Remembering Lionel Rose — Australian icon

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Independent Australia acknowledges the traditional owners of Australia.

Contributing editor-at-large, Tess Lawrence




By Tess Lawrence| Contributing editor-at-large


For a fighter, the boxing ring may well be a temple. For some of Lionel Rose's life, it was.

Today, at 1pm in Melbourne's former 'House of Stoush' Festival Hall, 62 year old Lionel will be celebrated in death with the honour of a State Funeral and an international ringside gathering of family, friends, fans and politicians.

Like most funerals, there will be those chambers in the heart where lurk hypocrisy and regret — for things done and said; for things undone and unforgiven. For things not done. The gloves will be off, in both meanings of this ambiguous phrase.

Lionel Rose told me once that Reconciliation and a Treaty between Indigenous Australia and the rest of us would never happen in his songline.

I remember telling him that was a load of cobblers and that I believed fellow Australians would not tolerate the continuance of such unfinished business for what I still deem political and constitutional immorality, let alone an abrogation of human rights and justice.

To plead my case, I reminded him of the overwhelming success of the 1967 referendum — only four years after Lionel won his first major fight at Festival Hall.

What a drongo I was. Am.


In only ll days time, on May 27, while the eulogies for our black brother Lionel will still be warm, Australia will celebrate the 44th anniversary of one of the few opportunities we made as a Nation and as a people to vote according to our collective conscience, our heart and our head.

What is more, that opportunity had the full backing of both houses of our parliament.

True conscience is apolitical, surely.

The 1967 Referendum still ranks among one of our finer and compassionate hours.

Onya Australia. Onya our parents and grandparents; all of us immigrants and refugees of one kind or another. Running to and/or running from, country to country; Continent to Continent. Island to Island.

Hard working. Hard playing. Aspiring to an honest day's pay for an honest day's work.

Making our Dreamtimes come true.

Look at who we were in 1967. And look at what we have become. Have we lived up to that promise? Not in terms of the indigenous members of the Australian First Family, we haven't.

Who are we anyway? I was going to write, I don't know who we are anymore. But then I realised I never did — and probably no-one does. Perhaps it's easier to define ourselves by what we are not.

Come with me and look through Lionel's Rose coloured glasses.


On that May day in 1967, whoever we were, we came together as Team Australia to right one of the terrible wrongs done to our black brothers and sisters; a legacy of Terra Nullius, the white man's calligraphic lie that spawned today's Australia and continues to do so under the Royal Ensign of The Great White Queen; a lie that is comparable in imperial political and commercial expediency to the hoax of the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq as an excuse to invade that still unmended country.

Terra Nullius puts the 'Con' in the Australian Constitution.

Terra Nullius remains the offensive subtext of our Constitution and it is time that we stopped the denial and confronted the reality that we are overdue for Reconciliation.

A Treaty and/or Covenant needs to be struck. And it needs to be struck before we become a Republic. Treaty now. Treaty Ma.

To me it is an absurdity to be preoccupied with the semantics of Republicanism and obeisance to a British monarch when we have failed to sort out our own filthy crinolines on the Hills Hoist.

We should be attending to both the Treaty AND the Republic. How can you have the latter without the former?


The Royals are just Republican roadkill.

I am a Republican. No question. But I'm totally disinterested in sinking the Blunnies into the Royals for that reason alone.

The Republican issue, like Reconciliation and a Treaty is our business and we don't need approval from Madge or even our own politicians to make it so. We've got to start talking about it, surely.

Is it just me?

Instead, look at the wake of our Budget week. Firstly, I defy anyone to remember anything of any consequence about it.

The only true political statement came from Finance Minister Wayne Swan, when he did a G. Gordon Liddy and instead of burning his hands over a candle, crushed a glass in his right hand.

Poor thing, he was so stressed. Next he'll be eating rats. Plenty of those in the ranks.

And excuse me, how's the diversionary ploy from the Opal office, so that Big Red doesn't have to account for both her and her Government's continuing lacklustre performance in the weekend media? What's more, it worked. Wayne has been able to have a HECS and a good lie down.

Meanwhile, forget about Kate and Wills. Is Timmy Tams going to pop the question or not to our Julia?


Is he going to make an honest woman of her? Because, back home in Pakistan's sister city, Abbottagood, home of the Performing SEALs and where it's close to midnight in the garden of good and upheaval, Tony Abbott can't.

It's going from Abbottabad to Abbottagood to worse.

Before we seize back our country from Britain. We first have to make peace with stealing it from the Aborigines.

I'm sick to death of Prime Ministers of various political pallor claiming that they've done the most to move towards Reconciliation and fatuously claiming that they will implement Treaties by certain dates.

