Once upon a time, when boxing filled stadiums around the country and its champions were household names, Lionel Rose had the fastest hands in the land.
He could catch flies on the wing the way Ricky Ponting catches a cricket ball.
Lionel isn’t catching any flies these days, except maybe when he’s snoozing in the Jason La-Z-Boy. But there’s a whisper that the fastest hands since Lionel’s are getting up to speed for a crack at a world title.
The new hope is not training at Jack Rennie’s backyard gym in Marco Polo Street, Essendon, where Lionel did his PhD in the punch-for-pay business. He is sharpening his skills in another suburban gym on the other side of the city. And whereas Lionel was a homegrown national hero, this one isn’t. Not yet, anyway.
His name is Oyewale Omotoso and he is from Nigeria. He is young: born the same day, in fact, that his trainer Murray Thomson fought for the Oceania welterweight title in 1985.
Oyewale, known to everyone as Wale pronounced (Waalie), stands out at Thomson’s busy little Blackburn gym in more ways than one.
The gym is called the Fighters Factory. The slickest thing about it is the name, which might account for its success. It’s as authentic as the slap of old skipping ropes on the sweat-spattered floor.
The gym is behind a nondescript shopfront in a nondescript shopping strip near Blackburn station. Around it is a Mexican restaurant, an estate agency and a hot chicken shop.
Inside, there are old fight posters, even older motivational slogans and a boxing ring that began life at the Melbourne Remand Centre. Tipped off by a local drinker who worked at the prison that the $11,000 ring was about to be put on the market, Thomson submitted the successful (and only) tender – for $200.
“It was a steal,” he says deadpan.
Scrawled on the ceiling above the ring is the hand-written legend: I Hope You’re Reading This Because You Are Doing Sit Ups – Not Because You Forgot To Keep Your Hands Up And Head Down.
The Hyatt it ain’t. But when the door opens at dawn the people come. Suburban mums, dads, schoolkids and wannabe amateur boxers crowd the place for sweaty circuit training sessions: skipping, heavy bag, speedball and sparring with the ”pads”.
On weekends, so many are skipping in three-minute ”rounds” they spill out the back door into the car park. Blame it on Rocky. The circuit sessions are a nice little earner for Murray, a reformed welterweight pro who has turned into a shrewd trainer and hopeful promoter. But, for him, the punters who pay to raise a sweat in a dinkum boxing gym are a way to subsidise his quiet obsession: training a world title contender.
He has trained a string of fighters, including one who reached the world’s top eight welterweights. But the best of them is Wale, the lean black man seen gliding around the ring nonchalantly throwing blistering punches into Thomson’s well-worn pads.
It is the same ring where one of your correspondents honed his skills before last year famously surviving three frenzied rounds in a charity exhibition with former world champ Barry Michael. (Michael agreed not to damage your correspondent’s head, which was extremely charitable, as the head in question is one that many people would actually pay to punch.)
Wale learned to fight on the streets of one of the world’s most dangerous cities, Lagos.
He is one of five children whose mother died when he was young and whose father did the best he could until he, too, died a few years ago.
Wale calls himself ”Lucky Boy”, the name tattooed on his chest. He’s lucky to be alive, let alone to have parlayed his natural ability into a ticket from the mean streets of Lagos to the clean streets of Blackburn.
As kids, he and his brothers had to run with a street gang. He’s seen people shot, bashed and slashed with machetes. He learned to run zigzag to avoid bullets. Six days a week the ”street boys” preyed on shopkeepers, passersby and weaker gangs.
But on Sundays they went to church and prayed for forgiveness ”in case we got killed any moment”.
Wale says he took up boxing after confronting a notorious streetfighter who had terrorised his sister. The confrontation ended with a battle at night after Wale’s gang ambushed the others, both sides armed with machetes and clubs.
The street war was so serious the gang split up and fled the district to avoid reprisals. Wale and a friend went to a boxing gym in the city’s national stadium in Surulere and trained hard. That was in 2000. By 2006 he had won so many amateur fights and was set to represent Nigeria at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. But he was replaced just before the Games by a lesser fighter related to a politician.
Then his luck changed. After, Murray Thomson had been training another Nigerian, who told him there was a welterweight back in Lagos who showed more promise than anyone he’d seen. Thomson took the tip and invited Wale to train with him on a sporting visa. The new boy turned professional and has since won 17 fights straight. He has also married a Melbourne woman and had a baby. His record is all the more remarkable because in those four years, Thomson’s eyesight has deteriorated to the stage that he no longer drives although he can still move around the ring, drilling his protege in lightning fast combinations.
”You never have to show him the same thing twice,” he says.
Their story so inspired 3AW’s breakfast heavyweight, Ross Stevenson, whose idea of a dangerous punch involves tropical fruit and Bacardi rum, that he has enlisted some business types and a top legal firm to set up a fighting fund for Wale to try to protect him from the bottom feeders that thrive in a notoriously dirty business.
They make an odd couple, the short-sighted white trainer and the fastest black fighter in the south. Outside the ring, they have little in common.
Thomson is no churchgoer but ”Lucky Boy” has stuck to the principle that there are no atheists in foxholes and still goes to church every Sunday. He wears a billowing Nigerian tribal dress for Sunday best that Thomson reckons makes him ”look like the Pope”.
He is a popular member of the congregation. One day, three old ladies knocked on Thomson’s door, asking if they could talk to their new best friend from church. They know him as a gentle Christian man who is most polite.
Despite this, any hoons who happen to drive past as worshippers emerge from the One Community Church in Surrey Road, Blackburn, might be advised not to jeer at the black guy wearing the billowing white kaftan.
It might look like a big girl’s blouse but the man inside it isn’t.
Oyewale fights Argentinian Juan Alberto Godoy at Knox Netball Centre today, Friday, 26 November and the Nigerian is poised to shine again.
â€¢Culled from Australian National Times.