The Kronk Khronicles: Training camp diaries – Jeff Fenech
There were tough times around Emanuel Steward’s house in those days. I had recently taken over for Lanny Perry as “office manager” and we were basically living fight to fight, as far as the checks were concerned. Enter one of the toughest fighters I have ever met in all my years in the fight game, Jeff Fenech.
In his first five years as a pro, Fenech won three world titles in as many weight classes (IBF bantamweight, WBC super bantamweight and WBC featherweight). It should be noted that he did it in less time than Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard! Another interesting fact of which not many are aware is he won all those world titles with a pair of perhaps the worst hands in boxing history. Fenech was born with protruding knuckles on both hands and had difficulty making full fists. He had over five hand surgeries, I am aware of, before his 30th birthday.
Despite the constant pain, Fenech often threw defense to the wind and kept on throwing punches from all angles, attacking every opponent he faced in the ring. In fact Fenech was so relentless, after Samart Payakaroon dropped him in the first round in their 1987 bout, Fenech hammered Payakaroon to the canvas in round four, where Payakaroon continued to lay there unconscious, for almost five minutes. Afterward, Payakaroon entered a monastary and never boxed again.
Fenech had the will to win and the willingness to endure the pain that came with winning, like on the night he broke both his hands in a 1989 WBC featherweight title defense vs. Marcos Villasana.
By the time Fenech decided to make his return to the ring in late 1995, his better years were behind him, many in boxing said, and there is no doubt he was nearing the end of a Hall of Fame career. His career had been full of grueling battles, in his homeland of Australia, where thousands of his fellow countrymen were jammed packed in outdoor arenas. As a young fan, I watched as many of his fights, as could be seen on American television. (No we did not have YouTube back then!)
One day the phone rang at Emanuel’s house and, when I answered, I was pleasantly shocked to hear one of my favorite childhood fighters Jeff Fenech, on the other end of the line, phoning from Australia. After a lengthy call with Steward, it was settled that Jeff would fly in to Las Vegas and Steward would train him for a run at a fourth world title. So just like that, we packed our bags and off to Las Vegas we headed, just Emanuel and me.
We settled in at the LaQuinta Suites, off the strip, in the shadow of a locals-type casino and a stone’s throw from the old Top Rank offices and Ruth’s Chris Steak House. To let you know how hard times were back then, Steward would take me over to that casino at night, teach me his strategy at blackjack, then we would head over to Ruth’s Chris for a nice steak dinner, where I would just sit and listen to all he told me or watch him hold court with fans, who would buy us drinks just to hear old war stories. It remains one of the greatest experiences I ever had to date, in that little training camp, it was just me and Emanuel every night.
The evenings may have been for 21, steaks and wine but during the days, it was all business, as we set up camp at the old Johnny Tocco’s Gym. We had the side room all to ourselves, the very same room I had seen Mike Tyson train on television and, aside from our home at Kronk, it was one of the most old-school and real boxing gyms I ever stepped foot in. Now keep in mind, I am just a 19, 20-year-old kid and walking with the giants of my era, so this was a big deal to me. As for Jeff, despite being one of the most ferocious fighters in the ring I had ever seen, outside the ring, I found Jeff to be honest to his core and generous to all those around him. It was the start of what remains a real friendship to this day, over 20 years later.
The first thing Emanuel did was wrap Jeff’s hands in a very specific way. In fact, there is a video on YouTube of Emanuel working with Jeff, giving him pad-work (where I can be seen hanging on the ropes) and that cameraman, much to Emanuel’s dismay, videotaped him wrapping Jeff’s hands one day. How Emanuel did it was basically, he rubbed Vaseline on his hands and wrists, first massaging it in, then took some one-inch waterproof medical tape (a VERY strong type!), then took a couple passes around the wrist and chris-crossed the point where the wrist and small bones came together, wrapping around again just below the knuckles. He then used his own specific gauze he had brought that I would order along, with the tape, from Bobby Watson, back in Detroit. He went around six inches back off the wrist and began a very tight wrap, almost like a cast. Emanuel had me make a pad for Jeff’s knuckles out of another roll of gauze for each hand. After he finished his wrap (where he once again put the majority of pressure along the points where the bones in the hands were most vulnerable, as he explained – he cut back pieces inside the palm and around the thumb to allow Jeff a little more movement, to make a fist, but the wrap was so firm, it still allowed him to punch hard, while holding the wrist and fingers in place.
