Lee Groves

10: Greatest “above and beyond” performances

2. Jeff Fenech W 12 Marcos Villasana – April 8, 1989, National Tennis Centre, Melbourne, Australia

Injuries: Two broken hands, broken nose, fractured cheekbone, mouth lacerations and bruising from repeated low blows.

 

 

 

Fenech was his era’s ultimate profile in courage, for the Villasana fight wasn’t the only one in which he suffered multiple injuries, just the most severe example. The Australian triple champion was born with malformed hands that prevented him from making a true fist, and the result was a multitude of injuries incurred not only in fights but also in sparring. Knowing he would hurt his hands virtually every time he stepped between the ropes, Fenech fought through the pain like a wild man as he exerted constant pressure and unleashed a non-stop torrent of power punches.

To make matters worse, Fenech often had to torture himself to squeeze down to his various weight limits. For the Villasana fight he had to pull off 20 pounds in the final weeks, and, according to his autobiography, he blacked out several times and was often dizzy from dehydration. The only fuel he would permit himself to ingest during this period was porridge in the morning and rice and vegetables at night. Yet when it came time to weigh in, Fenech made the limit with a half-pound to spare, and was one-quarter pound lighter than Villasana.

This was Villasana’s fourth attempt at capturing a featherweight title. He lost a pair of decisions to WBC holder Azumah Nelson, and he fought WBA king Antonio Esparragoza to a draw. Had he not suffered a point penalty for low blows in round five, Villasana would have been declared the winner.

But that didn’t stop the Mexican from ripping below the belt from the start as he landed at least a half dozen in the first round. Fenech, wearing a menacing goatee in tribute to his hero Roberto Duran, flashed his faster hands at first, but the action quickly became chippy as Villasana’s fouls angered the champ and prompted him at one point to shove his opponent across the ring. It was evident that referee Joe Cortez would more than earn his paycheck this night.

Fenech went after Villasana in the second, using shoulders, drive blocks and elbows to maul the challenger while also belaboring him with plenty of legal punches. Villasana retaliated fiercely, especially with left hooks and shots at and below the belt line. The punishment quickly registered on Fenech’s face as he suffered a cut eye in the second, a mouse under the same eye in the third and bumps and swellings around his cheekbone and the bridge of his nose. He spat out blood in the corner between rounds five and six as Villasana’s punches opened cuts inside Fenech’s mouth.

But through it all, Fenech fought on and never let up. The only indication of his suffering was when he repeatedly rubbed his nose and cheek with his glove while in the corner. But in the ring, Fenech never gave Villasana any clue that he was anything but his usual rampaging self.

Villasana plowed in three low blows in the opening 10 seconds of the sixth, and an infuriated Fenech tried to get past Cortez to exact revenge. After Cortez warned the Mexican, the challenger tried to apologize by extending his right glove. Fenech would have none of it, as the only thing he wanted to touch was his glove to Villasana’s face. The Australian proceeded to tear up Villasana at close quarters, but to his credit Villasana stood up under the assault and fired back with gusto. The result was a battle that stretched the bounds of pugilistic intensity.

But the injuries eventually began to wear on Fenech in the 10th and Villasana enjoyed his best – and perhaps his only winning – round as a big right briefly shook the champion and had him holding on. A second right rocked Fenech near the end of the session, and from then on Fenech used his still-springy legs to keep Villasana at range to run out the clock and nurse his mounting injuries.

Fenech won a comfortable decision, with Arlen “Spider” Bynum seeing Fenech a 117-109 winner while Harold Lederman and Jerry Roth saw it 118-109. After the fight Fenech, weary of having to deal with constant pain, announced his retirement. The future Hall of Famer eventually changed his mind and resumed his career against Mario Martinez seven months later. 

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