Sunday, 8 June 2014

Imitating Lipton: When Emulation Falls Short of Flattery

Ron Lipton

The role of the referee in any sport is to function as the neutral arbiter of the rules and regulations of the relevant game that they are overseeing. Be it at the amateur or professional level, the rule of thumb is that they remain firmly in the background of the action being played out while keeping control of events which unfold in the demarcated field of play.

This line of thinking applies also to the world of professional boxing. Most, if not all, would subscribe to the point of view that managers, trainers, cornermen and hangers on, while servicing the physical and psychological needs of the fighter, should never deign to hold themselves out as equals to the boxers in so far as which party is the centrepiece of the show.

This is also certainly the case for those who state athletic commissions or boards of control appoint to officiate at the contests which they sanction; this notwithstanding the high level of visibility a referee may potentially command within the relatively small confines of the squared ring.

It is a line of thinking that still holds true despite the theatrical aspects which, over the course of time, have become attached to the fight game. Fighters embark on a ring trek often decked out in fineries to the accompaniment of raucous music and the not too infrequent displays of pyrotechnical prowess.

But of course, the element of celebrity manages to extend to other ‘stage’ actors. The ring announcer Michael Buffer’s pre-fight exhortation to “Let’s get ready to rumble” has achieved for Buffer an iconic status as well as the privilege of registering the phrase as a trademark which has bequeathed him a fortune.

Such is not expected to be the case with those charged with the duty of ensuring fair play and the safety of fighters in the ring.

Yet, it has in recent times become almost de rigueur for referees ranging from the highly competent to the mediocre to invent signature phrases in an attempt to forge a kind of a ring personality.

Mills Lane, the Nevada-based ex-marine and judge, solidified his reputation for adopting a no nonsense approach to officiating by ending his ring instructions with the phrase “Let’s get it on!”

Whether Lane’s now famous call to arms provided the spark which has inspired a multitude of referees to adopt a rash of sometimes tediously manufactured phrases remains a bone of contention.

But there is a case to proffer that in contemporary times, talent and hard work at whatever vocation or occupation being pursued is not enough.

One needs to operate within a working environment with a personalised brand.

If the aura of a laboured attempt at self-promotion was found in the catchphrase “I’m fair but I’m firm”, coined by Joe Cortez, as well as in the rhyming approach favoured in Kenny Bayless’s “What I say, you must obey”, there are nonetheless exemplars provided by a number of referees whose pre-fight instructions convey the appropriate level of detachment and sense of dedicated professionalism required of the third man in the ring.

Since the 1990s, Ron Lipton’s sober instructions in the centre of the ring to the likes of Evander Holyfield, Roy Jones and Oscar De La Hoya testify to the belief that a referee can calibrate his words in a personally distinctive, yet professional manner, which need not traverse the boundaries of decorum and enter into the realm of the hyperbole and doggerel suggestive of a flea circus announcer:

I have given you my instructions. I remind you now, obey my commands. Respect each other and let’s keep this strictly professional

For around 23 years, Lipton’s advice to the fighters to maintain their actions and attitudes in the ring on a “strictly professional” footing remained to the best of his knowledge a unique expression among those in the fraternity of referees.

When while taking charge of the Luis Collazo-Victor Ortiz bout on January 30th of this year the referee Benjy Esteves used the words “Let’s keep it strictly professional”, some fight fans were stirred to comment on what appeared to be the appropriation of a fellow referee’s turn of words.

Happenstance perhaps? Well, not really. On May 8th of 2014, on a bill at New York’s Turning Stone Casino, similar instructions, albeit modified, were issued to the contestants by Esteves.

Lipton was inundated with a barrage of e-mails from fight aficionados who again had been struck by the same referee issuing mid-ring instructions which included Lipton’s enduring phrase of keeping things professional.

While Lipton contented himself by stating that he felt that it was “an honest mistake”, some fans reacted with outrage even asserting that his colleague’s actions had amounted to a brazen form of plagiarism.

Lipton, who had worked with Esteves at Resorts World Casino in Queens on 20th December 2013, played this down by insisting that Esteves was a friend and that he considered it to be a compliment.

It was Charles Caleb, a 19th Century-era English writer and cleric, who issued the famous saying that “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. The addendum offered by George Bernard Shaw that imitation was not merely flattery but in fact the “sincerest form of learning”, appears to be apt in the circumstances of a younger man purloining the words of an older and vastly more experienced colleague.

Polite rationales aside, if the aforementioned development by which professional referees through the words they contrive during their mid-ring instructions is widely accepted as a legitimate tool aimed at carving out their distinctive professional identities, then what Esteves has done can be persuasively argued to have breached the standards of professional etiquette.

It is conduct which certainly amounts to a species of plagiarism for which he should take responsibility by issuing an apology and refraining from using the words which have become associated with Ron Lipton.

A sense of basic decency demands that he do no less.

(c) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England. He is the author of Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula and Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Dick Tiger Biography - Essential Reading on University Course


With  Michael Gennaro. Michael is a Canadian doctoral candidate at the University of Florida who is researching into Nigerian boxing from 1920 to 1970. One of the courses which he teaches is the history of African sport and my book, Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal is essential reading because of its social, political and historical contexts.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Dick Tiger versus Rubin Carter

Rubin Carter felled by Dick Tiger | May 20th 1965, Madison Square Garden, New York City


Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Collaborating with the Devil – Reflections on Bandera, the Nazis and other Unholy Alliances

 
Stepan Bandera, Spiritus Rector of the Maidan Protests

 
The often quoted Arab adage that the ‘enemy of my enemy is my friend’, is surely far from being a mindset that is peculiar only to Arabs. Indeed, the art of the ‘unholy alliance’; that unlikely meeting of minds between two sets of nations or interests which may ostensibly be set against each other is as old as history itself.

While the description may also be attributed to alliances encompassing agreements between groups with like-minded interests which may be scorned by the majority, it is the consensus reached between apparent diametric opposites in philosophies that have arguably tended to catch the eye.

The infamous Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 wherein Hitler and Stalin reached an agreement to carve up Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe under the pretext of an assurance of peaceful co-existence comes to mind.

But in such alliances we see man’s incurable capacity for pursuing the course of expediency; the end quite frequently is viewed as justifying the means utilised in attaining it.

For example, it was Stalin’s predecessor as Soviet Vohzd, Vladimir Lenin, the quintessential exponent of this philosophic creed, who claimed that he would ally with the devil himself if the devil was opposed to British imperialism; the same Lenin who during the First World War claimed while ‘stranded’ in Zurich that he would make a deal with the devil to get back to Russia.

There are of course moral implications involved when pursuing such courses of action to their logical conclusions. If, for instance, the goal of a people is to attain their emancipation from colonial servitude, can seeking the assistance of or reaching an accommodation with a party who may be considered a force of evil be a justified means for attaining the goal of independence?

What also to make of the nation which in the quest of purportedly freeing other nations from the grip of tyranny itself utilises forces which will themselves likely impose their own brand of tyranny?

The difficulties in assessing the moral correctness of such policies are apparent; regardless of whether such appraisal is undertaken from either consequentialist or deontological standpoints.

It can be argued that the goal, if attained, may be enduringly tarnished. The bargain may often leave the party compromised in the judgement of history.

The prompting of these ruminations emanate from events currently taking place in the eastern part of Europe where the time-forgotten figure of Stepan Bandera has seemingly been resurrected so far as the rest of the world is concerned.

The image of the Ukrainian nationalist leader who was apparently assassinated by a Soviet agent in 1959 adorned Maidan Square, scene of the protests which eventually led to the deposing of the elected president, Viktor Yanukovych back in February.

