November 2006

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Lionel Rose & Elvis Presley

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Lionel Rose was nearing the end of a hard training session when he got the message that Elvis Presley wanted to meet him. It was December 1968 and the 20-year-old Aboriginal boxer had come to Los Angeles to defend his world bantamweight title against Mexican challenger Chucho Castillo. But the bout was still two days away, and an invitation from the King was not something to be passed up. Elvis was, after all, a big favourite of Lionel's mum. Rose "pulled off the gloves, jumped under the shower and drove straight to the MGM lot".

Presley was shooting a movie, probably The Trouble with Girls, one of the string of mediocre musicals that occupied his time and talents in the hiatus between his hip-grinding glory days and his decline into a Las Vegas grotesque. A runner on the set, a fight fan, had suggested the get-together, judging that the two men would get along well. He was right. They spent two hours together, talking about music and the manly arts.

Rose had grown up in poverty near Drouin in Gippsland, learning to box from his father, a fighter in tent shows. While still in his teens, the shy boy from the bush defeated Japan's seemingly invincible Fighting Harada to become the champion of the world and a hero to Aboriginal Australia.

Elvis, a ready scrapper since his early days on the road, had picked up a strong interest in karate during his stint in the army. A certified black belt, he did his own fight sequences in his movies, including Kid Galahad, in which he played a boxer. At 33, he was still fit and trim. "Not fat and flabby like later," Rose recalled.

As well as conversation, there was a little light sparring - strictly for the camera - and an autographed US dollar bill as a gift for Lionel's mum back home. Would Elvis ever come to Australia? Rose wondered. Too far away, said the King. They parted as friends, the young boxer "pleased as punch" by the encounter.

Rose returned to his training and beat Castillo on points, eventually notching up 53 professional wins before retiring in 1976. Between bouts, he displayed a softer side as a crooner of country ballads. ‘I Thank You' and ‘Pick Me Up on Your Way Down' both topped the charts. There were rough patches, but he never lost the affection of the public. Elvis, meanwhile, kept getting bigger. And bigger. And bigger. In 1977, he was felled by a lethal sucker punch from a fried peanut-butter sandwich.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

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