo's enthusiasm for his son's sport increased even more when he saw the youngster win 84 of 91 amateur fights and nearly win a medal in the 1984 Olympic Games.

Fighting in the light welterweight division, Nwokolo reached the quarterfinals at the Los Angeles Sports Arena before losing a 3-2 decision to Jorge Maisonet of Puerto Rico.

Nwokolo felt he had been robbed. He wasn't alone. A member of the Nigerian delegation marched down to the scorer's table and smashed a ceremonial cane down on it.

The cane did not bend.

Neither did the judges.

There were some verbal threats by the Nigerians about pulling out of the Olympic competition, but no formal action was taken.

Disgusted, Nwokolo returned home and soon turned professional. He hasn't lost since.

Charles Nwokolo, like his uncle before him, has come to America in search of a world title. He has won all 14 of his professional fights, 12 by knockout, and is the African welterweight champion.

He has even taken his uncle's fighting name, legally changing his own to Young Dick Tiger.

Those who remember the original see the same features and mannerisms in Young Dick Tiger. The question is, are the skills the same?

"Everybody has told me this kid is an animal," promoter Don Chargin says. "He can really fight. He's the best thing to come out of Nigeria since the original Dick Tiger. Either he's able to fight or the people I've been talking to are all crazy. He's a good all-around fighter, a banger and a boxer. When you're told, 'Get me any opponent,' you know the guy must be a good fighter."

It shouldn't take long to find out. Young Dick Tiger makes his American debut tonight at the Universal Sheraton Hotel in Universal City, fighting in the 10-round main event against Rigo Lopez (15-1, eight knockouts) of San Diego.

"We figure after Wednesday night, he'll need maybe two more fights to get into the top 10 in the rankings," says Nnamdi Moweta, Tiger's manager. "Then, if champion Donald Curry should move up in weight, we would hope to be included in an elimination tournament for the title."

Tiger knows he won't impress anybody any longer by knocking out African opponents, so he has gone Hollywood. Literally. He is now living in Hollywood and plans to continue fighting in this country.

"He is an action fighter," Moweta says. "He can sting people with his punches and he's young. What else do you want?"

It's not quite that simple, according to his trainer, Bill Slayton. Slayton, who worked with former heavyweight champion Ken Norton, is working on the Americanization of Young Dick Tiger.

"He's a pretty strong kid, kind of a little on the mean side," Slayton says. "He'll fight. He will fight. He's got some talent and he takes a pretty good shot. But you have to see how he fares against our guys. He hasn't been tested. You can't judge him by his African record because the caliber of fighters is not the same. He has to build up his American record before you can evaluate him.

"He's like most European and African fighters. They don't go for the body, at least the side of the body, because that's not allowed over there. Once he learns how to deliver those punches, he should be pretty good.

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