These protests were presented by much of the Western media as mass gatherings of a democratically-minded people wanting to break free from the dictates of the Russian state to which the media attributes the qualities of that of an overbearing, neo-colonial overlord.

But this narrative is one that is capable of been subjected to stern, if not devastating criticism. It is not merely the case that a great deal of evidence already in the public domain points to the Maidan protests and the subsequent putsch as having been the handiwork of Western governments acting covertly to prise the Ukraine away from the Russian sphere of influence, other disturbing factors abound.

Central among these are the character and philosophy of Bandera himself and the very nature of Ukrainian nationalism as represented by those at the heart of the agitations at Maidan for which Bandera served as spiritus rector.

Bandera poses a problem because the historical record shows him to have been a collaborator with the Nazis; albeit that the justification given for this by his supporters was that such association was predicated on the ultimate goal of freeing the Ukrainian people from the yoke of Bolshevik domination.

Yet, such is the odour that seemingly irresistibly attaches to those who are seen to have officially or unofficially cooperated with the Third Reich that Bandera’s action in declaring for the second time in history a Ukrainian state and in soliciting an alliance with the Nazi state as the Wehrmacht advanced into the Soviet Union after the commencement of Fall Barbarossa, irreparably damages him as one who could meaningfully serve as the figurehead for a movement espousing democratic values.

Hans Frank’s famous words before he met his fate at the gallows that “a thousand years will pass and the guilt of Germany will still not have been erased”, still resonate. They underscore the taint that accrues to those who entered or sought to enter into deals with Hitler’s government.

The policy of accommodation with the Nazi regime which was pursued by key Western European states in the prelude to the outbreak of the Second World War, of which the Munich Agreement of 1939 stands out, is now derided as a fruitless quest for ‘appeasement’.

Also disparaged is the Reich Concordant reached between the Catholic Church and the Hitlerian state in 1933 wherein the Church foreswore to withdraw from political life in return for the imposition of the Code of Canon Law and freedom in running Catholic education institutions.

This agreement is held out as the device through which the Church effectively neutralised its capability of challenging the immoral policies that would later be pursued by the newly formed Nazi government.

This stands in stark contrast to the robust methods of opposition employed by the Church as it resisted anti-Church edicts imposed by the KulturKampf during the era of Bismarck.

The coming of the Second World War provided the means through which some political groups seeking independence from the British Empire would solicit the assistance of the German Reich.

Subhas Chandra Bose, an Indian nationalist contemporary of Mahatma Gandhi was one. In contrast to Gandhi’s creed of passive resistance, Chandra Bose had advocated a pathway to independence based on a violent revolution.

He escaped from British house arrest and made a circuitous journey to Berlin where he made nightly anti-British speeches on the airwaves; hoping to stir up a revolt in his homeland.

Additional to the establishment of Free India Radio, he created the Free India Legion which was made up of 3,000 Indians who had been captured by Rommel’s Afrika Korps. The intention was that they would assist in the hoped for German invasion of India.

But the ambivalent nature of the support which he received from Hitler and the turning of the tide losses suffered by the Wehrmacht in 1943 convinced him to travel to the Far East theatre of war where under the auspices of his Japanese hosts, he formed the Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army.

The Indian National Army was a 50,000-strong force composed of Indian soldiers serving in the British Empire Army who had been captured by Japanese forces in 1942.

They aided the Japanese attack on India but this was halted and its members suffered huge casualties. Chandra Bose is officially claimed to have died from burns suffered in a plane crash in August of 1945 when leaving Taiwan and embarked on another circuitous journey which is believed would have taken him to the Soviet Union.

A twin objective of achieving an independent state of Palestine and an end to continued Jewish immigration to Palestine formed the basis of Muhammad Amin al-Husayni’s wartime collaboration with Nazi Germany. In employing the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” logic, Husayni, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, is said to have assured Hitler that the Arabs were Germany’s natural allies because they had the same enemies: the English, the Jews and the Communists.

He pinned his hopes on a realignment of world power in which victories by German and Italian armies in North Africa and the Middle East would displace the British and the French.

During the war, he made radio broadcasts in Germany directed towards the Arab lands and also helped form a Waffen-SS unit composed of Bosnian Muslims.

It is however pertinent to note that factions within the community most often identified as the preeminent victims of the race-based Nazi policy of murder and cruelty were not without a record of having reached an accord with or sought to secure an accord with the Nazi state.

In the overriding quest to create a homeland in Palestine for the Jewish Diaspora, elements within the Zionist movement would in the 1930s enter into what was termed the Transfer Agreement with Nazi Germany.

The basis of the agreement may not in one sense be as preposterous as it sounds given the Nationalist Socialists intended policy of removing the Jews from the midst of their ‘Aryan hosts’ and the Zionist aim of persuading the Jews to leave.  Indeed, the SS leader Reinhard Heydrich was wont to remark to intimates what he perceived to be an inexorable logic:

As a National Socialist, I am a Zionist.

Designed with the express purpose of facilitating the emigration of German Jewry to Palestine, this pact which came to be known as the Ha’avara Agreement broadly observed the following modus operandi: A German Jew would deposit money into a specific account in a German bank. The money would then be used to buy German goods for export usually to Palestine. The Jewish émigrés to Palestine would then receive payment for the goods which they had previously purchased after their final sale.

While the majority of world Jewry embarked upon a trade boycott against the Nazi regime on its assumption of power, the Zionist-Nazi trade agreement arguably served to undermine the economic sanctions.

It has to be said that the Transfer Agreement was vehemently opposed by others in the Zionist movement and in the generality of world Jewry so much so that one of its key instigators, Chaim Arlosoroff, was in 1933 assassinated on his return to Tel Aviv from negotiations in Germany.

But there is much to be said about the early constructions of the Zionist mentality as being one which subscribed to the futility of assimilation, the inevitability of anti-Semitism and a resignation to a perception that it could not be challenged. The solution had to be a Jewish state, an end to which they were prepared to go to almost any means to achieve.

Theodor Hertzl, the acknowledged founding father of modern Zionism, himself parlayed with Vyacheslav von Plevhe the Tsarist minister of the interior who is said to have been the brainchild behind the pogrom at Kishenev in Bessarabia during the Easter of 1903. 

Hertzl wanted to convince Russia’s influential ministers to use the taxes collected from Jews to fund emigration to Palestine and to finance any forms of negotiation with the Ottoman Empire over the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.

He even sought an expansion of the Pale of Settlement, the large land mass to which most of the Jews of the Russian Empire were restricted, and use whatever influence he had in curtailing agitation among Jewish radicals and malcontents residing in the empire.

The use of Bandera as an icon of modern Ukrainian nationalism is of particular concern given the historical fate of the Jews at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists in the two initial instances of the creation of Ukrainian states.

Jews were massacred in 1941 by Bandera’s followers both as a gesture of solidarity towards the German Reich as well as to serve to remove a group largely perceived as been pro-Bolshevik.

Moreover, the streak of xenophobia, a prominent feature in many nationalist creeds, was and still remains a crucial feature of Ukrainian nationalism which has consistently maintained a severe animus toward Russians, Poles and Jews.

In 1919, anti-Jewish pogroms occurred under the regime of Symon Petlura after the nascent Ukrainian state suffered a first defeat at the hands of the Bolsheviks. Yet, one of the key figures in Zionist history, Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky was prepared to enter into an agreement with Petlura.

