THEY buried Lionel Rose yesterday and, as at any funeral, it was a day for memories. Festival Hall in West Melbourne, which must hold at least 4000 people, was only half full, although the seating arrangements and lighting made it seem otherwise. There were plenty of the customary stories, the sort always recounted over coffins, for few things do more to loosen tongues and memories than a wooden box’s reminder that the clock never stops ticking, not for any of us. So the speakers put their recollections on the record, keen to add a few more entries to the legend before the opportunity of the moment was missed. Thus did we learn of the night Rose and fellow champ Johnny Famechon tied one on so tightly that an angry spouse made them sleep in the car. After and outside, the old bloke who called the Billabong earlier in the day to request a lift rolled a fag and recalled the night – he thinks it was n 1964 -- when he watched Rose take an amateur title. “You just knew he was made of greatness,” was the way the old-timer put it. “A wonderful, beautiful fighter.”
Blokes belting the daylights out of each other is an entertainment older than history, but there are many who find it more than a little sad. Poor kids acquiring brain damage for the amusement of the well-heeled – if you have ever met an old and punchy pug, all twitches and slurred incoherence, it is hard to swallow the line that boxing is a sport like any other. If that is the case, why not insist on Olympic-style faceguards? The judges could still rate the combatants’ technical skills, and the crowd would not be denied the thrilling thud of heavy blows. But there is no chance of that because professional boxing is, and always will be, about the pain of others. This way to your ringside seats, gentlemen. If you’re lucky, you might even get sprayed with blood.
But what can you do? People should be free to follow their hearts, deplorable as more sensitive sorts might find the brutal passions that inspire more than a few. Better to focus instead on the upside of the deplorable, and there was much about Lionel Rose, particularly outside the square ring, to warrant accolades. He was generous to a fault, for starters, as speaker after speaker noted. He was kind and gentle when not making a living with his fists, and always a decent man, even allowing for a bit of trouble with drink and the law. But none of those qualities and virtues explained why, when the call came for that lift to Dudley Street, it seemed well worthwhile making the trip into town. It was those memories that served as the catalyst for swearing off golf for the day, donning a black suit and mournin not just a man but the vanished promise of what he once seemed the very symbol.
It was 1968 and Rose, fresh from his title triumph in Japan, was standing on the steps of Melbourne Town Hall as maybe a quarter of million people jammed into Swanston Street. Not a year before Australia passed a referendum adding Aborigines to the census (not, as is commonly mis-stated, gave them the vote, which had never been denied those who sought to put their names on the electoral roll). There was no smoking ceremony back then, no welcome to country, and no acknowledgment of the Original Custodians – that veiled, pro forma slag at those of us whose guilt extends no further than having descended from the first pallid pink people who came here so long ago. The original Wurrindjeri are long gone, likewise the settlers who fouled the creek where Elizabeth Street now runs, an act for which they made amends by building upon a foundation of Ballarat gold this terrific city, now home to almost four million souls.
There was none of that guilt-edged theatricality in 1968, when a young Bunyip threaded a pushy path through the crowd to the Town Hall steps, just as eager as every other white face to hail the nation’s hero. He was black, the crowd white and, on that day, melanin content didn’t enter into it. Rose was Australian, we were all Australian, and one of us had done something magnificent. That was all you needed to know. It was a wonderful moment.
There were Koori flags and lapel pins on display yesterday at the House of Stoush, but when they carried Lionel Rose’s coffin from the spot where the ring normally stands, it was draped with the Australian flag.
It will be a good to remember him that way, not as a symbol of grievance and division but as the focus for a unity of spirit that so many others have done their damndest to bury and destroy, often for the most selfish reasons.
Vale Lionel Rose, late of Jacksons Track -- Aborigine, champion fighter, singer and father. He was all of that, but most of all he was a great Australian inspiration, a reminder of what once we were and might some day be again.