The Kronk Khronicles
Training Camp Diaries - Jeff Fenech
By: John Lepak
*Originally published on UCN Live
It was 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 went. Enter one of the toughest fighters I have ever met in all my years in the fight game, Jeff Fenech.
In his first 5 years as a pro, Fenech won 3 World Titles in 3 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 not many are aware of is that 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 of his hands and had difficulty making full fists. He had over 5 hand surgeries that 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 Payakarun dropped him in the first round in their 1987 bout, Fenech hammered Payakarun to the canvas in round 4 where he continued to lay there for almost 5 minutes unconscious! After that, Payakarun entered a monastary and never boxed again.
He had the will to win, and the willingness to endure the pain that came with it. Like the night he broke both his hands in a 1989 WBC featherweight title defense vs. Marcos Villasana.
By the time Jeff 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 gruelling battles in his homeland of Australia where thousands of his fellow countrymen 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 childhood favorite 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 4th world title. So just like that we packed our bags and off to Las Vegas we headed, just Emanuel and I.
We settled in at the LaQuinta Suites off the strip in the shadow of a locals type casino and a stones 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 Ruths 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 Toccos 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. And 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 began by wrapping 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 camera man, much to Emanuel's disliking, video taped him wrapping Jeff's hands one day. The way Emanuel did it was basically this; he rubbed vasoline on his hands and wrists first massaging it in, then took some 1" water proof medical tape (a VERY strong type!) and 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 6 inches back off the wrist and began a very tight wrap almost like a cast. He 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 thimb to allow Jeff a little more movement to make a fist, but the wrap was so firm, it still allowed him to punch hard 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 good 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 see Emanuel rubbing with intense pressure the upper neck of Hearns in one particular spot. Emanuel was convinced there were certain nerve endings there that could stimulate the spin 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 he had won 3 world titles in as many weight classes and beat his own Kronk charge 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. It was 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 in the ring with him. I saw him bloody and batter a few guys at Johnny Toccos.
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 18th, 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 tuneup to get back in 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 8 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 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 breath and after dropping him a handful of times, the bout was over in 2 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 Holliday of South Africa. (Fenech and Steward remained very close over the years despite parting ways and there were a couple occasions the 3 of us ended up somewhere together and had a few glasses of wine and some good laughs years later). I watched Jeff fight Holliday 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, Holliday was just too big that night. One thing that not many know, because Jeff will never be one to make an excuse, was he took some very bad advice from someone in his camp and took multiple injections in his hands and 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. It was prior to our friend Mike Tyson facing Evander Holyfield in Las Vegas, that 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 our friend Mike 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!