Jabotinsky’s Ukrainian Pact of 1921 involved him meeting Maxim Slavinsky, the ambassador of the pogromist Petlura in Prague. Petlura’s Ukrainian state, created via the indispensible efforts of the German High Command headed by Field Marshall von Hindenburg and General Ludendorff, was fast disintegrating due to the military incursions made by Polish and Bolshevik forces.

The deal was that Jabotinsky, the founder of the Haganah – the precursor of the Israeli Defence Force- would organise a Zionist police force which would guard the Jewish populations found in territories the Ukrainian nationalists could manage to reclaim after counter-attacks.

As for the Ukrainian side, an incentive for entering into such bargain was that it would to serve as evidence that they had changed their ways. It was an agreement which brought the disapprobation from other members of the World Zionist Organisation.

However, an unrepentant Jabotinsky pooh-poohed his critics, declaring that he would have made a similar deal with the Bolshevik’s if they had asked him. He told them that they could write as his epitaph:

This was the man who made the pact with Petluira.

Another Zionist leader who became mired in proposing alliances with the enemies of Jewry was Avharam ‘Yair’ Stern. He was the leader of the terror group known as Lohamei Herut Yisrael meaning ‘Fighters for the Freedom of Israel’; although it is better known today by the British designation ‘The Stern Gang’.

He formed the group after his release from British custody in 1940 having broken from the main Zionist terror group in Palestine, the Irgun. While Jabotinsky suspended operations against the British for the duration of the war against Nazi Germany, Stern refused to do this unless the British recognised the claim for a Jewish state on both sides of the River Jordan; this a policy derived from the biblical reference in Genesis 15:18 which promises the Israelites a land extending “from the brook of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates.”

For Stern, only the defeat of the British in the Middle East by an outside power would bring about a Jewish state. To this end, he sought a pact first with fascist Italy, and after being rebuffed he pinned his hopes on forming an alliance with Nazi Germany.

He was contemptuous of liberal democracy and imbued with a volkish-like racism. The proposed pact with Nazi Germany referred to the “establishment of the historical Jewish state on a national and totalitarian basis” in a new order in which there could be cooperation between the new Germany and a renewed Volkish-national Hebrium.

The 1941 document which was discovered among files in the German Embassy in Ankara, offered to “actively take part in the war on Germany’s side.”

If Bandera’s present day apologists do not use any of the aforementioned episodes in an attempt to exculpate him from having committed the sin of Nazi collaboration, some will nonetheless postulate the thesis that he operated like any other guerrilla leader who employed ruthlessness and was pragmatic about shifting allegiances and modifying policies to meet the requirements of each developing situation.

It has even been averred that he was a mixture of the likes of Michael Collins, Menachem Begin and Yassir Arafat. 
                    
But the sins of Bandera are not limited to specific terrorist outrages. They span the gamut from providing military and law enforcement services to Nazi occupiers to the execution of mass killings.

Banderites were members of specially composed Ukrainian Waffen-SS units such as the Galician, Nichtengall and Roland Divisions. They ethnically cleansed areas of Polish and Jewish communities by using civilians referred to as ‘Self Defence Groups’.

The deeds of Bandera and his followers as well as those of his predecessor of sorts, Symon Petlura, arguably present an irreparable stain on Ukrainian nationalism which venerates a cast of characters whose exploits provide the basis of a veritable bestiary.

The unholy alliance in the events which have transpired in the Ukraine is surely the use by the West of the ideological heirs of Bandera in the illegal seizure of power.

Preeminent among them are the Svoboda (Freedom) Party and Pravy Sektor (Right Sector). The former are well represented in the current interim government while the latter served as the muscle behind the core rent-a-crowd protesters who agitated for months in Kiev’s premier square.

These parties are essentially neo-Nazi in their outlook.

The policies pursued over the decades by the United States have not precluded alliances with extremists. Whether recruiting fascists in the service of ‘Gladio’ secret army units during the Cold War, or in sponsoring Islamist extremists in the Lebanon, Libya and Syria, the Americans have consistently lived up to the ‘enemy of my enemy maxim’.

However, the costs in terms of the loss of innocent lives in outrages perpetrated by Right-wing terrorists seeking to discredit the Left are incalculable, while the creation of unstable states in Iraq, Libya and Syria leave the possibility that while it is removing or weakening the leaders of the non-compliant secular Arab world, it is fomenting trouble in the future for itself and its allies by potentially creating an Islamist bastion around the Mediterranean Sea.

In the same way, the tacit approval of neo-fascists enjoying political power in Ukraine is disturbing. For all that is the known record of fascist regimes which assumed power in various parts of the European continent, the wisdom handed down by experience is that it should be strangled in the cradle.

And it is not only Western support for the avowedly Banderite fascist parties which should give cause for concern, but also the peculiar species of nationalism which is the inheritance of Ukraine.

Many of the politicians such as Yulia Tymoshenko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk who are presented to the outside world as mainstream politicians are steeped in the hatreds and prejudices of the past.

Tymoshenko, whose tenure in power was marked by terrible corruption, was caught on a wiretap offhandedly suggesting that nuclear weapons should be used to wipe out 8 million Russian speakers in the eastern part of the country.

For the United States, the aim of marginalising Russia in a modern ‘Great Game’ which threatens the peace of the world one hundred years after the outbreak of the Great War is, in the final analysis, not a justifiable risk worth taking.   

(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)

Adeyinka Makinde is a lecturer in law with research interests in intelligence and security issues. He is based in London, England.

 

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Rubin Carter – Legacy

 



The closest that I ever got to Rubin Carter who died in the early hours of Easter Sunday was through the automatically generated telephone answering mechanism of his home in Canada.

The phone would ring several times before reverting to the rich, baritone voice of an African-American male. It simply reminded the caller that if they were sure that they had reached their intended destination, then “you know what to do.”

I had not the foggiest idea of what password or other ritual Carter had mandated that callers follow and never did find out.

Back in the early 2000s when I was completing my research on Dick Tiger, the Nigerian world middleweight champion who had fought Carter in a memorable contest in May of 1965, I had obtained Carter’s ‘super secret’ contact number from a son of one of Carter’s other contemporaries, the light heavyweight fighter Frankie DePaula.

But Carter was always guarded and extremely selective about the people with whom he conducted private conversations. Of course, such an attitude may only be expected from a man who had spent close to twenty years of his life in prison for a crime which the record shows he should not have been convicted.

It is certainly de rigueur among those inhabiting a world of fame, or, in Carter’s case from certain stridently held perspectives, one of infamy.

I already had an idea, based on what I had read about him and from speaking to people who had known him, that Carter would not be receptive to conducting an interview. Still, I held out the hope that he might say something for the record - even if it was to rail against the sport of boxing for its exploitation of young black men.

These series of non-encounters nonetheless enlightened me on certain aspects of Carter’s persona. He was a difficult man to get to know; often posing riddles and barriers not only to strangers, but to those with whom he was acquainted and even to those with whom he had a more intimate association.

Plainly speaking, he was an enigma.

The aspect of Rubin Carter which most interested me was that of his career as a boxer. This remains the case despite the overshadowing circumstance of his been made into a cause celebre for the perennial problem of racial injustice and the malfunctioning of the American criminal justice system.

In 1966, Carter, along with a friend John Artis, was arrested for the brutal slaying of three people in a New Jersey bar and grill. The police claimed that both men, at the instigation of Carter had shot the victims as an act of racial revenge. Carter, on the other hand, contended that he had been arrested by a racially prejudiced law enforcement regime and was convicted by an equally bigoted jury.

