The All-Time Great Bantamweights: No 10: Lionel Rose
10. Lionel Rose 42-11 (12 KOs)
An Australian had already brought the world bantamweight title back down under when Lionel Rose went to Japan to challenge Masahiko ‘Fighting’ Harada for all the spoils. A dangerous southpaw by the name of Jimmy Carruthers had briefly worn the crown in the ‘50s, before a tapeworm forced him to retire. Still, there had never been an Australian like Rose to earn a world title in any division. The world’s first Aboriginal Australian world boxing champion, Rose had to fight for everything in life. His lack of punch was no issue for him, because he was a born survivor.
Growing up in a poor Aborigine settlement south of Melbourne, Rose was the eldest of nine siblings crammed into a one room tin hut. The nearest school was three miles away and with either a long walk or a crowded bus his only options of getting there Lionel barely attended. His father had been fined and even briefly imprisoned for his son's truancy. But Rose did enjoy attending something: the traveling fairs which showcased boxing, similar to Jimmy Wilde fighting in Jack Scarrott’s pavilion some 60 years prior.
Organised boxing was nowhere near Rose's life as a child, with big fights and professional shows only being in the big cities. Had Rose been a little older he might have been inspired by the hard-punching Aborigine Elley Bennett, a top class bantam of the 50s who lost a fight with the aforementioned Carruthers but who flattened pretty much everyone else. Of the big name fighters active in Melbourne during his teenage years, Australian lightweight champion George Bracken was an early influence and Rose's father had an amateur boxing background of some sort as well.
For a young boy with little chance at making anything of himself in a country resistant to his people, boxing must have seemed a good idea, especially with a hero like Bracken (a hero who looked like him no less). On his fourteenth birthday Rose felt inspired enough to try out boxing at a local club. Quickly outgrowing the same ‘Aussie Rules’ football coach who gave Rose his first rudimentary lessons in pugilism, he was sent to Jack Rennie, a veteran pro who would in years to come have many excellent Aussie pros coming through the doors of his gym.
Although this tutelage was priceless, Rose was naturally gifted anyway. Within two years of first putting on gloves he was the Australian national amateur champ at flyweight, narrowly missing out on a spot on the 1964 Olympic team that went to Tokyo. He’d get his chance of glory in Japan eventually.
Before the Olympics began Rose was 2-0 as a professional, both wins coming against the same man, Italian-born Mario Magris. Rose’s debut was in his hometown of Warragul, and exactly a month later Magris had a chance to even the score up at Melbourne’s Festival Hall. This was home to some of Lionel’s hero Bracken’s greatest victories, and Rose turned the trick on Magris again.
Rose was a phenom but his first few years in the pro ranks were not without failures. He dropped a decision to tough Thai Singtong Por Tor (a tough Thai in the lower weight classes, who’d have thought it?) and tough Olympian Ray Perez, who between them had fought - and lost - against a who’s who of the lower weight classes of the time. Rose had already beaten Singtong and Perez, but his inability to beat them every time would force him into more learning fights, and his lack of stopping power was apparent.
Not that he waited around for long. In his first three years as a professional, Rose posted a record of 26-2 on his way to a domestic title and a national grudge match with Rocco 'Rocky' Gattellari. The Italian-born Gattellari had made the 1960 Olympic team, and in the run up to his dust up with Rose had been successful against many of the same names Rose had on his ledger, suffering but a single loss to flyweight kingpin Salvatore Burruni, a class of man Rose had yet to come across.
As an Italian immigrant Gattellari had - like Rose - faced the boo boys in his youth and in his early days as a professional boxer and found it hard to be accepted by the Aussie fans.
However this bout saw them both fighting for their adopted hometowns, backed by gamblers and vocal supporters from Melbourne (backing Rose) and Sydney (backing Gattellari). The two pugilists would be stand-in avatars for the rivalry between the two cities, and their ethnic backgrounds meant nothing once they were in the ring, the fans willing them on all the way.
In a classic clash of styles, Rose shifted his way around the ring, popping out his jab and trying his best to evade the strong bull rushing of Gattellari. When Rocky got close Rose would pop him in the face with his straight right or step around and whack him to the body with his left. A cut on Gattellari’s cheek seemed like it might end the fight early, but he doggedly persevered, pressuring Rose and trying to wear him out in close. The 13th round proved unlucky for Gattellari, with Rose first depositing him on his backside then flattening him face down with a left-right combo. Rose had proved himself the best of Australia, and looked to be on the up.
