By Rick Farris
(Former professional boxer and boxing historian)
On February 26, 1968, Mashiko “Fighting” Harada, the greatest Japanese boxer of all-time, was scheduled to defend his World Bantamweight title against number one challenger Jesus Pimentel of Mexico. It would be Harada’s fourth defense of the title he’d won nearly three years previous by upsetting the great Eder Jofre of Brazil.
Pimentel was one of the hardest hitting bantamweights ever and had been in contention for a title shot throughout most of the sixties. However, just days before the fight, Pimentel’s manager Harry Kabakoff demanded more money from the Japanese promoter. When the promoter refused to renegotiate, Kabakoff pulled his fighter out of the match and returned to the United States. The story was that Pimentel had taken ill.
Desperate to save the promotion, the Japanese promoter sought a qualified challenger for Harada. The champion had struggled to make weight for the bout and after doing so insisted on fighting. Harada’s plan was one last title defense before moving up to the featherweight division. However, none of the contenders were interested in taking a title shot on such short notice, except one, the Australian Bantamweight Champion Lionel Rose. Rose was considered the perfect replacement because he was not considered a hard puncher like the thunderous punching Pimentel. Rose had a 27-2 record and had scored only 8 KO’s.
Rose and his manager Jack Rennie jumped on a plane for Tokyo and three days later the 20-year-old Australian won the World Bantamweight title with a unanimous fifteen round decision over Harada.
Six months later, after defending his title against Japan’s Takao Sakurai, Rose made his U.S. debut in a 10 round non-title bout against perennial contender Jose Medel of Mexico. Medel was one of the greatest bantamweights to come out of Mexico but had the misfortune of coming up at the same time as another Mexican great, former bantam king Jose Beccera. Medel had fought and beaten most of the top bantamweights in the world during the previous decade. He had KO’ed Fighting Harada prior to Harada winning the title from Jofre. My father and I had seen Medel fight two years previous when he defeated Jesus Pimentel by decision at the L.A. Sports Arena.
Also on the card would be future bantamweight champion Chucho Castillo, who had just beaten Jesus Pimentel two months earlier in the Forum’s first boxing show. Castillo would be fighting Scotland’s Evan Armstrong and was expected to be Rose’s next opponent in a title defense.
I remember when Rose arrived in Los Angeles. I was 16-years-old at the time and was anxious to get a look at the Australian who was a heavy underdog when he won the title. I had read a lot about Rose and wanted to watch him train. I had no idea that less than a year later I would have a chance to spar with Rose while he trained for his last title defense against Ruben Olivares.
At the time, Forum boxing promoter George Parnassus’ office was located in the old Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles. The Alexandria had been one of Los Angeles’ finest hotels around the turn-of-the-century. During the 20′s it was a place where many celebrities and dignitaries stayed, including Jack Dempsey. However, in 1968 the Alexandria was in no better shape than most of the buildings near 5th & Spring St. It was one step above a flop house.
However, George Parnanssus loved the Alexandria. He’d gotten his first job there washing dishes after arriving in America from Greece in 1909. He would turn the old ballroom into a boxing gymnasium and showcase the fighters he was promoting on Forum cards and charge $1 admission to anybody who cared too watch.
The Alexandria was located right around the corner from the Main Street Gym where I would train on weekends. After I’d finish my workouts on Saturday & Sunday mornings I’d hurry over to the Alexandria where I could watch Rose and the other fighters on the card train. One of those fighters was another Mexican bantamweight contender, Ruben Olivares. With Rose, Castillo. Olivares and Medel on the card, I was able to see the four best 118 pounders in the world up close as they prepared for their matches.
I remember how impressed I was with Rose. He was tall for a bantamweight, about 5’7″, and had the best jab I’d ever seen. It was rare that I was impressed with any bantamweight having been around the best 118 pounders from Mexico, I was always partial to the great Latin bantams. However, Rose was special, kind of a throw back to another era. This guy was a master boxer and he was only 20. He had several sparring partners including Jorge “Alacrancito” Torres, younger brother of flyweight champ Efren “Alacran” Torres.
Rose ended up defeating Medel easily, winning a unanimous decision in his American debut. Chuchu Castillo KO’ed an over matched Evan Armstrong in three rounds, putting himself in line for a title shot. Another winner that night, also making his U.S. debut, was another future champ, Ruben Olivares. Olivares KO’ed Filipino Bernabe Fernandez in the third round
This would set up Rose’s second title defense. Four months later, Lionel Rose and Chucho Castillo would be involved in a war. A war that resulted in a riot.