It took almost two complete decades for his conviction to be quashed. In the interim period, a campaign was launched in the middle part of the 1970s to free Carter. The ‘Rubin Carter Defense Campaign Committee’ consisted of many figures from the worlds of entertainment, sports and the civil rights movement. ‘Hurricane’, a barnstorming folk-rock song, composed and performed by Bob Dylan became the anthem for the cause.

When Carter was released for the second and final time, he pointedly made the decision to reside in Canada rather than in the United States. This was a serious statement in its self, but also was one which on reflection may have brought a wry smile to students of American civil rights history.

While the perception is that the American South was the regional practioner par excellence in the meting out of racial oppression, the late Malcolm X in his ‘Ballot or the Bullet’ speech humorously cautioned against holding such a belief. “Stop talking about the South,” he intoned, “As long as you are south of the Canadian border, you’re South.”

Carter’s initial connection with Canada was through a group of commune-living hippies with whom he communicated during his time in jail, but even after he broke with them, he made Toronto his permanent place of residence and eventually became a Canadian citizen.

He became an advocate for a non-governmental organisation which promoted the rights of those seeking to overturn wrongful convictions. Carter, after all, had been the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice.

On that point, however, there is dissent.

There are those who believe that Carter, a vocal critic of racism in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey had taken the law into his hands in June of 1966 by shooting three local whites in cold blood as a revenge for an incident earlier that evening in which a black bartender, the step-father of a friend of Carter’s was murdered by a white man. They point to the fact that Carter was convicted in a second trial and that his conviction was only nullified on a point of technicality.

These doubts were deployed in a campaign mounted by a Hollywood public relations firm against the film ‘Hurricane’ in which Carter is powerfully depicted by Denzel Washington. It likely cost Washington the coveted Oscar for best leading actor in 2000.

But Carter’s legions of supporters have not wavered. And as his last autobiography, Eye of the Hurricane: My Path from Darkness to Freedom showed, he remained steadfast in his conviction that he was a wronged man, but a man who nonetheless refused to be shackled by hatred or bitterness.

Bitterness and hatred were central themes of his earlier life. He had grown up in deprived circumstances and felt constricted not only by this but also by society’s attitude towards members of his race. His path was atypical of that of the juvenile delinquent.

Where redemption may have come via the potentially positive conditioning values of a military environment, his career in the army came to an end with a dishonourable discharge.

Boxing presented an opportunity to improve his circumstances and he took up the sport while serving in the military in West Germany. It might sound clichéd to aver that he fought with a rage –hence the nom de guerre, ‘Hurricane’; but this was precisely the case. It was however, a controlled and calculated rage.

Carter was intelligent enough to realise that the application of unrestrained and untutored aggression by a fighter would be suicidal in the boxing ring. His ring style necessarily involved a litany of techniques which demonstrated his adeptness at footwork, posturing feints, measuring his opponent with a ramrod left jab and a swiftly delivered assortment of powerful hooks and wrecking ball right crosses.

Fight films capture him at his ruthless best in pummelling the great welterweight fighter, Emile Griffith en route to a first round stoppage. In 1962, he memorably despatched the middleweight Florentino Fernandez with a devastating combination which sent the Cuban tumbling through the ropes. That bout also ended before the first round had been completed.

But he could also be tamed. Harry Scott, a Liverpool-based fighter scored a points decision over him as did several other fighters. His one challenge for the middleweight title was frustrated by the masterful boxing technique of Joey Giardello.

And of course there was Dick Tiger, the subject of my first book.

From Tiger, Carter would privately admit, he received the biggest beating of his life “inside or outside of the ring.” Over the course of time, it has become apparent to me that this bout irreparably wounded a part of Carter’s psyche, much to the extent that I understand why I stood little chance of been given the opportunity to interview him.

Carter had long being fascinated by the stocky African fighter who after relocating to New York in the late 1950s became a regular performer on the nationally televised boxing fights broadcast to Americans on Friday evenings.

At a time when the middleweight division was replete with tough competitors, the tenacious and skilful Tiger appears to have offered the yet-to-turn professional Carter a mental challenge of sorts.

To him, Dick Tiger was seemingly the embodiment of an aura of toughness which the self-consciously tough-as-nails Carter sought to emulate.

He admitted to having dreamed about fighting Tiger while incarcerated prior to the start of his professional career. But while Carter’s conscious and unconscious excursions into the realm of imagined contests had often predicted a knockout victory over a future adversary, he could only admit to carving out a points’ decision over Tiger.

Such could be interpreted as a manifestation of his doubts on being able to cope with Tiger and if that was the case, they were an accurate portent of his eventual doom. The way Victor Zimet, an accomplished American trainer told me, it was as if Tiger had put Carter on his knees and spanked him like a father would an errant child.

All but one of Carter’s losses were on points. He was outfoxed by Joey Giardello; not dominated. True, he was stopped by the capable Jose ‘Monon’ Gonzalez but Carter had been well ahead on points when the bout was ended due to a deep cut which had materialised over his right eye.

Dick Tiger did more. He inflicted a cut deep into Carter’s soul. Tiger hurt him badly in the early rounds and forced him to retreat. At the end of the bout, a Sports Illustrated photograph shows a beaming and unblemished Tiger posing with his hand across Carter’s shoulder. Carter, by way of contrast, looks on sheepishly; his face a spectacle of lumps and bumps.

A most revealing incident occurred in 2010 at an event in Guelph, Canada where Carter was in town to serve as a guest speaker. Afterwards, Carter sat down to sign autographs and a friend of mine, Gary Vautour, a veteran amateur boxer and trainer attempted to present him with a copy of my book, Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal.

His reaction disappointed Vautour.

“Why would I want to read about someone who beat me up?” Carter told him.

Carter’s friend, Ron Lipton, recently elucidated on this particular point.

“Rubin absolutely refused to talk about the Tiger fight in later years,” he says. “He avoided it like the plague. When Brian Kenny asked Rubin on ESPN who was his toughest fight with in the ring, he said, ‘Holley Mims’. Sorry, the toughest fight was with Dick Tiger. Rubin did not quit and fought to the end, but Tiger was too skilled and hurt him early with the heavy hook.”

Contrary to the impression that Bob Dylan’s lyrics may have conveyed, Carter was far from being a contender for the middleweight title at the time of his apprehension for the triple murder. Indeed, he was arguably on the slide. He fought nine more times after the loss to Tiger of which he lost five.

Yet Carter had it in him to have been a champion before being beset by his legal maladies. There were self-destructive tendencies always lurking within him.

His highly demanding training regime, one which gave him a cast-iron physique, was punctuated by bouts of drinking and smoking. In fact, he was once knocked out in a sparring session having entered the ring in an inebriated state.

These lapses were unforgivable weaknesses in an era which boasts of arguably the most talented assemblage of middleweight boxers ever.

Much of the understanding that I have of Carter the fighter and Carter the man comes from Ron Lipton. Lipton was a sixteen-year old homeless New Yorker who found refuge in the boxing gymnasiums of the city. He was aware of who Carter was and what was perceived as his hostility towards white people.

But Carter’s notorious hardness melted away when the cheeky teenager begged him for a sparring position with the words, “How’d you like the chance to beat up another white boy.”

Carter roared with laughter.

Unknown to Lipton, Lipton’s father would later encourage Carter to take on a mentoring role for his head strong son. From Lipton, I heard of Carter’s tenacity in training, the methodologies behind his boxing-craft, and his skill at his favourite leisure activity of target shooting.

