First Australian Boxer To Win A World Title

Lionel Rose

Lionel Edmund Rose was the first indigenous Australian boxer to win a world title. He was born on 21 June, 1948 at Jacksons Track, an aboriginal settlement near Warragul in Victoria, Australia. Rose was the eldest of nine children and had a tough childhood. He learnt to box from his father, Roy, who used to box on the tent-show circuit, taking on all-comers at big agricultural shows. It is said that the young Rose sparred with his hands wrapped in rags and with the ring defined by fencing wire stretched between trees.

At the age of ten, press photographer Graham Walsh befriended Rose. Walsh encouraged the young fighter and bought him his first set of gloves. When about 15, Rose began to train with Frank Oakes, a Warragul trainer. He later married Frank's daughter, Jenny. Rose won his first major fight at Melbourne's Festival Hall in 1963, the day after his father died.

Boxing gloves(56025)Credit: Wikimedia

At 15, Rose won the Australian amateur flyweight title. After Rose missed selection for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, he turned professional. This decision was taken in part by the necessity for him to help support his family. He was now training under legendary trainer, Jack Rennie. In September 1964 outpointed Mario Magriss over eight rounds. Most of Rose's fights from this point were in Melbourne. Rose was helped by Jack and Shirley Rennie. He stayed with them in Melbourne and trained in their backyard gym.

Rose had five straight wins before losing on points in six rounds to Singtong Por Tor. Later that year, 1965, he fought in Christchurch, New Zealand, beating Laurie Ny over ten rounds. Over the next nine fights, he lost once to Ray Perez. On 28 October 1966, he met Noel Kunde at Melbourne and won the Australian bantamweight title, beating Kunde in a 15 round match.

After winning another fight in 1966 and eight in 1967, Rose challenged Fighting Harada for the world bantamweight title. The bout was held in Tokyo. With this win over 15 rounds, Rose became the first aboriginal Australian world champion boxer. Rose was an instant national hero in Australia and an icon to his people. It is estimated that 250,000 people lined the streets to cheer the 19 year old. Rose said he never forgot the reception he received especially as only ten had been there to see them leave for Tokyo! After being driven through the streets, Rose was accorded a public reception at Melbourne Town Hall.

In July of the same year, 1968, he returned to Tokyo to retain his crown with a win over Takao Sakurai. Rose then went to the United States to defend his title. While there, Elvis Presley sneaked into his gym to watch Rose train and to meet him. Rose later said 'I was in awe of him, but he said he was in awe of me'.

A points win over Chucho Castillo in Inglewood, California on 6 December infuriated the pro-Castillo crowd. The ensuing riot resulted in 14 fans and the fight referee being hospitalised. In 1968, Rose achieved another first for an aboriginal Australian. He was named Australian of the Year. He was also appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE).

In March 1969, he again defended his title against Alan Rudkin but in August he lost the world bantamweight title to Rubin Olivares at Inglewood, California. Although he then had a few losses against little-known fighters, causing some to say he was finished as a fighter, in 1970 he upset Itshimatsu Suzuki who was to become a future world lightweight champion. He was now a world title challenger but had moved up to the lightweight division. Rose lost to Jeff White for the Australian lightweight title then lost to world junior lightweight champion Yoshiaki Numata on 30 May 1971 at Hiroshima. Rose then announced his retirement.

Rose had always loved singing and playing his guitar. An appearance on a TV variety show in 1969 led to the recording of an album. A single 'I Thank You' topped the Australian country charts for 32 weeks. Another modest hit was 'Please Remember Me'. 'I Thank You' was produced and written by Johnny Young.

Rose came out of retirement in 1975. He lost four of his next six fights and decided to retire permanently. As a professional boxer, Rose's record stood at 42 wins (12 by knockout) and 11 losses.

Once retired Rose had a successful career in business although he suffered bouts of ill-health and alcoholism. In 1966, Rose presented his world-title belt to another aboriginal Australian, Tjandamuaa O'Shane, a youngster who had been badly burned, hoping that it might help him fight his injuries. Rose always believed he would die young and had his first heart attack at 39.

In 1991, a TV mini-series was made based on his life. Like his biography which came out in the same year, it was entitled 'Rose Against the Odds'. In 2003, the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame was established with Rose as its inaugural inductee. In 2005, his boxing gloves featured on an Australia Post stamp and he was awarded the Ella Lifetime Achievement Award for Contribution to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Sport. Two years later, a stroke left Rose with speech and movement difficulties. A feature-length documentary Lionel premiered at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2008. The documentary was completed by Melbourne film-maker Eddie Martin after nearly three years of interviews with Rose, his family and friends.

Rose was an inspiration to all Australians but particularly to his own people. He helped change racial attitudes. Despite his humble, poverty-stricken beginnings, he inspired his people to believe in themselves. Rose, like Namatjira, remained humble and gentle despite his fame. Both were a tribute and a great inspiration to their race.

Rose died on 8 May 2011 after a short illness.

Only three other Australian-born fighters have won a world title overseas. Jeff Harding, Jimmy Carruthers and Daniel Geale all won world titles with Daniel Geale defeating German Sebastian Sylvester for the IBF middleweight title on the day that Lionel Rose died.

Aboriginal athlete, Cathy Freeman, said after his death that Rose 'created a path for indigenous athletes to walk proudly'. Lionel Rose was a champion in every sense of the word.