And I'm sick to death of their cowardly party colleagues who these days appear to the electorate as ideological thuggees who fail to realise that they have long since lost our hearts and minds and that we don't like it that they have trashed Brand Australia on the world stage, with their self-serving antics that have little to do with credible governance but everything to do with clinging to power.

1967 referendum poster


Here's a wee reminder of what real Australians and a real parliament can do and I remind everyone that it wouldn't have happened under Harold Holt's Prime Ministership without the steadfast work of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

When millions of Aussies woke up on that Saturday morning on May 27, 1967 to vote in the historic Federal Referendum, by the end of the day they had placed their mark on a record-breaking

YES vote to remove two discriminatory references to Aborigines in the Australian Constitution.

In section 51, our Constitution actually said: -

That Parliament shall, subject to this Constitution, have power to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth with respect to: -

...(xxvi) The people of any race, other than the aboriginal people in any state, for whom it is necessary to make special laws.

In section 127, it said:

In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives should not be counted.

In section 51, Australians voted to remove the words:

'...other than the aboriginal people in any state...'

And we voted to remove section 127 in its entirety.

Says it all.

It is a badge of honour for Australia that the YES vote was 90.77 per cent.

For centuries. Australian aborigines and supporters have been delivered a series of stillborn promises; none more politically self-serving than Prime Minister Bob Hawke's promise in 1988 that his Government would enter into a Treaty with indigenous Australians by 1990.

[Listen to the ABC Awaye radio documentary 'The Day of the Aboriginal'.]


What a joke. Another white man. Another white lie.

And where are the Greens in all this? Never mind about the black armband view of history — what about the green armband view of now?

And where are our religious leaders? And where are our irreligious leaders? Where is corporate leadership on a Treaty?

Lionel was right. I was wrong. I'm glad he didn't hold me to our bet of getting into the ring for three rounds with him down the gym. As if.

He was a cheeky possum. We had lunch in North Fitzroy instead. Didn't stop him giving me the rounds of the table about a Treaty, but. He wanted it so much for the younger generation of Australians, both black and white.

You'll read about some of that in an interview I did with Lionel some years ago, originally for the afternoon broadsheet The Herald — that Lionel always called in rhyming slang 'the Jim Gerald'.

It was later published in Headlines with an introduction. We publish both here and reading it again, I am reminded that none of us are one dimensional. I hope that as well as capturing some moments in our time together that some of his personal observations and philosophy shine through.

If not, then that is my fault. He had a good and kind heart. All things considered he did well to live to 62 — six years more than the average lifespan for our indigenous brothers.

I hadn't seen Lionel in some time. But we once used to catch up from time to time. He enjoyed verbal sparring and stirring the possum because, although I've covered several major fights, I haven't the stomach for boxing, or for what it does to the human brain and sometimes the psyche. At times, I have even been scared of the crowd and the baying for blood.

Human cockfights.

Life itself had dealt Lionel some severe body blows, and he it. For sure. At various times, when he was not living with his Beloved Jenny, he nonetheless spoke of her always in the most tender and loving terms. Truly missing her. Lost without her. When he wasn't with her, it was as if he were chewing glass and regretting whatever it was that had prised their clinch apart.



We are one black brother down in the death of Lionel Rose. We have a fine statue that salutes his place in Australia's sports history.

I think it would be a fitting tribute if we pumped some of Lionel's blood into that statue and brought it to life and revived public debate about a Treaty. Not just talk, but.

Let's strap ourselves to the ropes on this one.

In the translated Gumatj words of Yothu Yindi's heart stopping and mesmerising 'Treaty' composed in collaboration with Paul Kelly and Midnight Oil (what happened to you Peter, you've gone politically Walkabout), recalling Hawke's broken promise of 1988:

“This land was never given up This land was never bought and sold The planting of the union jack Never changed our law at all Now two river run their course Separated for so long I'm dreaming of a brighter day When the waters will be one .........

Promises disappear - priceless land - destiny Well i heard it on the radio And i saw it on the television But promises can be broken Just like writing in the sand

....Treaty yeah treaty ma treaty yeah treaty ma."

I am dreaming of a brighter day for Australia. We can fix those broken promises. Together we can make those waters of the two rivers become one.

The following are the two articles referred to in the above piece, the first originally published in The Melbourne Herald, the second republished with an introduction in Headlines.


by Tess Lawrence

Poor fellow my Lionel. Once he had it all. In his fists. World bantamweight champion in 1968.

Only 19 years old. His lips drank from a cup passed to few blacks. The sort of glory whose fire scorches the spirit and almost whitens the flesh. Almost.

There was much talk of the black gladiator. Our boy. Our Lionel. With the heart of a bull.

Strong for a black man's heart. Because you know how they lack the killer instinct that comes with sophistry.

They were heady days. Fame was its own aphrodisia. Remember the night he won the world championship from Japan's Fighting Harada, Rose's satin shorts splattered with Harada's blood.