It was from Lipton that I also heard of a lavish birthday gift bestowed onto Carter by his friend Frankie DePaula. DePaula, who would be assassinated by the Mob in 1970, presented Carter with a two-gun western-style holster set with two .22 revolvers manufactured by a company named High Standard.

Lipton’s involvement with Carter extended from the boxing world to that pertaining to the campaign to have him freed. Although a three-time New Jersey Golden Gloves champion, he decided to pursue a career in law enforcement.

He continued to visit Carter during his incarceration, and while serving with the Verona, New Jersey Police Department he would, at an Essex County Revolver League Dinner, overhear a group of officers boast about how they had framed Carter.

Again, when working as an investigator at the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, Lipton would also overhear the boasts by officers from the Passiac County team that had handled Carter’s case in which they foreswore to “bury that nigger and keep him buried at all costs.”

In January of 1974, Lipton disclosed what he knew to the New York Daily News and made a report which he brought to the attention of the then serving governor of the state of New Jersey, Brendan Byrne.

He also enlisted the help of Muhammad Ali. But Ali was not ostensibly disposed to come to the aid of Rubin Carter. There had been a certain animus between both men after Carter had made disparaging remarks at the height of his career.

One of Carter’s victim’s had been Jimmy Ellis, before Ellis metamorphosed into a heavyweight. Ellis of course had been a boyhood friend of Ali’s in their native Louisville, Kentucky and was a stable mate given his association with Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee.

Carter had offended Ali when offhandedly bragging that Ali had sent Ellis to fight him because Ali was not sure that he could do the job himself.

Ali listened to Lipton’s pitch and agreed to help Carter. In the aforementioned Daily News article, Ali was quoted as saying, “I think it’s a good thing when you get whites like Lipton reaching out to stop injustices against black people.”

Lipton was there with Ali when in 1976, Ali put up the money guarantee when Carter was bailed in 1976 pending his re-trial.

But as with the case with the Canadian hippies and Lesra, the young black protégé whom they had adopted and who grew up to become a prosecuting lawyer, a fracture occurred in their relationship.

When Lipton approached Carter to help write a character reference in a legal case in which Lipton had defended himself against three men who had waylaid him, Carter had refused; brusquely informing him that he was "always getting into scrapes.”

By contrast, Joe Frazier had acceded to Lipton’s request without demur - just as Ali had once travelled to aid Lipton in an earlier case when Lipton was acquitted of having assaulted a group of men who had invaded his home.

Carter’s reactions to his friends were littered with acts of ingratitude and even disloyalty; a trait stemming presumably from a pervasive tendency to be extremely self-centred.

Nonetheless with Lipton, at least, he made his peace as his former mentee spoke to him constantly by phone before his life ebbed away from the effects of the prostate cancer with which he had been stricken.

The legacy of Rubin Carter will not be subsumed into whatever words that may be affixed to his gravestone or other monument devised in his honour. His is a complex one; one that will continue to confound, mystify and perplex.

To some he will remain the angry social misfit; an impulsive and intemperate man who effectively duped many and took to the grave a lie about his culpability for a heinous crime.

To others, and they appear to be the majority, he will remain a key figure in the post-civil rights era whose case brought to light the serious deficiencies which plagued and continue to undermine confidence in the American criminal justice system.

They will argue that his advocacy in his post-prison life on behalf of others facing unjust captivity transcended the specific issue of racial injustice; that Carter’s worldview became focused not solely on himself or on African-Americans but on spreading a wider message and taking a pro-active stance on human rights.

And of Carter the boxer, we are left with the story of an underprivileged black man who despite the interregnum caused by his earlier bout of detention, carved out a decent career as a professional fighter over a five year time span.

It was something of a remarkable feat to rise from the circumstance of imprisonment and within a two year period, be featured on live national television stopping a fighter of the calibre of Emile Griffith.

He demonstrated toughness and resilience in not taking the easy way out and quitting against Dick Tiger, and of course, he did fight a creditably competitive bout with the reigning world champion, Joey Giardello which was nothing like the racially motivated robbery as portrayed in the film ‘The Hurricane.’

Carter’s misfortune in not winning the world championship was actually a misfortune that he shared with many other talented middleweights of the era in which he fought.  Dylan’s lyric, that he “Could-a been the champion of the world” is true, although not for the reasons implied in the song.

But outside the ring, he did become a champion of sorts; this as an advocate for others believed to be victims of miscarriages of justice. Carter appears to have found a niche in helping others and evidently drew a measure of contentment in this role.

Speaking to the Poughkeepsie Journal after his passing, his friend Ron Lipton eulogised him by stating that he “realised the only joy in life that means anything is to help other people.”

(C) Adeyinka Makinde (2014)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer and law lecturer based in London, England. He is the author of the books Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula.


Sunday, 13 April 2014

Wladimir Klitschko and Dick Tiger: Boxing, Nationalism and the Lessons of History


Dick Tiger (Left) pictured in 1968 in the army uniform of the rebel Republic of Biafra, and Wladimir Klitschko draped in the flag of Ukraine

“How can I think about boxing when the men and women of Ukraine are being murdered in Kiev?”
The speaker of these poignant words was the heavyweight champion of the world, Wladimir Klitschko to a British journalist while on a brief stopover in London.
They formed the headline for an extensive article in the Daily Mail at the beginning of March of this year and were made soon after the displacing of the elected government of Ukraine headed by President Viktor Yanukovych and its replacement by an interim government. This had followed months of protests at Maidan Square in Kiev.
Klitschko’s words and press statements over the course of the present crisis in his homeland are reminiscent of those of another world champion boxer of a generation ago, Dick Tiger, the Nigerian-turned-Biafran campaigner, whose ruminations and propaganda proclamations at the height of the Nigerian Civil War were reported in the pages of Western newspapers.

Tiger did not receive an extensive formal education. He had barely managed to complete his secondary education before assuming the life of an itinerant petty-trader and pugilist. He was also a naturally reticent person.

But he was intelligent. And as a champion fighter who was based in New York City, he became an articulate spokesman for the emerging nation of Nigeria which had been granted independence by Britain in 1960. To the revered boxing writer A.J. Liebling, his interviews invariably often bore the tones of a ‘chamber of commerce pitch’.

The Nigerian political class acknowledged his usefulness as a tool in promoting the image of the country by expending a large sum of money in staging black Africa’s first world title bout in 1963 in the city of Ibadan. His victory over the American Gene Fullmer brought messages of congratulation from sources including the figurehead of pan-Africanist thinking, Dr. Kwame Nkrumah.

Earlier in the year, he had been awarded the MBE medal by the British Queen, and later on in the month of his successful defence against Fullmer, President John Kennedy thought it apt to inform the Nigerian prime minister with whom he was engaged in a telephone conversation that he was looking forward to “having Dick Tiger come over” to the United States

Tiger was very much the ‘pugilistic plenipotentiary’ as described by an American sports journalist.

Wladimir Klitschko in contrast to Tiger is educated to doctorate level.

His older brother, Vitali who recently relinquished his portion of the world heavyweight title, also holds a doctorate.

Vitali is a politician in the thick of events in Ukraine where he heads the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform party or UDAR; the acronym of which in Ukrainian stands for ‘strike’ or ‘punch’.

Far from being the uneducated, ‘punch drunk’ stereotypical boxer out of Palookaville, the brothers, erudite sons of an officer who rose to the rank of major general in the Soviet army, were beneficiaries of a middle class upbringing.

The sport of boxing has from the time of its origins at times provided a conduit through which rivalries between different nationalities and ethnicities have been played out.

But it has also served as a pulpit through which successful combatants have in times of crisis advocated nationalist causes and actively striven to create an awareness of the plight of their people.