I saw Emanuel wrap dozens of fighters hands over the years and, in my humble opinion, I have never seen anyone wrap as well as he did. He had medical books in his bedroom, where he actually studied the human body, not just how the bones were in the hands. If you ever get the chance, watch after Thomas Hearns gets rocked by Sugar Ray Leonard in their rematch and, between rounds, you’ll see Emanuel rubbing Hearns’ upper neck, in one particular spot, with intense pressure. Emanuel was convinced there were certain nerve endings there that could stimulate the spine and legs and speed up recovery.
The first day in the gym, like with all his fighters, Emanuel got in the ring and had Jeff shadow box. After a few moments, Emanuel went to work. He knew he was not there to change Jeff’s style; after all, Fenech had won three world titles in as many weight classes and beat Kronk’s own Stevie McCrory into submission years earlier. No, Emanuel was there to go back to just working on the basics with Jeff. He began with Jeff’s balance, his footwork, getting proper leverage behind his punches. From there, it was on to the pads. Then Emanuel went to work on having Jeff keep his right elbow down when he would throw the right hand to get a little more power and leverage on the shot. This can be seen actually on the video someone had posted on YouTube all these years later.
As camp progressed, Jeff began putting it together and, once sparring started, Jeff was putting a beating on anyone who climbed into the ring with him. I even saw him bloody and batter a few guys at Johnny Tocco’s.
Jeff was a buzzsaw in the ring. He would attack and put punches together from body to head to body, from right to left to right. There was no taking it easy, when he sparred. Whatever those guys got paid, they earned it!
The first comeback fight was set: November 18, 1995 (my birthday), versus Tialano Tovar, on the HBO undercard of Felix Trinidad vs. Larry Barnes and Pernell Whitaker vs. Jake Rodriguez, in Atlantic City. Tovar was a typical journeyman with a record of 10-10-1. While many fighters would want a easy tune-up to get back into the ring, Fenech was not pleased with fighting a guy like Tovar. He seemed to object and wanted a tougher fight. Jeff hurt Tovar on a couple occasions and got in eight solid rounds before he stopped the game opponent.
The next bout was scheduled for March 9, 1996, and it was to be held in Melbourne, Australia, on SKY TV. I do not recall who the original opponent was but I know Jeff and his team were not happy with him and Steward contacted one of his stateside matchmakers and they reluctantly settled on Mike Juarez, who had a record of 19-5-1. Jeff was in solid shape for this fight. He was strong in camp and, from the opening bell, it was obvious that Fenech was just too strong for Juarez, as he hurt him with every punch he landed. I know Jeff’s hands were flaring up but you would not have known, as he was punching hard, all behind a solid and consistent jab. Jeff would not let Juarez breathe and, after dropping him a handful of times, the bout was over in two rounds. Now I know Juarez was no Azumah Nelson but, prior to facing Jeff, he had never been dropped. Jeff lived up to his nickname “The Marrickville Mauller.” He really did show flashes of his prime years, that night. It was like watching Michael Jordan play for the Wizards, in a way, and I was grateful to have witnessed it.
But once again, I know Fenech and his team were not pleased with the selection of opponents and Emanuel took a little heat for that. For reasons I wont get into, Jeff and his team decided to move forward without Emanuel and challenge for his last world title versus IBF lightweight champion Phillip Holiday of South Africa. (Fenech and Steward remained very close, over the years, despite parting ways and there were a couple occasions the three of us ended up somewhere together and had a few glasses of wine and some good laughs, years later.) I watched Jeff fight Holiday on television, from my living room, and will never forget the sadness that overcame me as Jeff lost, being stopped inside the distance. The corner threw in the towel and, despite Jeff kicking it out and objecting to the stoppage, Holiday was just too big that night. One thing not many know: Because Jeff will never be one to make an excuse, he took some very bad advice from someone in his camp and took multiple injections in his hands. As he would tell me years later, he felt like he was high as the clouds, floating to the ring rather than walking.
Jeff and I would grow to become good friends over the years. Prior to our friend Mike Tyson facing Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas, Jeff sat me down in his hotel room and really opened my eyes to a lot of things that were taking place around me in the boxing business. After that conversation, I would never look at the sport/business of boxing the same way again, not to mention a few people I held in very high regard. Jeff put a couple thousand dollars in my pocket and off we went to enjoy a fun weekend in Vegas. Jeff and I would go on to spend countless good times together, several in the company of Tyson and, to this very day, I consider him one of the closest friends I ever made in the world of boxing.
Thank you, Jeff, for allowing a 20-year-old kid to be a part of your training camp, once upon a time, and for being a real friend, over the years.