The rising son fell and the diggers blessed our boy.

There was the homecoming. Melbourne went mad. Thousands lined the airport and streets.

He'd done well. The first aborigine to win a world title. Victors rarely learn to open doors; that is the task left to the vanquished. Doors opened unto Lionel. Feted by the city. Fated. Australian of the year. The MBE was pinned to his lapel. His wedding to Jenny Oakes. The gold record for the doleful I Thank You.Then the mirror crack'd.

How could it be that he had soared like an eagle only to be shot down in full flight. When he was only 20 – the year after the world championship – they were barking for Lionel's blood. Get him out of the bloody ring. He's had it. And he was only 20.

Olivares hammered him into defeat in '69. And you know what they said. Rose should quit while he still had some dignity left. After all he was the richest aborigine in history.

The riches were measured in the white man's coinage. His skin started to look darker. So did his personal life. His marriage broke up. There were court appearances and rumours about him being punchy and a heavy drinker, loitering around the pubs. It appeared that Lionel had slid into the social cliche of the Aborigine who was given every opportunity and shuffled past it...with the same ungrateful disregard of those given free housing.

There you are, they said. What do you expect? They can't handle that sort of thing. They spend money like water. His black mates sponged off him. So did his white ones. They, do you know, share things. Aborigines. He could have done so much for his people, said the whites. Showed them they could do it too, if only they tried. Some blacks thought he was carrying on like a latent white man. Patently obvious. Lionel was nailed to another kind of cross. He was on the ropes. Clinging even to his opponents.

He was just a lad from Warragul who had this dream. And it came true. And then he woke up.

But no one else would let him forget the dream. Consider that. We do. As Lionel and I sit in a Carlton spaghetti bar, the bloody eternal space invader machines rasping tongues of noise in our ears.

He's a lovable sort of fellow. As fat as a wombat and knows it. He weighs in about 11 stone, he thinks. It's been that long since he's jumped onto the scales. He'd be hard pressed to climb into the ring let alone go a few rounds.

His eyes are vast, cinematic newsreels of himself. Beautifully calf-like, only darker with whiter whites; optical thermostats of his thoughts. Mesmerising. With a grin as wide as the Murray River.

These days he's 'semi-retired' as he puts it. God, his life has swung like a delinquent pendulum.

He was the eldest of five brothers and four sisters. His dad Roy, who was really one of the last of the sideshow knucklemen, taught Lionel the fundamentals of boxing.

He loved his dad. Later in the day he says his father's death is the worst thing that ever happened to him.

It was his dad who taught him music. Played the guitar. Lionel can't sight read. Plays by ear.

'Gees,he loved music, you know. It's in me blood.' It was awful, losing his dad like that when he was only 14.

'It does something to you, you know, something that you never quite get over. My Mum she's beautiful. Real beautiful. You know, of course, when you lose your father, you've got all that love there that you had for him, you don't lose it you know, but you've got to lay that love on somebody. So I loved my mum double, know what I mean.'

So when Lionel did it to Harada, he did it for his mum and all those left hooks that life had delivered him and his family and his people.

But he did it for Australia as well.

When he got off the victory plane, he and his mother's eyes were locked in unspoken embrace.

'We didn't have to say anything. She just said 'You've done well son..' and I said 'It was sweet wasn't it.'

'It was there in her eyes. I guess she was the proudest mum in the whole world I suppose.

She's always been proud. She's seen me go through it all. In those days my heart was going a hundred miles an hour. I can't look back with remorse at that stage of my life.'

He swears that he'll never become like these ghosts of men, those old pugs who cling like human lichen to the boxing fraternity. ' I don't hang around the gym, never have. I probably only go to a fight a year.'

The fight scene is pretty dead, anyway, he says. 'Plenty of kids want to become boxers; you see them on the streets in Fitzroy and Preston. They want to become gladiators. But the sport is going through a decline. If only a really good sponsor would come forward and start up a gymnasium. Maybe in Carlton.'

He'd like to put his time into something like that. Teaching Aborigine kids. Not only Aborigine kids.

But Lionel has been talking about doing that for years.Yes, he knows, but this time he and a couple of mates have got an application before the Aboriginal Sports Foundation, to open a training centre.

He would love to find a young Aboriginal boy and turn him into a world champion. You could. They're hungry enough. That upsets him. The hunger takes all forms. He feels. There's not enough allocated to Aborigines for health purposes, housing purposes. There's a lot of malnutrition, a lot of sickness.

Although the centres in the country areas are heartening. He knows, being an Aborigine, what the handicaps are.

And there are many. He's been lucky because in sport, in the ring, you're just two men, at least that's how he's always viewed it. Outside the ring it's another matter. There are a lot of hidden prejudices against his people. Some of them very well hiddden. It was 100 per cent worse when he was a kid, though.