Mexico has produced many of the greatest bantamweights to ever step into a boxing ring. 1968 was no exception. With Jose Medel past his prime and Jesus Pimentel heading in the same direction, a new crop of Mexican bantams were beginning to rise. Chucho Castillo was one of them.
Castillo was the Mexican Bantamweight Champion and had defeated Edmundo Esparza, Jose Medel, Memo Tellez and Jesus Pimentel. You have to understand that in Mexico, being the Mexican Champion is more important than being the world champion. Often the Mexican Champion was, or would become, the World Champ. When Chucho Castillo stepped into the Forum ring to fight Lionel Rose for the title, he had the support of thousands of Mexican’s who had spent hard earned money to travel to Los Angeles from below the border. They expected Castillo to return home with the title, and he almost did.
Rose and Castillo put on a great battle for 15 rounds. Rose boxed brilliantly, using his darting left jab and sharp counter punches to hold off the charging Castillo. Castillo landed the harder blows and in the 10th round floored the Australian which drove the Mexican fans crazy. “Chucho, Chucho, Chucho”" the fans chanted. However, Rose made it to his feet and went right back to his original plan. He held off the furious attack of the Mexican and continued to box. At the end of 15 rounds ring announcer Mario Machado read the verdict. Lionel Rose was awarded a split decision victory over Castillo. The Mexican fans went crazy and literally tore apart the brand new 18,000 seat Forum.
I had attended the match with one of friends, amateur heavyweight Al Boursse. This was one time Al and I were glad our seats were nowhere near the ring. After the decision was announced there was booing, then cups of beer were tossed toward the ring from way back. Then cherry bombs began to explode and fights started breaking out everywhere. Cushioned seats were slashed open and the stuffing set afire.
After Rose and Castillo left the ring, featherweights Dwight Hawkins and Fernando Sotelo were set to fight in a ten rounder. However, the crowd was so unruly the fight was halted after the third round to protect the fighters from all of the debris being tossed into the ring.
Al Boursse and I had come to see our stablemate Hawkins or we’d have left quickly after the title fight. When they stopped the Hawkins-Sotelo bout, Al and I headed up the aisle, away from all all the missiles being thrown down. People were pushing and shoving each other trying to escape. As we passed through a tunnel toward an exit we ran into another one of our stablemates, Ruben Navarro. Navarro said he knew of a short cut so Al & I followed Ruben back down to the floor and slipped out through the dressing room area. As we headed up the ramp to the parking lot we saw Canto Robledo, an old trainer who was totally blind. Robledo had been separated from his guide and had been hit with several bottles and was bleeding. Navarro took Canto by the arm and led him away from the trouble. Outside, cars were being tipped over and the riot squad was arriving just as we pulled out of the parking lot. All over a close decision.
Eight months later, in August of 1969, Rose returned to Los Angeles for another title defense. This time he would take on one of the greatest bantamweights of all-time, Ruben Olivares.
I was 17 at the time and had just grown into a bantamweight. I was still an amateur but had an opportunity to spar with Rose as he trained for Olivares at the Alexandria. I learned a lot from Lionel and found him to be one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever met. I only worked out with him twice and wasn’t one of his regular sparring partners, however, I picked up a few things from him. I began to use my jab much more effectively after watching how Rose used his.
After one of Rose’s workouts the local press wanted to get some pictures of the champ doing road work. Rose had already done his running for the day but to accommodate the reporters he walked down to Pershing Square, a little downtown park located above an underground parking structure. I had nothing to do so I followed Rose and the reporters down to the park to kill time. Rose was an Australian Aborigine and was like a character out of a Crocodile Dundee movie.
After the photo session was over, he pulled a tiny little pipe out of his pocket, like the ones you used to see old ladies smoke in movies. He filled it with tobacco, lit it with a match and then announced to the rest of us, “Well, it’s time for a walk about”. Suddenly Rose disappeared. None of us saw him leave, he just vanished.
A week later Ruben Olivares would end the 18 month title reign of Lionel Rose, knocking him out in the fifth round.
Rose would move up to featherweight but with little success. The last time I saw Rose was in 1976 when he came to Los Angeles to fight Bazooka Limon. Rose was KO’ed in that fight and retired shortly afterward.
About ten years ago, when I was introduced to former world champ Jeff Fenech of Australia who was in Phoenix visiting Mike Tyson. I couldn’t help but ask Fenech what had become of Lionel Rose. Fenech just shook his head and said things weren’t going well for Rose, but did not elaborate.
On May 8, 2011, Lionel Rose passed away. He was a one of the most unique boxers I have ever met and one of the best. May his soul rest in peace.