With the release of Netflix’s ‘Tiger King’ last year the bizarre Joe Exotic bought the subject of exotic pet ownership into the public eye once again. Boxing though, has been intimately entwined with the eccentric and occasionally shocking practice for more than a hundred years.
Long before Mike Tyson posed shirtless, wrestling his white tiger, it was another small, hard punching heavyweight who paraded around his big cats. Former heavyweight champion Bob Fitzimmons was nonconformist by absolutely any measure. He owed several Lions in his lifetime and was notoriously nonchalant in his manner around them.
Fitzsimmons had five lions as pets during his life; Nero, Nero II, Senator Reynolds and two whose names remain unknown. He would play with them and feed them as most people would dogs, Nero was even purported to occasionally share a bed with the champion. The biggest and most fierce though was Senator Reynolds. Even the brave Bob was forced to sell him in the end when he "became afraid he would eat one of the children".
One of the first stories of him interacting with wild creatures comes after he had defended his title against Peter Maher in Langtry Texas. While celebrating his victory at the nearby carnival he walked up to a caged lion and grabbed the bars. Taunting the animal people laughed until they realised he was actually bending the metal bars in an attempt to free the lion. Although he failed bystanders were so scared they are said to have sprinted full speed in the opposite direction.
The next famous exotic pet in boxing was somewhat less fearsome but every bit as strange. The Napoleon of the Prize ring Jack McAuliffe had a pet Monkey that accompanied him throughout his training camps "I thought the monkey would bring us all luck". He recalled later in life that he would take his monkey on 20 mile runs while preparing for fights; “The Monk would hold on with his legs around my neck, and if I stopped too fast he would grab my ears to stop from falling off".
Heavyweight heel ‘Captain’ Bob Roper would be the next famous boxer to capture headlines with his pet when he took on the rising Harry Greb five times between in 1920 and 1922. He played a pantomime villain throughout his career wearing black shorts with a large skull and crossbones on, but by the time the pit fought for a fifth time he pulled out all the stops. He arrived to the weigh in wearing a large snake around his neck, although this visibly unsettled Greb, it didn’t stop him delivering a fifth successive one sided beating.
By the 1930’s the big cats were back, surrounding the man they called Gorilla. William Landon "Gorilla" Jones was the king of black high society in Paris. World Middleweight Champion, Bodyguard and long term lover of American starlet Mae West, socialite, fashion icon and qualified aeroplane pilot amongst other things Jones was obsessed with lions.
He owned several lions, all of whom he'd captured while in Africa with the infamous zoo owner, and circus mogul, Clyde Beatty. He walked them around the streets of Paris, all adorned with shining diamond studded collars. He once even entered the arena for a booth escorted by several lion cubs on a leash.
The golden age of heavyweights too was not immune from the influence of big cat mania, Big George Foreman too, for a time, owned a lion. It’s hardly a surprise that the man who now tends to a 300 acre ranch with hundreds of thoroughbred horses, Goats, cows, llamas, donkeys, ostriches, turkeys, deer and dogs was once the owner of a lion.
George remembered “After I came back from Africa, I was lion crazy, I found a baby. It was flown into San Francisco. I didn’t know a thing about big cats. This one was not quite weened. I bottle fed him and kept him with me….bedroom, car, you name it. I raised him in Livermore California.” He remembered it growing into a real carnivore; “He was with me from 1975 to 1979. I saw him grow into a beast. He changed with age, and needed special attention.” George eventually sold the lion to a zoo in New Jersey after it charged at his brother seemingly unprovoked. “I loved that boy,” He remembered in 2015.
Then we come to the most famous of them all. Mike Tyson’s white tigers. The three white Bengal tigers which reportedly cost £48,000 each became a huge part of the Tyson legend. Recently on his podcast Mike discussed his time owning the tigers; “I was foolish. There's no way you can domesticate these cats 100 percent... they'll kill you by accident, especially when you're playing rough with them, you're punching them back. They get hyped up, hit you back and you're dead.”
This became the case in the early 2000’s when as Mike put it; “she ripped somebody’s arm off.”. The incident occurred when an intoxicated woman trespassed onto Mike's complex, jumped in their habitat and started playing with the tiger, and as he had predicted, the tiger hit her back and badly injured her hand and arm.
Tyson recalled “They tried to sue me until they found out she jumped over the fence and she trespassed the tiger, Listen, when I saw what the tiger did to her hand, I had a lot of money back then, so I gave her $250,000 or whatever it was.” Here we see the tragic consequences that can arise when wild animals are used as trophies. Just like the champion that bought them, these tigers proved dangerous.
The final, and possibly the most weird is WBO and The Ring magazine junior-flyweight champion, IBF flyweight champion and the WBO junior-bantamweight champion, Donnie Nietes. He was nicknamed "Ahas" the Tagalog (Phillipino) word for "snake”, and the story behind that nickname is absolutely insane.
His trainer said; "Donnie got his nickname when he was a utility boy at the ALA Gym. One of his daily chores was to clean the snake pit with five big pythons and he was the only man with the guts to do it. He was bitten several times. But once he befriended the snakes, he was never bitten again. One day, a snake laid 11 eggs but only one survived. Donnie took care of that snake and he still does to this day. That's how he got his nickname.". When Donnie walked to the ring defending his world title, he was carrying that very same python.
This loony list, although entertaining does beg the question...why? Why is it that elite fighters are attracted to obscure and dangerous pets, I think simply it is the same psychological divergence that causes them to be fighters in the first place, a lack of an aversion to risk. If your chosen profession is to fight other trained professionals in front of thousands of people then you are someone who seeks the ultimate glory and excitement in the face of the most grave consequences. Owning a pet that could rip your arm off at a whim, offers the same excitement through risk.
Eddie Willis for SimBoxx