The usual bug of being coloured: you copped anything and everything. There is this image that Aborigines won't do anything to help themselves. That's not only confined to blacks. 'But I've spent a lot of money in my time. My life's been like that all the way through, of course when life is one hell of a battle you spend your money, what the hell. '

But the Aboriginal community is starting to realise that we have to change those attitudes.

We all chip in to help each other. 'In Collingwood, for example, we run these dances to aid the Aboriginal Funeral Fund, so that our people don't have to be buried as paupers. It's managed by a couple of elders in the community. And we help other people who are really in need of it.'

'Look,I don't like seeing Aboriginals wandering drunk around the place. But I mean they've chosen their life. I think it's a darn shame if you want to know. I don't like to see it. But that's the style of life they've been forced into by not having the privileges that other people can have.'

'When something happens in your life it's always easy to go down to the pub and down a few pots — and worry about it tomorrow. If you've been supressed and there's no one who can give you a helping hand, you live on a day to day basis. Of course I think about it. We're trying to do the best we can — to curb it and cure it, if possible. The emphasis wouldn't be there if they weren't black. Plenty of whites stagger out of pubs drunk but that's no criteria. Until Mr Cook came here we were getting on real good.'

As for his own drinking habits, Lionel says they are moderate. ' I don't drink any more than the average person. I'm not a big beer person. Sometimes I'll have a few beers, and then I might not have a drink for a fortnight. But I don't get about rolling drunk and falling over.'

But he's been through his rough spots. When he went to court on several occasions, he took the legend he created with him into the courtroom.

'It was a terrible stage of life that I'd gone through. I can't explain it. Hasn't anything like that happened to you, I mean, nothing was going right for me. I got into a sort of rut. '

'It's one of those things, you know. I'm not a criminal or anything like that. I don't want to have any brush-in with the police again. But I'd had that awful patch when I went through my divorce leaving my litle boy — the mental strain really affected me. Although Jenny and I are really close, and so am I with my son. '

For Lionel, boxing was and is very much the manifestation of the ego. But it's funny he says. That ego thing isn't with him now.

'I'd like to see a lot more of our culture taught in schools. You fellas should be learning our language. So should our people, for that matter. In 100 years,we've lost something. It's gone like a bird that is not there anymore. People reckon we're lazy. But we're a very relaxed race. I mean the Dreamtime is something we think about a lot. I think that sort of thing is in every Aboriginal.'

'We're easy to get on with and I don't think we are the greatest working race in the world; who likes work ? Besides, we've never been anything else but hunters, providers. That's why we have the instinct for a day to day existence...I feel it in me...wanderlust.'

'Like, sometimes you know, that ring just wasn't big enough.'

Sometimes the ropes aren't visible to those outside the ring.

INTRODUCTION: (From Headlines, 1990)

Australians retain a strong affection for world bantamweight champion Lionel Rose, the Aborigine whose personal predicament in many ways mirrors the dilemmas that face whites and blacks alike in this great continent.

The symbolism of Rose's victory and many defeats has parallels with the country's inability to resolve the white takeover of black Australia, and the fact that there is still no Treaty or Covenant between us.

If America buried its heart at Wounded Knee then Australia surely buried its conscience on the shores of Botany Bay.

After the article was published, people verbally assaulted me for singling out a black boxer, and argued that the boxing game was a 'mug's game' and that they could point to a dozen white boxers of Rose's ilk who had suffered similar fates and were mortgaged to ignominy.

The thing was, Lionel Rose never did go away. Nor has he. While sectors of the community feel dismayed at the treatment meted out to aborigines, others feel they are too conveniently the recipients of handouts. You hear comments that 'they wouldn't work in an iron lung' or that they are 'a pack of bludgers' who sponge off the system and the toxins of guilt that have accumulated in several generations of whites.

Bureaucrats, both white and black, phoned me on publication to say what a pity I'd 'put the boot into the only real hero the blacks have got'.

Someone wrote: ' You would have done better to concentrate on the the good times Lionel had.'

It is these sorts of censored truths that endanger the black/white problems...I'm supposed to use the same sort of patronising judgement when interviewing someone with a black skin, that was exercised by the missionaries who, after the naked blacks were infected with syphilis and the common cold, then insisted on placing colonial fashions over their diseased heathen bodies.

Lionel is tortured by his own devils that's for sure. Whether they are of the white man's making, I cannot say for sure. But there was no comparison, even on the most superficial basis, with the demeanour of the American champ Joe Frazier and Lionel Rose. Not in the measure of self confidence or pride. Comparisons though, are onerous, to say the least.

It is no secret that in Australia we are adept at first exalting the mighty, only to then set about clawing the edifice. And we do that to black, white and brindle alike, without pride, and with prejudice.

LIonel Rose and Fighting Harada, 1968
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