By Anthony Cocks
The year was 1969 and a quarter of a million people filled the streets along the route from Essendon airport in Melbourne’s north to the CBD. The last time a similar number of people assembled in the southern Australian city was five years earlier and it took four mop-tops from Liverpool with a string of number one hits and top selling albums to draw a comparable crowd.
Not a bad turnout for a city that had a population of less than two-and-a-half million people at the time. But who was the famous figure on the plane?
This wasn’t the return of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The aircraft wasn’t Air Force One nor was the Queen of England onboard. Pope Paul VI was safely tucked away at home in the Vatican. The sprawling and spontaneous reception was for a world-class sportsman.
Forget Beatlemania. This was Fammomania.
Johnny Famechon was returning from London where he had just lifted the WBC featherweight world title from crafty Spanish-based Cuban exile Jose Legra at the Royal Albert Hall on 21 January by 15 round points decision. Legra, who was making the first defence of his world championship, entered the ring with an impressive career record of 108-5-4 and was undefeated in his previous 54 bouts. Known as “The Pocket Cassius Clay”, his nickname spoke volumes about his boxing style and the high regard the boxing fraternity held him in.
To help celebrate the 49th anniversary of Famechon’s historic win, a 2.1 metre tall bronze statue of the former world champ will be unveiled at Ballam Park in his hometown of Frankston on Sunday 21 January 2018 at 11:00am. In attendance will be former world champions Azumah Nelson, Barry Michael and Sam Soliman along with local luminaries Graeme “Porky” Brooke, Ken Salisbury, Frank “The Tank” Ropis, Henry Nissen, Leon Nissen, Julian Holland and many more.
The project has been a labour of love for fundraiser Gary Luscombe and has taken over five years to complete.
“The project started at the unveiling of the Lionel Rose statue in Warragul in 2010,” said Luscombe. “Fammo was sitting with Lionel and Lionel said ‘Now I want one done for my mate Fammo’.”
Luscombe was having a coffee with Famechon eighteen months later when he asked him how the statue project was coming along. Famechon told him they were having trouble raising the money required, so the project might be scrapped.
“I had a few numbers so I started making a few phone calls and couldn’t get any funding for it, so we decided to fundraise for it,” said Luscombe. “In June 2013 we started a fundraising campaign and we raised the last $128,500 in five years for it.”
The sculptor, Stephen Glassborow, specialises in larger-than-life bronze statues and has his work on public display in places as far afield as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Seoul.
The Famechon story is an interesting one. Born into a fighting family in Paris, France in 1945, Jean-Pierre Famechon moved to Australia with his family as a five year old. His father Andre was the French lightweight champion while his Uncle Ray claimed national and European honours as a featherweight and Uncle Emile briefly held the French flyweight title. Ray fought some of the best in the world in and around the featherweight division, including Sandy Saddler and Duilio Loi. The same year as young Jean-Pierre moved halfway around the world with his family, Uncle Ray challenged all-time great Willie Pep for the world featherweight title, dropping a 15 round decision at New York’s Madison Square Garden in March 1950.
Famechon found his way to Ambrose Palmer’s gym under Festival Hall in West Melbourne where he was drilled in “The Method”, Palmer’s unique training regime predicated on the old axiom to “hit and not get hit”. Famechon entered the pro ranks in 1961 as a 16-year-old without any amateur experience – Palmer refused to train amateurs – and did his apprenticeship on the job.
In his first 13 months as a prizefighter Famechon went 3-1-2 before stringing together 19 straight wins. 1965 wasn’t a great year, going 5-3-1, but none of the losses occurred in Australian title fights. His 12 round points loss to Gilberto Biondi in October 1965 would be his last loss until his final professional fight almost five years later.
Fammo fought his first 15 rounder in 1964, picking up the Australian title from Ollie Taylor. In 1967 he claimed the Commonwealth featherweight title with a TKO11 over Scottish-born John O’Brien at Festival Hall, successfully defending the belt against Canadian-based Scotsman Billy McGrandle the following year, stopping him in the 12th.
By the time he fought Legra, Fammo had already competed in seven bouts scheduled for 15 rounds, going the full championship distance on three occasions. The champion by contrast had only fought two 15 rounders, both bouts finishing early, and had only boxed beyond the 10th round once.