For both Dick Tiger, nomme de guerre of Richard Ihetu, and Wladimir Klitschko, the celebrity and status which they acquired from being world champions have been useful tools in overarching campaigns which have drawn widespread sympathy.

Both situations; that of the Biafran and of the Ukrainian are firmly grounded on the thesis of being the underdog. Both make the case for a people being imperilled by a larger group.

In the case of Biafra, it was that of an alliance of rival groupings based on tribal allegiances aimed at frustrating the advance of a progressive and largely Christianized ethnic group.

This anti-Biafran coalition of forces allegedly had a strong jihadist component; it being the supposed resuscitation of the pre-colonial southward advance of the Sokoto Caliphate with its avowed objective of euphemistically ‘dipping’ the Koran into the Atlantic Ocean.

There was much to engender the world’s sympathy for the cause Dick Tiger sought to promote; namely the secession of the largely Igbo Eastern Region from the larger body of Nigeria.

In May and September of 1966, there had been pogroms directed against his people in the mainly Muslim Northern Region, and in July of that year an army mutiny saw members of the Igbo military bear the brunt not only of assassination and summary executions, but also to suffer barbarous forms of torture designed to inflict pain and humiliation before death.

So far as the Ukraine is concerned, the blame for the woes of that nation is firmly affixed on Russia and its tendency toward chauvinism. Be it through domination by the Russian empire in Tsarist times, the Soviet era of communism and now the post-Soviet era presided over by Vladimir Putin, the Ukrainian view as espoused by Wladimir Klitschko is that of a domineering and aggressive neighbour which does not countenance any move by Ukrainian’s in the direction of what he terms, “peace, freedom and democracy.”

The narrative holds that efforts made to achieve a genuine level of independence through the so-called ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004 and the ‘Euro Maiden’ protests which have led to the new interim government have been actively and perversely challenged by Russia.

These have included covert actions, the manipulation of elections, the leverage of economic blackmail and the recent annexation of Crimea.

At the heart of these Ukrainian aspirations is to become more Western; a line which was also taken in the Biafran case to the world. In each situation, the idea is that of a group of people wishing to emancipate themselves from what they perceive as essentially backward-thinking neighbours.

Each cause has felt the need to be supported by the West to be of vital importance, and as in the case of Biafra which directed its propaganda machinery towards the Western media, so it is with Ukraine.

As Wladimir Klitschko put it to the Daily Mail:

I was there in 2004 during the Orange Revolution and I learned then that our fight for freedom is impossible without support and aid from the West, so while my brother has been in Kiev all this time, working day and night for three months with barely any sleep, I have been talking in the West and obtaining influential supporters.

Support, he claims, has been garnered from the likes of former US president Bill Clinton, the actors George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger as well as the composer and producer Quincy Jones and Klaus Meine, the singer of the rock group, The Scorpions.

“Without (the support of the West), we would have been swallowed up by the East,” he added.

While Dick Tiger did not gain a commensurate level of high profile supporters, he was nonetheless instrumental in providing information and raising awareness of the plight of his people to sports journalists such as Robert Lipsyte and Dave Anderson of the New York Times and the New York Post’s Larry Merchant.

To Lipsyte he showed pictures of the charred remains of Biafran victims of Nigerian Air Force raids and it was Larry Merchant to whom he turned when after the capitulation of Biafra and stricken with cancer he wanted a neutral person to bear witness to Nigerian assurances that he would be allowed to return to his homeland unmolested.

A necessary and essential centrepiece of the efforts made by both fighters to get their point across is in the build up to and the actual defence of their titles.

For Dick Tiger, the build up to his world light heavyweight title defence against Bob Foster in May of 1968, was marked by a series of emotive interviews highlighted by those which he granted to the New York Times and Sports Illustrated.

On the night of the fight, he climbed into the ring with his robe emblazoned with the Biafra emblem and the national anthem of the rebel nation, words set to the music of ‘Finlandia’, Sibelius’ homage to Finnish resistance to Russian domination, was played.

But even after Tiger lost this particular battle in the ring, the propaganda war continued to be waged outside of Madison Square Garden. As the audience streamed out of the arena, they were greeted by volunteers from the Biafran Mission who gave them leaflets detailing the evidence they claimed of the genocide being perpetrated by the Nigerian armed forces.

The fight had been broadcast live in America and was seen by an international audience. It is precisely this sort of opportunity which Wladimir Klitschko is preparing to utilise when he fights Alex Leapai just four weeks before the scheduled presidential elections in May. As he told the Daily Mail:

This is not just another fight. It is my stage. I’m expecting the whole of Ukraine to want me to win for our country. More than 150 countries will tune in to watch the fight. I am working on a few plans to help my country in the build-up and on the night. Trust me; I can do a lot for Ukraine on the night of April 26.

Later, in a video widely circulated on youtube, he urged the Russian president, Vladimir Putin “not to repeat the mistakes of history”. It was an indictment of past Russian transgressions in invading countries within its sphere of influence; most notably those instigated during the Soviet era: the crushing of the Hungarian uprising of 1956 and the neutralising of the Czechoslovakian ‘Prague Spring’ in 1968.

But there is another side to the arguments proffered by both Biafran and Ukrainian nationalists which nestled sympathetically into the ears of the Western media and public.

One crucial point relates to the historical basis of the existence of their respective nations. The other challenges each nation’s asserted right to pursue a course totally independent of the larger entities within which they belonged.

Nationalism is a phenomenon which invariably to a great degree is reliant on invented histories, and this factor is present to a remarkable degree in regard to both Biafran and Ukrainian claims to nationhood.

The claim made by the Igbo secessionists was that they were a kindred people whose unity and claim to nationhood was predicated on an ancient kingdom of Biafra.

Yet, claims of the existence of such a realm are doubted by serious scholars. There are no records, archaeological or otherwise, which can confirm this.  There is no oral chronology of its kings and queens. No accounts of how it was formed or of its system of laws.

The supposition that its name is derived from a composite of the words ‘bia’; Igbo for ‘come’ and ‘Effriam’ or ‘’Ephraim’, the Hebrew patriarch, together supposedly meaning ‘coming from Effriam’, is a fanciful contrivance locked into the recent historical phenomenon of those wishing to promote the thesis of the Igbos been a lost tribe of Israel.

The word Biafra, which was derived from the ‘Bight of Biafra’, can trace its origins to the language of Portugal. The Portuguese were the first European explorers to chart the coast of West Africa.

The existence of a vast kingdom as postulated by Igbo nationalists is suggestive of a people with a unified and cohesive past. However, the realities underpinning the modes of organisation of Igbo-speaking communities in the period before colonial conquest, was anything but the case.

Igboland was composed of an aggregate of separate villages and hamlets, the inhabitants of who ploughed the land, crafted tools and ornaments, and traded. The aspect of trading took on a grim tone with the rise in the demand for African slaves by Europeans.

The supply of slaves was facilitated by Igbos dominated by the Aro community and their attendant cult of the ‘Long Juju’. By the end of the eighteenth century, an estimated yearly total of 20,000 slaves were being sold by Igbo rackets dotted around the eastern Niger delta. 

The reality behind the often trumpeted allusion to a unified Igbo people was that the facade of unity was facilitated through the conquest and colonisation of their communities by the British who incorporated them into the southern protectorate of a polity they named Nigeria.

The existence of an historical state of Ukraine arguably fails to stand up to scrutiny. The name Ukraine itself, meaning in Russian ‘the land on the edge’ is suggestive of a smaller geographical component of a larger corporate entity.