Still a teenager in one of the most stacked divisions in boxing, Rose looked to have a long journey in front of him. But then Mexican devastator Jesus Pimentel turned down what he perceived as unfavourable contract terms to travel east and Rose was given the opportunity to fight for the undisputed bantamweight championship of the world.
The All-Time Great
Masahiko ‘Fighting’ Harada. The Japanese superstar had been a prodigy just like Rose. He’d won his first world title in his 19th year, down at fly, in a flawless and devastating show of aggression against legendary Siamese boxer Pone Kingpetch. He’d lost the belt in a return, but cited weight issues and moved up to bantam. He’d also beaten featherweights, showing how strong he was when packed into an 118lbs frame.
The Japanese buzzsaw was nigh on unbeatable in his bantamweight prime; the seemingly invincible Eder Jofre had not managed to put a dent in him despite having two chances to do so; the face-melting punches of Jose Medel were no match for the champion, who overcame an earlier loss to the Mexican knockout specialist to demonstrate his improvement; the excellent boxer Bernardo Caraballo had some early success but had been overwhelmed by Harada’s unerring will to punch holes in his man; British tough nut Alan Rudkin had come close, but in Japan the two-weight champion always had the edge.
Rose had a great jab but Harada’s left hand would be key: it was never-ending, a seemingly infinite stream of jabs and feints to head and body perfectly honed to open up guards like a door on broken hinges. Early reports felt Rose was not too adept when pressured. For example, Melbourne newspaper 'The Age' wrote of Rose before his fight with scrappy Mexican journeyman Rudy Corona:
'Rose does not fight confidently against an opponent who pesters him with short left hooks to the head and body...Rose can be caught with right hands while concentrating on jabbing with his left…Once Rose is bustled and loses skill and confidence, he takes a couple of rounds to regain poise.'
Unheralded, relatively untested, and still a pup in boxing years, Rose should not have been competitive with the great Japanese fighter, especially lacking a punch to dissuade him from his cultured assault. What followed was perhaps the most spectacular showing of pure boxing ever captured on film in the bantamweight division.
Wise beyond his years, Rose was able to soak up what Harada threw at him. He was able to move well for 15 rounds, jab with arguably the best jabber in the history of the division, out-punch one of the nastiest pressure fighters of the era and - despite his lack of dig - sit the champion down briefly with an accurate right-hand counter in the ninth round.
Harada kept coming - he never stopped - but Rose was with him every step of the way. His boxing style was never negative, and he gave as good as he got. Harada was not outclassed, but he was well beaten, and would never fight at bantamweight again. Despite reports that Harada had struggled to make the weight he offered no excuses, crediting Rose’s skill and gameplan for his defeat.
The press agreed, with 'The Pacific Stars and Stripes' noting how the master pressure fighter had been made to look one-dimensional by the young Australian’s boxing ability:
"Harada tried vainly to corner and crush the slippery, left-handed speedster whose traunting skill was taking his title away No-use. The championship belt he had entered the ring with was a tarnished relic when the bell rang. It was Rose’s fight."
Rose won a close unanimous decision, the scorecards perhaps influenced by the defending champion fighting on home turf. The film shows that although the bout was always competitive, Rose was a clear winner.
After prevailing in his domestic super-fight with Rocky Gattellari, young Lionel Rose had become a bona fide local attraction.
After winning the world title, he was a national hero.
The Road Warrior
Returning home to a hero’s welcome, Rose was not just the man of the hour, but ‘The Australian of the Year’, the first Aborigine to receive the award. An estimated 250,000 people lined the streets to welcome him back home.
Rose noted in his biography 'Lionel Rose: Australian, The Life Story of a Champion' that he lamented this popularity somewhat as he realised that he had been shunned by Anglo-Australians for his low class roots as well as the colour of his skin. As world champion, though, he was finally accepted wherever he went.
Rose went back to Japan to face undefeated Takao Sakurai in his first title defence. Sakurai had won bantamweight gold in the same Olympics Rose missed out on, and had been touted as a potential challenger to Rose before he’d even got out of the country with the belt.
Rose loved Japan and the Japanese loved him. He had not only endeared himself to them with his title-winning masterclass, but with his penchant for smoking a pipe whilst training. Rose had a smile for everyone, and was gracious towards the Japanese for giving him a title shot against Harada in the first place. Rose’s manager Jack Rennie saw Sakurai as a tricky opponent, telling an 'Associated Press' reporter that Sakurai was the best portsider Rose had ever faced. Extra sparring partners had been brought in, and Rose felt even fitter than he had when he won the title.
Yet his return to the land of the rising sun started off very badly. Sakurai, undefeated in 22 pro bouts but not a noted puncher, was smart and skilled enough to force Rose to lead. Lulling him into a false sense of security, the southpaw struck early, changing direction quickly and dropping Rose with a left cross.
