I like to think I was just like Damon Runyon, the magnificent New York boxing writer and later short story writer. Actually, I was just a younger version of Nick Place, learning my trade, flexing my muscles as a writer, and covering boxing for The Herald newspaper (and later the Sunday Age). People often ask which sport I most enjoyed reporting on, and I always answer boxing, without having to think about it. I don’t know why but I love the barbaric sport. I still love hitting the bags for fitness, and sparring. I like the danger and the bravery and the fact that two (usually) incredibly fit athletes step into a ring with no defence but their skills and their fists, against an opponent who actively wants to hurt them. It doesn’t get much more pure than that. Throw in the circus that surrounds the fight game – with charismatic trainers and managers and dodgy types and homespun comedians and shady potential made men lining the walls and paying the bills … as a writer, it is rich, rich fodder. How can you not love a sport where one trainer (Lester Ellis’s brother, Keith) told a press conference: ‘Tony Miller is going to do to this guy what Mark Antony did to Cleopatra while Julius Caesar was out.’? Keith then snuck me a subtle glance, just checking I’d caught the line in my notebook. Gave the slightest of smiles when he saw my laughter.

So, I adored covering boxing and I always saw it, like most of my sportswriting, as entertainment writing. Readers follow sport for fun, for escape from everyday life, and I wrote it like that. I loved the freedom to land punchlines and to actually just write that sportswriting gives you, compared to, say, covering Federal politics where you should probably write it straight.

I got on well with Jeff Fenech and his entourage and was lucky enough to be writing during the last golden days of Australian boxing, when Fenech was a genuine champion of the world before the alphabet soup of myriad belts confused things. Fenech and Johnny Lewis were fantastic in allowing me to write this fight from a fly-on-the-wall perspective in the rooms before and after the fight. It required a lot of trust on their part. It also resulted in an unusual piece because I actually got to devote most of the words to everything but the world title fight itself.

I finally left the Toorak nightclub where the script from there for the rest of the night was fairly obvious, went back to the office and decided to get a start on the piece, so I wouldn’t have to stagger in at 6 am and try to write it, on three hours’ sleep, tops, in time for the 8.30 am deadline. It was well after midnight when I got to my desk. The monitor blinked at me that The Herald computer system would be shutting down in 45 minutes. I swore but thought, ok, just get down what you can while you can.

The article, as it ran in The Herald.
The article, as it ran in The Herald.

And so I tossed aside my notebook and just started to write, and write and write and write – a stream of consciousness more than a structured article. With about one minute to go, I hit save and send. The piece below is almost exactly as I wrote it, not even having time to properly read it back. Strangely, it was one of my favourite pieces ever; definitely one of the best sports features I ever wrote and amazingly well-structured given how it just poured out of me. Even if the sports editor, Geoff Slattery, yelled at me the next day for the cardinal newspaper sin of “burying the lead”, which was that Georgie Navarro had wanted to quit two rounds before it ended. But honestly, news sense at 1 am after a long, long day? Who was I? Bernstein?

I still love this piece and remain grateful to Fenech, Navarro, Lewis and Go Go’s trainer, Carmine Graziano, for giving me such rare access. The closest to Sports Illustrated I’ll ever get … (Clearly, the headline was by Geoff Slattery, not me.) I won a couple of boxing writing awards that year and I think it was this piece that got me the trophies.

(The Herald newspaper: Thursday, December 1, 1988)

Navarro wanted to toss it in

NICK PLACE goes behind the scenes to breathe in the atmosphere of Jeff Fenech’s world title defence.

It was just after 7 pm – three and a half hours before Arthur Mercante would step between Jeff Fenech and Georgie Navarro, signaling that Fenech had retained his WBC featherweight championship of the world.

Dressed as usual in T-shirt and tracksuit pants, Fenech was sitting in a cramped dressingroom, which featured four mirrors, a clothes rack, a sink, a bathroom slightly larger than a telephone box and enough supporters to ensure it was standing room only. The sink was full of ice, ready for the return of the wounded. Fenech was silent, playing with a coin.

Navarro was billed as Fenech’s toughest opponent and the champ was more worried than usual about a fight. Consider what would have happened had he lost: from champion to history, from fame to obscurity. Would he continue fighting – he pledged his late father that he would never lose a boxing match. All it would have taken was for Navarro to be as elusive and as accurate as everybody said he was. At 7 pm there was a lot on Fenech’s mind.

Yet he yawned. Not once but repeatedly. Breaking the tension in his face, subconsciously telling himself to remain calm. The coin was for luck. From a woman. From Pennsylvania. Fenech kept it close.

The next two hours lasted forever. Fenech strolled; sneaked into the crowd to watch the preliminaries; watched himself blasting Tyrone Downes away on the tiny Sky monitor; teased and cajoled Sydney mates. He kept himself busy.