Kievan Rus, the Viking created, medieval era centre of a collection of eastern Slavic tribes, which is located in modern Ukraine is the acknowledged birthplace of what came to be known as Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. However, it is a struggle to find any cartographical representation through the ages of a distinct and definable entity of a state of Ukraine.

What can be ascertained is that the area located on the Pontic step, that is, on the flatlands north of the Black Sea was subject over the ages to a series of occupations by different empires whose influence has shape and moulded what in modern times came to be conceptualised as a Ukrainian state.

That a dialect and culture bearing distinct divergences from its ancient Russian roots metamorphosed from these events cannot be denied. Starting with the Mongol invasion of the middle thirteenth century and continuing with overlord empires that extended from Polish, Hungarian and Austrian lands the division from Russia became in some ways pronounced and in others less pronounced.

However, the impetus for the actualising of a state of Ukraine arguably came from external sources. True, expressions of a Ukrainian entity as an autonomous body within the Austrian empire were the longings of some romantic poets and historians, but the actual idea of bringing the first Ukrainian modern state into being found its birth in the Imperial German High Command headed by Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg and General Erich Ludendorff.

A central plank of German strategy during the First World War was Revolutionspolitik. This was a policy aimed at encouraging subversion and revolution in the vulnerable regions within the empires against which Germany was waging Welt Krieg.

A notable example of this was the facilitating of the bomb-proof sealed train which carried Lenin from Switzerland and across German territory. The intention was that the revolutionary would help foment chaos in Tsarist Russia and so give Germany an advantage in its war on the Eastern front.

The basis of creating a Ukrainian state was similarly rooted in the overriding plan to undermine the Russian Empire. The Germans scoured their prisoner of war camps for Tsarist troops whose birthplaces and dialects identified them as originating from the region from which they had earmarked to constitute the new state.

These POWs were given lessons in Ukrainian history, socialist doctrine and agronomy; useful for farming the land which they were promised would be confiscated from the large holding estates which would be broken up after the fall of the Russian Tsar.

The Germans financed the apparatus of propaganda among refugees from the area designated as Ukraine which included the publication of newspapers, pamphlets and books.

A Ukrainian Rada or council was created in Kiev under the auspices of the Germans in February of 1918. Thus a Ukrainian state was created for the first time as an ‘independent’ state which was a protectorate of the German and Austrians. The purpose of this state was to serve the material needs of the Central Powers who were suffering from the effects of an Anglo-American sea blockade.

The coal-rich Donets Basin was later added to the borders of the new nation again to service the needs of the German war effort and not by any popular will of the inhabitants.

This first incarnation of Ukraine did not last for long as the Bolsheviks and later the Poles carved up Ukraine into western and eastern parts until under the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, the Soviet Union extended its influence to the western part.

A second short-lived Ukrainian state would be declared in 1941 by nationalists including Stepan Bandera who along with his cohorts hoped for an alliance with the Nazi invaders who in accordance with national socialist philosophy ultimately aimed to make Ukraine into a German colony and turn its Slavic inhabitants into a slave class to serve the needs of Lebensraum or ‘Living Space’.

The other crucial aspect which impinged on the viability of carving a Biafran state out of Nigeria and one which similarly affects the idea of a Ukrainian state being totally divorced from Russian influence relates to the ethnic composition in both lands. There were geo-political realities which needed to be respected in the case of Biafra and which require the utmost attention in the case of formulating the basis of a viable Ukrainian entity.

Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu’s declaration of an independent republic of Biafra on May 30th 1967 may have borne the trappings of justification given the horrors visited upon the Igbo people.

However, the designated Biafran state whose borders equated to the Eastern region which encompassed a range of communities of non-Igbo ethnic groups who did not want to secede from the Nigerian federation did not make the decision one of unanimous consent. Indeed, the act of secession offended minority groups who were fearful of Igbo hegemony.

Furthermore, the fact that the region contained a large amount of Nigeria’s crude oil reserves meant that a shooting war over resources would be inevitable.

The reasons for wars are never always clear-cut in favour of any of the protagonists, and the Nigerian Civil War is no different in this matter. However, one crucial point stressed by Colonel Yakubu Gowon who assumed the mantle of head of state after a counter-coup instigated by Northern military officers in July of 1966 was that permitting a Biafran state would have led to the balkanisation of Nigeria.

The country would have been in serious danger of disintegrating into warring armed camps with each group being backed by competing foreign powers. This stance was vindicated by the backing Nigeria received from the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). 

The steadfast policy of this body was that whatever the severe problems caused by European draughtsmen who during the 19th century ‘Scramble for Africa’ created a series of artificial states to suit their national interests, the breakup of these nation states was not to be countenanced.

In other words, the allowing of secession would only serve as a precedent for chaos and encourage latent separatist movements which the continent could ill afford.

Ukraine itself is a composite of different ethnic and linguistic groups which tend to be reduced to the western and eastern divide. The former were for lengthy spells under either Polish or German-Austrian influence and follow the Greek Orthodox Church, while the latter are Russian-speaking and Eastern Orthodox in denomination.

It is something of a misnomer to refer to ‘Russian-speaking’ since virtually all Ukrainians speak Russian as a first language. The Ukraine-born literary figure, Nikolai Gogol wrote his famous works in the Russian language and even an avowedly nationalist figure such as Yulia Tymoshenko admitted that she did not speak Ukrainian until well into her late 30s.

The overthrow of the Yanukovych government in February was greeted with alarm in the eastern part of the country when soon afterwards a proclamation was issued banning the Russian language in areas of the country. 

That Ukraine will not be able to survive governance by those with a rigid nationalist agenda became all too apparent by the secession of the Crimean region and the threatened secession of other parts of the east.

The viability of the state is clearly dependent on its relationship with Russia which has a legitimate interest in it for historical, cultural and geo-political reasons.

The ‘land on the edge’ with its flat surface that is bereft of natural defences has historically been the entry point of aggressive armies bent on destabilising Russia.

For instance, Crimea was attacked by France and Britain in the 19th century, while in the following century France seized the ports in the cities of Sevastopol and Odessa during the First World War. In the 1920s, Ukraine became a battleground between the Polish nationalist regime of Marshall Pilsudski and the Bolsheviks.

Two decades later, it would also serve as an entry point for the German Wehrmacht after the launch of Fall Barbarossa and would be the staging post for furious battles between Soviet defenders and Nazi forces that included fanatical divisions of the Waffen-SS.

The measures taken by the European Union that are aimed at ensnaring the Ukraine out of Russia’s orbit of influence as well as the efforts undertaken by United States agencies in sponsoring the so-called Orange Revolution, and evidently, the recent ‘Euro Maidan’ protests together form an updated form of utilising Ukraine as a means of weakening the Russian state.

And so it stands to reason that Russia was not going to sit back until NATO established military bases and American nuclear warhead missile defence shields became deployed on a territory right next to theirs.

Wladimir Klitschko’s warning to President Putin about the need to avoid making the “mistakes of the past” bears thinking about.  But the thrust of such examination cannot only be focused on what are perceived as Russian mistakes, but also on Ukrainian blunders.

What lessons are there from history in regard to the expressions of Ukrainian nationalism?

The answer reveals a troubling and unappealing array of issues including a recurrent xenophobic sentiment as well as a tendency for the country and its people to be injured by foreign manipulations that have resulted from schemes encouraged by its nationalist activists.

A common thread running between the two short-lived Ukrainian states respectively in the early and middle parts of the 20th century were the vicious pogroms executed against Jewish communities by followers respectively of Symon Petliura and then Stepan Bandera. 