The champion was undeterred. Throughout the bout he showed another wrinkle to his game; the ability to cut off the ring and go forward against a nimble, defensive-minded boxer. A close one, Rose forcing the fight probably got him the nod, his second successive decision in Japan.
“Sakurai certainly was an elusive chap’, Jack Rennie told an A.P. reporter. “But I thought that Lionel won from sheer aggressiveness”.
The split decision rendered in favour of the defending champ would be the last world title fight Rose won in Japan, although he would return years later, fighting for a world strap three weights north of bantam.
For now, Japan was out: the fighting pride of Tokyo had been disposed of, and the Olympic champion was no match for the boy wonder either. The Fabulous Forum in Inglewood was the place to be for any fighter worth his salt, and some of the most dangerous Mexican boxers of all time were lying in wait for the world bantamweight champion.
Upon arriving in California, Rose showed the press what a nice, humble man he was. He admitted he had not had it all his own way.
“Sure I have been knocked down,” said Rose. “You don’t know whether you are a fighter until you have been knocked down”.
Enter Jose Medel. The Mexican sharpshooter lined up as Rose’s first opponent on American soil has a decent claim of being the hardest punching bantamweight of all time. Trying to find a top-notch fighting cock that Medel didn’t face in his near 20-year career is tough enough - trying to find one he didn’t knock silly is just as difficult.
Those who failed to last until the final bell without being off their feet included Jesus Pimentel, Toluco Lopez, Dwight Hawkins, former world flyweight champ Walter McGowan, Mitsunori Seki, and the legend himself 'Fighting' Harada, who found out the hard way that rushing Medel was the wrong thing to do when he was razed in six.
Acknowledging beforehand that he could not afford to make any mistakes against the veteran sniper, Rose was caught by a lightning left-right combo that had him down in the seventh. Rose recovered quickly, and survived the crafty Mexican counter puncher to take a split decision over ten rounds in his American bow. Fought slightly over the limit, the form and quirks of both fighters suggests that it would not have gone much differently had they weighed in at 118lbs.
Medel, known to Californian audiences as an exciting fighter due to his numerous battles at the Inglewood Forum, was not supposed to beat Rose anyway. There were two younger Mexicans closer to their primes on the undercard that both won in devastating fashion, and veteran fight promoter George Parnassus hoped to match them up with the champion.
The sublime Jesus ‘Chucho’ Castillo was first. The bout was controversial at the time, but one that holds up today as one of the greatest bantamweight battles ever captured on film. Castillo is not just one of Mexico’s greatest bantams, he is one of the greatest all-time fighters from a country that churns them out like most nations do regular people. His final career record of 47-17-2 may look at first glance to be that of a fighter that was good but not great. But it is a record splattered with learning fights as a mere boy and past his prime defeats as an aging fighter who’d had it out with nearly every contender in one of the division's true golden ages.
When Castillo challenged Rose he was at his absolute peak. On an unbeaten run of 13-0 with nine stoppages, he’d avenged losses to the last two men to beat him and smashed up an array of high-class fighters. Among them was two-time title challenger Bernardo Caraballo, who suffered his first loss outside of championship bouts when he was dropped and battered by Castillo and opted out before the eighth round. Brazilian danger man Waldemiro Pinto had suffered just one loss in 56 fights, but Castillo dismissed him inside of two rounds.
In a stacked domestic scene featuring umpteen beasts, Chucho knocked them all off, including a hard-fought points win over Medel. In order to get a title shot he would first have to take on his deadliest compatriot - Jesus Pimentel was the number one ranked bantamweight contender in the world. Contemporary sources painted him as ‘the greatest KO puncher in boxing’, while 'The Ring' magazine called him ‘the best hitter in the history of the bantamweight division’, analyses which are borne out by the fact he would end finish his career with 69 knockouts. Nevertheless, Pimentel could barely touch Castillo, who absolutely schooled him.
Rose’s manager Rennie came over to discuss a bout between Rose and his number one challenger, yet after viewing the fight from ringside at the Inglewood Forum he couldn’t help but be impressed by 'Chucho' Castillo:
"Castillo is the best bantamweight I've seen - outside of Rose. However, if Mr. Parnassus can show me a lot of that American green stuff, I think we can make the match."
