Lionel Rose, an icon of Australia’s Aboriginal people who gained widespread fame after winning a world boxing title and becoming the first Aborigine named “Australian of the Year,” died on Sunday after a long illness.
Rose, 62, became a major symbol and morale boost for Aborigines in 1968 after winning the world bantamweight boxing title in Tokyo, returning home to a hero’s welcome and tickertape parade with hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets of Melbourne to see him.
It was an unprecedented sign of respect for any member of Australia’s native people, who at the time were struggling for recognition and respect after years of discrimination.
“Lionel Rose was an Australian champion in every sense of the word, and an inspiration to all of us,” Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a statement.
Rose was named Australian of the Year in 1968 and was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire that same year for service to sport as a result of his victory over Japan’s Masahiko “Fighting” Harada on points over 15 rounds.
Rose fought 53 fights over the course of his career, winning 42, and had 11 knockouts. He was inducted into the Past and Professional Boxing Association Hall of Fame in 1994 and considered on of Australia’s sporting greats.
Australian Aboriginal former champion boxer Anthony Mundine tweeted: “To all my followers, it’s a sad day as the best fighter in Australian history has passed. Lionel Rose, RIP mate.”
During his career, Rose went through a lot of money, saying once that he spent “US$100,000 in one year on wine, women and song.”
He also fought alcoholism and spent a short time in prison for petty crime.
In 1970, he declined a lucrative offer to fight in South Africa in order to take a stand against apartheid.
His life story became an Australian mini-series, Rose against the Odds.
He retired from fighting in 1975 and in 2007 suffered a stroke that left him partially paralyzed.