Richard “Tiger” Ihetu was one of the greatest boxers to come out of Africa. He made history in 1962 when he won the world middleweight title in New York. He triumphed again in 1963 when he defended his crown in Nigeria in the first ever world title boxing match put on in Africa.
Ihetu was born to noble, but cash-strapped parents in Amaigbo, Imo State, Nigeria, as one of four children on August 14th, 1929; he was christened Richard, Iherigbo. Ihetu started boxing at age 19, competing in inter-club contests organized by British military officers in Nigeria. At one of his bouts, a fan watched the short, stocky Ihetu practically jump in the air to hit his opponent. What tenacity he thought, almost like a Tiger. “A tiger is what he is!” the fan shouted. Thus the name Tiger was born.
After conquering his opponents on the Nigerian boxing scene, he travelled to England. While there, Ihetu’s fistic abilities was so impressive that he not only wore the crown as British Empire Middleweight Boxing Champion, but also received the Commander of the British Order (CBE), in 1958 from Queen Elizabeth II. (He later returned it in protest of the British government’s support of the Nigerian regime during the civil war.)
In 1959, Ihetu immigrated to the USA. It was in the USA that Ihetu honed and perfected his boxing skills, to become one of the most sought after fighters by boxing promoters and fight fans. He became a constant attraction at the famed Madison Square Garden.
Ihetu made history in 1962 when he won the world middleweight title in New York. He was awarded “Fighter of the Year” by Ring Magazines, winning over contenders such as Sonny Liston, Emile Griffith, Carlos Ortiz, and the incomparable Muhammed Ali ( then Cassius Clay), to clench the coveted title. Ihetu received the award again in 1965. He triumphed again in 1963 when he defended his crown in Nigeria in the first ever world title boxing match put on in Africa.
His final fight was a ten-round decision loss to Emile Griffith on July 15, 1970. Following the loss, Tiger was unable to secure any big paydays and went to work as a security guard at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
While working as a guard, one day, he felt a strong pain in his back. Tested by doctors, he was diagnosed with liver cancer. Ihetu had been banned by the Nigerian government in his country because of his involvement in the Biafran movement; however, the ban was lifted immediately after news about his condition arrived in Nigeria. Shortly before his death, he was allowed to return to Nigeria to be with his wife and five children.
He died of liver cancer on December 14, 1971; he was 42 years old.
Awards & Recognition
The Ring Fighter of the Year for 1962 and 1965.
Boxing Writers Association of America Fighter of the Year for 1962 and 1966.
Inducted into The Ring’s Hall of Fame in 1974.
Inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1991.
Charley Rose ranked Tiger as the 8th greatest middleweight of all-time in 1968.
Herbert Goldman ranked Tiger as the 9th greatest middleweight of all-time in 1989.
The Ring ranked Tiger as the 7th greatest middleweight of all-time in 1975 and 14th in 2004.
The Ring ranked Tiger as the 31st best fighter of the last 80 years in 2002.
Bert Sugar ranked Tiger as the 63rd greatest fighter of all-time in 2006.