Veteran promoter Parnassus was more than happy to make the fight. It was a blockbuster bantamweight match-up between two red-hot fighters who had endeared themselves to a fervent crowd. After beating Pimentel, Castillo was content. Happy with his performance and angling for a fight with Rose that looked likely to happen, he nonetheless had one gripe. Castillo soaked his hands in ice water after his victory, which pleased the hundreds of Mexicans who came from his country to cheer him. Castillo liked the applause, but he didn’t enjoy the mauling he took from his admirers during the wild ring scene when the fans broke through to hoist him high amidst the cheers of what sounded like all of Mexico
“Not enough security,” an interpreter quoted Castillo as saying.
This would be an unintentionally prescient observation from the great Mexican bantam, and one that the promoter should have heeded.
The bout itself was perfect. Rose had shown excellent defensive boxing skills against 'Fighting' Harada, the ability to come forward against Sakurai, and the guts to get off the mat against Medel. He would need to put it all together against Castillo, who had Rose matched in the defensive game whilst being a superior hitter with both hands.
When Rose looked to jab, Castillo could jab with him. When Rose looked to move, Castillo would cut him off. When Rose stepped in to whip left hooks into the body, Castillo would land two. Rose had a sneaky right hand counter, Castillo had arguably the best in the division. The ebb and flow of the fight was one of high-paced technical - and tactical - warfare.
Castillo broke through Rose’s defence regularly, but Rose kept Castillo honest. Chucho dropped Rose in the tenth, the champion’s legs wanting to run away from his torso completely, but the Australian pulled himself back together. The Mexican’s championship rounds rally was reciprocated by Rose.
The fight was difficult to score. Not for the Mexican faithful. They were certain their man had won. Looking at the footage it was a defensible stance to take. What is impossible to defend is what Castillo’s fans did when Rose was announced as the winner on a wafer-thin split decision.
The typically fabulous Forum was turned into a war zone. The ring was swarmed by fans (and debris), referee Dick Young was bottled, the arena was ransacked, the place was ablaze inside and out, vehicles were vandalized, members of the public and law enforcement took a trip to the medical center and it took 200 policemen to stop the carnage.
Whilst the fans in the arena made their thoughts about Rose’s victory very clear, of the 12 newspapers in Mexico City, only one felt Castillo deserved to bring the title back to them. Rose took it all in his stride.
The 'Associated Press' report in the aftermath of the riot quoted Rose as saying: “I’ll cry all the way to the bank.”
Castillo demanded a rematch. Rose agreed to it. Their first bout suggests it would have been another five-star contest. Unfortunately, it was was not to be. Castillo would get another shot at the world title, but it wouldn’t be against Rose.
The young world champion had another successful defence in him, this time back at home against the excellent ‘Boxing Beatle’ Alan Rudkin. Another desperately close fight, Rose just about got through it, and the competitive nature of the contest was reflected in the judges' scorecards, Rose losing a single point on one card and winning by six on another. The Australian referee soured it somewhat when he failed to award Rudkin a single round for his superb effort.
Rose left the ring with not only with his title, but with a new friend in Rudkin. That was Lionel Rose, the ever-smiling gentleman who even charmed the men who swapped punches with.
However, there was no one jovial waiting on the other side of the world when Rose returned to California. A massive pay day of $100,000 made what was now a massive weight cut more palatable. This time the other Mexican prospect who had supported Rose’s American bow with Medel would get his shot. Castillo had pushed him close, and he was one of the best all-round fighters in the history of the division - the other kid was Ruben Olivares; one of the most destructive forces in all of boxing.
Rose found that out the only way possible, battered, dropped and stopped in five one-sided rounds of in-ring action that made the devastation that took place at ringside the last time he’d been at the Forum look tame.
Rose would never win a title again. With a growing frame unable to make the 118lbs limit any more, Rose’s later career was a spotty one. He’d lose to journeymen, beat contenders, and be unsuccessful in trying to beat another Japanese world champion three weights up from his prime division.
A little under two years fighting at the highest level with a series of close and debatable decision victories does not sound like a bantam primed for a slot this high. Yet, close fights with the best of the best is more important to these rankings than a multitude of master-classes against over-matched opponents for shiny baubles.
Rose had to beat a true legend of the sport away from home to win the world title, the world title. Then consider the depth of the class when Rose was at its peak: it was a bottomless pit, with nothing but monsters clawing their way up to the summit. Eventually the big bad would get Rose, but he’d already done enough to prove himself immortal as bantamweights go.
And of that big bad? We’ll hear more about the monstrous Ruben Olivares later. You didn’t expect to see someone capable of destroying the great Lionel Rose outside of the top five, did you?
But never fear. If you seek Mexican warmongers that ground grown men to dust that’s what you’ll get.
This article was originally published on boxingmonthly.com and was edited by Luke G.Williams. You can purchase Luke’s excellent book Richmond Unchained here