Wearing his father’s sky blue boxing trunks, Famechon entered the ring as much as a 6-1 underdog with the local bookmakers. The lanky Legra did his best Ali impression in the early rounds, showboating and clowning for the Royal Albert Hall crowd. But Famechon was unfazed, working off his educated jab and using his lateral movement to keep Legra off-balance as he landed his quicker shots to the body and head. As the fight progressed and Legra tired, Fammo kept up the pressure and continued to pile up the points.
Fammo’s defence was a thing of beauty, slipping and sliding under Legra’s punches or parrying them with his right glove while he continued to stick his left in the champion’s face.
Going into the 15th round the neither fighter knew how the referee and sole judge George Smith had scored the bout. A desperate Legra charged after Fammo in the final round but the savvy Australian stuck to his gameplan and picked off the forward-rushing champion or slipped his punches with ease.
When the dust had settled referee Smith crowned Fammo the featherweight champion of the world.
With the win Fammo became just the third officially recognised world boxing champion to hail from Australia, joining bantamweights Lionel Rose (1968) and Jimmy Carruthers (1952).
Fammo would go on to defend the world title twice, scoring a 15 round points decision win over International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee Fighting Harada at Sydney Stadium in July 1969 and travelling to the Metropolitan Gym in Tokyo to knockout the Japanese hero in front of his hometown crowd in 14 rounds in January 1970.
As for Legra, he would go on to reclaim the WBC featherweight crown in 1972 with a tenth round TKO of Clemente Sanchez, who came in over the weight at 129¼ pounds to Legra’s 123½. His second reign was just as brief as his first, losing the title to all-time great Eder Jofre by majority decision in his first defence the following year.
Fammo’s final professional fight came in May 1970 when he travelled to Italy to defend his crown against Mexican southpaw Vincente Saldivar 35-1 (26) at the Palazzetto dello Sport in Rome. It was a close fight that many people felt Fammo deserved to win.
At just 25 years of age Fammo hung up the gloves for good, his health and bank balance intact. He took up refereeing boxing matches and appeared at sportsman’s nights. But his after-boxing life took a tragic turn in 1991 when he was clipped by a car travelling at over 100km an hour down the Hume Highway while out jogging in Sydney near the Warwick Park racetrack and sent hurtling into the air. His body a mangled wreck and his brain damaged from the impact, he spent three weeks in a coma and many months of rehabilitation followed in hospitals in Sydney and Melbourne. His health was further compromised by a stroke that paralysed the left-hand side of his body.
The doctors’ prognosis was not good. Famechon was told he would never walk again. He could barely talk. But ever determined, the ex-pugilist’s life reached a turning point in 1993 when he was introduced to Ragnar Purje, a Goju Karate expert who had radical ideas about how physical movement could help create new neural pathways.
Purje travelled from Geelong to Frankston every Saturday, working with Fammo on his physical and mental rehabilitation and leaving him with an exercise routine to practice throughout the week.
Central to Fammo’s recovery was his partner Glenys Bussey, who had met Fammo on a blind date the year before the accident. Every day after returning home from work, Glenys would religiously work with Fammo on his daily exercises. The former champion’s self-discipline, self-motivation and willingness to work hard at Ragnar’s movement therapy saw his physical and mental development advance in leaps and bounds.
Fammo had made Glenys a promise. He told her that when they got married, he would walk down the aisle with her. After just 12 weeks of Ragnar’s radical movement therapy Fammo was able to take his first tentative, unlikely steps.
Fammo and Glenys were hitched in 1997. A man of his word, Fammo walked down the aisle unassisted.
These days Fammo can be regularly seen sitting at ringside for the fights with the love of his life Glenys. His quick wit, keen sense of humour, sparkling eyes and dimpled smile hark back to an early era when he was the featherweight champion of the world.
Now a sprightly 72-year-old, Fammo is finally getting the recognition he so richly deserves in the Melbourne beachside suburb of Frankston where he has lived since 1970.
Famechon was inducted into the Australian Sports Hall of Fame in 1985, the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997, the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Frankston Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2013 the Australian National Boxing Hall of Fame elevated him to Legend status, where he sits alongside such luminaries of the sport as Les Darcy, Lionel Rose and Jeff Fenech.
The unveiling of the Fammo statue in Ballam Park, 260R Cranbourne Road, Frankston, will take place this weekend on Sunday 21 January at 11:00am. The event is free and attendees will include former
world champions Azumah Nelson, Barry Michael and Sam Soliman, along with local luminaries Graeme “Porky” Brooke, Ken Salisbury, Frank “The Tank” Ropis, Henry Nissen, Leon Nissen, Julian Holland and many, many more.