Jeff Fenech, with Johnny Lewis, makes his way to the ring. Pic: Peter Ward, The Herald.
Jeff Fenech, with Johnny Lewis, makes his way to the ring. Pic: Peter Ward, The Herald.

Navarro arrived late, immaculate in a thick black leather jacket and smiling hugely. His trainer, Carmine Graziano, was resplendent in pink and second only in the fashion stakes to Howard Leigh (in a gold glitter jacket with black trimmings). Navarro peeked at the crowd and began to pump up, howling in delight with his sparring partner “K.T.” At one stage he and Fenech crossed paths in the corridor. Neither acknowledged the other’s presence.

Fenech’s trainer, Johnny Lewis, is the nuts and bolts man. At 7 pm, he was already hard at work, preparing Peter Mitrevski for battle. Mitrevski and American cruiserweight Jack Johnson had a room down the hall but the Newtown Police Club boys train together and fight together.

Everybody was in Fenech’s room, including boxers flown down just to be part of it. They gathered in a tight semi-circle around Mitrevski and Fenech led the sermon, asking everybody to pray for the gladiator. Mitrevski was drowned in good lucks and then he was gone. He won. One for the Police Club, two to go. Then only the big one as Johnson was stopped by the remorseless Dave Russell.

At 9 pm, the butterflies were settling into Fenech’s stomach. Gus Mercurio bent over and whispered confidentially: “Hands up, head down, champ.” Later he explained: “It’s a boxer’s way of saying good luck. I sent him a telegram, too, saying the same thing. I always send one to the Australian boys.”

Paul Ferreri was loitering in the corridor, one of the few who knew what was going through the contender’s head (he fought Carlos Zarate for a world title 12 years ago). “At this stage you just want to get out there and get it over with. You wonder what the outcome will be, you are all worked up. You’ve been in training for so long.”

Nearby, Navarro is pacing silently. Jack Rennie, acting as his cornerman, whistles a nameless tune softly in the background while K.T. screams at his mate: “This is it. Go Go! You’re gonna do it! You’re the matador! Go, Go, Go!” Earlier, Navarro had screamed: “I’m going to kill him!” Now he takes deep breaths and says once: “I just want to get out there and punch.”

Fenech has all but Lewis evicted from his room. The two who have been so far together, who share so much. Fenech is dressed in white shorts with green and gold trimmings. He dances, shadow-boxes, hits Lewis’s pads. They talk tactics and prepare a winning mood. The friends swarm back in for the final Mitrevski-style send off, the flag girls are in position and the falling and rising roar of a Mexican wave filters through from overhead.

Down the hall, Navarro is on his way. The crowd boos his arrival. “What sort of person boos another country’s flag?” Graziano wants to know – one of his few moments of anger for the night. Later Navarro will mock Fenech as the Australian salutes the national anthem. A pay back but a cheap shot.

The crowd is chanting his name as Fenech stares into Lewis’s back and waits, his hands taped. Now the crowd can see him and the chant becomes a roar. As you are carried into the stadium among the momentum of Fenech’s entourage, the noise confuses your senses, faces are everywhere yelling, hands outstretched. Fenech stares straight ahead and escapes to his territory, his home in the ring.

“I love you,” Fenech mouths to his girlfriend, Tania, before the bell. Then at 10.03 pm, he and Navarro meet at last. Fenech’s fists slam the American’s kidneys and stomach time after time. Navarro lands some punches but not enough.

Navarro has been losing weight for days to make the 57.15 kg limit. By the end of the third round, his legs have run out of fuel. “I’ve had enough,” he tells Graziano. “Get out there and throw bombs,” screams his outraged trainer. “This is a world title fight.” A couple of bombs land and Lewis winces as though it is his head which snapped back.

The end of the fight. Great photo by John Donegan.
The end of the fight. Great photo by John Donegan.

At the end of the fourth round, Navarro calls over the referee and says he has had enough. Mercante, refereeing his 80th title fight in 45 years, is incredulous. “This is a world title fight. Get out there!” he says. Navarro is pushed back out but his punches are fairy floss.

Smelling blood, Fenech’s fists are sledgehammers. A relatively harmless short left from Fenech finds Navarro’s temple. Navarro’s exhausted arms are hanging and Mercante ends his misery, seeing there is no defence.

Fenech is champion. Navarro’s dream has ended. “Fenech is a good tough fighter and that’s all he is … a good tough fighter. We was knackered, that was Georgie Navarro at about 30 per cent,” Graziano sums up. But later, in the press conference, he tells the world: “Georgie has to have a talk with Georgie. Georgie had better have a meeting with Mr Navarro.” And he was the one who a week ago said Tyrone Downes needed a new heart for the way he gave up against Fenech.

Fenech said all the right things, hugged Tania and escaped to a Toorak nightclub. Another victory, another cheque and another step down the road which leads away from impoverished, violent Marrickville. Fifteen thousand fans went home, shaking their heads at another too easy Fenech victory.