One month after I was born, a young aboriginal boxer, named Lionel Rose, became the world bantam weight boxing champion when he defeated Fighting Harada in Japan. I am obviously too young to recall the swell of national pride after Rose’s achievement. In Melbourne alone, upon his return, 250,000 people lined the street to see him in a ticker tape parade. So watching the documentary, Lionel, was quite an eye opening experience for me, presenting a facet of Australian popular culture that missed out on, and now seems long forgotten.
Today it almost seems impossible to fathom just how ‘huge’ Lionel Rose was. His fame was such that while preparing for a title defence in Los Angeles, Elvis asked to meet him. At that time, celebrity didn’t get any bigger than that. But this documentary is not just a back-slapping look back at the halcyon days of Rose’s boxing career. It shows how he started in the fight game, his successes and his failures. And then life after boxing.
Obviously, for a documentary film, and especially a biographical one at that, outlining the synopsis is rather pointless for this review. But I will share with you, one observation that the documentary makes that I found absolutely fascinating. As I mentioned above, Rose became world champion after beating Fighting Harada in Tokyo in February 1968, and subsequently Australia went crazy. One of the reasons for this, apart from having a home grown world champion, was that Rose beat a Japanese opponent. Forgive me if this sounds racist, that is not my intention, but at that time (forty-four years ago), many Australians still considered the Japanese to be the enemy. World War II had not been forgotten, and many people harboured a grudge for the way that Australian prisoners of war had been treated. As an example, in my family, my Great Uncle Jim died a prisoner of war, working on the Burma railway. So for young Lionel Rose to go to Japan and defeat the ‘enemy’ on their home turf was not only a sporting triumph, but a defiantly national one as well. Sort of like a ‘payback’. As a lazy comparison in a fictional context which many people may relate to, it was like the movie Rocky IV, where Rocky goes to Russia to fight Ivan Drago, as payback for the death of Apollo Creed. But Rose wasn’t fighting on account of just one man – he fought for a whole country.
The story becomes even more heated after that. Rose’s first title defence was also in Tokyo, against Takao Sakurai. Rose won, infuriating one Japanese boxing fan so much, that he came at Rose with a knife at his hotel. Of course, these incidents are just one small part of Rose’s story.
The film features plenty of archival footage, intercut with modern day interviews with Rose himself, and those who were close to him. All in all, it’s an excellent documentary, and recommended not only to those interested in boxing, but those who enjoy inspiration real-life drama.
Set in Outback Australia, in Birdsville, one of the most remote towns on the planet, two rival boxing tents set up shop in competition with each other. In the sweltering heat, tensions simmer, tempers flare, and a tent burns.