It cannot have escaped the attention of the Klitschko brothers that the interim government installed after the overthrow of the legitimately elected government of Viktor Yanukovych is composed of members of the Right-wing extremist parties Svoboda and Pravy Sektor who are the ideological heirs of Bandera.

The leaders and followers of these parties are prone to making not only anti-Semitic, but Russophobic and anti-Polish comments and gestures. For instance, the leader of Svoboda is on record as having called for Ukraine to be liberated from what he terms the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.”

They resent what is seen as centuries long domination by Russia and maintain land claims against Poland. The catastrophic famine which consumed millions of Ukrainian lives during the 1930s known as the Holodomor, they view as a deliberate policy engineered by the Bolsheviks in Russia; with blame also apportioned to Jews for having formed a significant proportion of the Bolshevik elite.  The figure of Lazar Kaganovich, a Jew, is identified as the overseer of a diabolical plan by Stalin to destroy Ukrainian nationalism.

The true face of Maidan was not the beautiful young Ukrainian woman featured in a youtube video gone viral who dreamed of a future equating to Wladimir Klitschko’s hopes for “peace, freedom and democracy”; it was the balaclava-wearing fascist thug armed with a gun, a knife or a Molotov cocktail.

They had been detailed to serve as protectors of a hardcore of protesters -culled from the ranks of the unemployed and paid a stipend- who had been bussed into Maidan Square from parts of western Ukraine.

The number of portraits on display at the square during the protests which were dedicated to Stepan Bandera confirms him as serving as a sort of spiritus rector for these neo-Nazi enforcers.

The other warning from the past concerns the use by foreign powers of Ukrainian nationalists for their ends.

After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, Bandera felt that he could forge an alliance with Nazi Germany as head of an independent Ukrainian state. If he was properly acquainted with the ideology laid out by Adolf Hitler in ‘Mein Kampf’, he would have been aware of Hitler’s dreams of Lebensraum in the eastern Slavic lands key among which would be the Ukraine which would serve as the ‘breadbasket’ of an envisaged German empire. As a Slavic people, the Ukrainians were designated as untermenschen; that is, sub-human under national socialist doctrine.

Unsurprisingly, the Nazis refused an accommodation.

Twenty-three years earlier, the creation of the Rada-led Ukrainian state by the efforts of the German High Command had been geared towards simultaneously weakening the Russian empire and meeting German needs.

The Germans effectively used the Rada as a tool to loot Ukraine in order to satisfy a shopping list which consisted of a million tons of grain, 400 million eggs and 50,000 tons of beef. There were also demands made for the supply of coal and manganese.

An analogy can be made today regarding the interest of the European Union, the International Monetary Fund and the United States-NATO in Ukraine.

There has been a great deal of evidence gathered over the past two decades that an overarching goal of the United States has been to contain and destroy the military capacity as well as the political and economic influence of what remained of the old Soviet Union.

In this regard, an understanding of the plan formulated by the influential US foreign policy thinker, Zbigniew Brzezinzki is essential.

These efforts have seen a missile defence shield program being implemented in nations bordering Russia as well as sponsored agitations including the financing through front organisations of the Orange Revolution and the Maidan protests.

In early February, wiretaps of Victoria Nuland, the US state department official, record her essentially picking the individuals who would later form the government which would succeed the one led by the soon-to-be-overthrown Yanukovych.

A serious argument can be made that the interim government and any succeeding pro-Western administration will like the Rada of the early 20th century be utilised as foreign instruments –effectively puppets- who will be tasked to oversee an economic assistance package which will be tilted in favour of Western interests.

The role of an IMF funded bail out would inevitably lead to asset stripping ventures and foreign speculators buying out Ukraine’s industry and natural resources – much of which is concentrated in the Russian dominated regions in the east. The appointment of members of the Ukrainian oligarchy to positions of power notably in the eastern region, somewhat mirrors that of the composition of the Rada which was made up of figures from the property owning classes and the petty bourgeoisie.

One great lesson that ought to be learned from past mistakes in European history concerns that of entrusting the governance of a country to extremist figures. The Nazis who were allowed to form a coalition government in early 1930s Germany supplanted those who felt that they could be controlled and manipulated while in power.

The presence of groups designated ad ‘fascist’ and ‘neo-Nazi’ within the Ukrainian interim government is an altogether disturbing development and does not portend well for the future direction of the country.

The enterprise of Biafra supported by Dick Tiger ended in disaster because the leaders of his people failed to acknowledge the historical legacies and the contemporary realities which informed the capacity of the Igbo people to create and sustain a viable nation state.

They failed to arrest the perception that they were seeking to impose a form of tribal hegemony over other groups after the first army mutiny, led largely by middle-ranking officers of Igbo descent contrived a casualty list of politicians and senior military officers which was composed of victims drawn from the Northern and Western regions.

The assertion of a fundamentally anti-Christian strategy by the rest of Nigeria later touted by the Biafran propaganda apparatus did not measure up since many of the rank and file soldiers who staged the reprisal coup were Christians from the Middle Belt of the country and the man who emerge as the new head of state, Yakubu Gowon, was himself a devout Christian.

It was a war the Biafrans fought without any overarching philosophic idea which could have fostered alliances with other groups in Nigeria. It was also a war for which they were woefully ill-prepared and which they would go on to fight with limited means.

It was a war which sapped the spiritual energy and the finances of Dick Tiger who before he died would acknowledge that he had felt used.

At the height of the war in 1968 while been interviewed in the fatigues of a Biafran army Lieutenant, he had ruefully told the New York Time’s Lloyd Garrison that it was a war which the world did not understand and a war which the world did not care of:

I know that this is a forgotten war as far as the world is concerned. Nobody really cares about Africa. Nobody in America understands.

His final gesture before the collapse of Biafra was to return the MBE medal which had been bestowed to him in 1963 to the British embassy in Washington as a protest against the British government’s material and moral support of the “genocidal war against the people of Biafra.”

The situation in Ukraine for which Wladimir Klitschko hopes through his fights to serve as a symbol of national unity, is one which could degenerate into a civil war and even worse, to a Third World War.

His proclamation that “nobody should determine our future except ourselves” is, granted, an incontestable one. But it is also one which as history shows should be exercised with an appropriate level of prudence and political maturity.

These are qualities which appear to be lacking among the corruption ridden Ukrainian political class. It is a nation, which bereft of a lengthy period of self governance, should focus on building a national consensus and a proper political culture among its different ethnic and linguistic populations.

They need to create a national identity within which its political, economic and cultural interests can be accommodated within an arrangement which straddles both Western and Russian interests.

It would be an understanding which would likely bear the hallmarks of ‘Finlandization’, that is, an active form of neutrality that bars entry into the EU and NATO.

And to assuage the fears of the eastern provinces, it may need to embark on a process of constitutional reformation with the end of achieving a con-federal like system such as is practised by the Swiss.

But, importantly, such a framework must be effective in isolating, diminishing or, as best as can be hoped, eradicating from its political mainstream, those parties and politicians who feed on a platform based on Russophobia, anti-Semitism and ultra-nationalist sentiment.

It must be a framework which involves a grassroots originated settlement and not the sort which has typically been imposed from the top by people acting on the instructions of foreign powers.

It is the sort of transformative process; non-partisan, apolitical and shorn of the historically negative connotations of Ukrainian nationalism to which Wladimir Klitschko could lend his enormous prestige.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2014)

Adeyinka Makinde is a lecturer in law with research interests in intelligence and security issues as well as in the sport and culture of boxing. He is the author of Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula