The decision that saved boxing legend Jeff Fenech’s life.
The decision that saved boxing legend Jeff Fenech’s life.

Fenech was ‘three hours from death’

Three hours from death. Now five days away from a fairytale story.

Jeff Fenech, with tubes in his left arm that lead to a bottle of liquid in his pocket, feeding his body after life-saving heart surgery in Thailand, yells at the chiselled young man in the ring throwing uppercuts in a steamy Sydney gym.

"Off your toes," Fenech, one of Australia's greatest pugilists, tells Jack Brubaker, one of eight children who grew up on a horse riding ranch in Darkes Forest, 30 minutes north of Wollongong, population 115.

Holding the pads is Fenech's assistant Basil Nassis, who talks as though he narrates fantasy novels.

"If you know your history you've got the Vikings who had these guys called the berserkers - they wouldn't even wear helmets or body armour or a shield, and they sent them out with a big axe," Nassis says.

Jeff Fenech watches on as Jack Brubaker trains ahead of his fight with Tim Tszyu. Picture Rohan Kelly
Jeff Fenech watches on as Jack Brubaker trains ahead of his fight with Tim Tszyu. Picture Rohan Kelly

"They ran into the enemy just swinging that big axe. I told Jack he's a berserker: he's got that big axe and he's going to come swinging.

"Tim Tszyu is the typical Russian with the sharp sabre, he's just going to try to bang, nick the jugular, bang, nick the heart, bang, nick the arteries. This is what we've got to battle; a fencer, a marksman, and we'll have a berserker bringing everything.

"Sometimes those berserkers would win the battle because the enemy would be so taken aback by the ferocity of their attack."

How these three men have arrived at this destination, with the task of dethroning Australian boxing's new star Tszyu in Darling Harbour next Friday, is a miracle.

"Had the ambulance not taken me and I'm in the room by myself, I'm dead," Fenech said.

Had they gone to dinner, I'm dead. It's crazy."

 

 

Jeff Fenech in hospital in Thailand where he he underwent emergency surgery to replace an infected heart valve. Picture: Fight Call Out
Jeff Fenech in hospital in Thailand where he he underwent emergency surgery to replace an infected heart valve. Picture: Fight Call Out

"They" are the 10-man Team Fenech crew who flew to Thailand in October for a training camp preparing Brubaker for the fight of his life.

Instead it was Fenech who faced that task, literally.

Having felt unwell upon arrival, Fenech wanted to rest in his room and, with some sharp expletives, told his friends he did not want to be bothered.

"The doctor said three more hours, it would have been heart failure," Nassis said. "People don't realise how close Jeff was to actual death. Three hours.

"We'd made plans for dinner, we could have all gone out and said, 'Oh let's just check on him when we get back'.

"But sometimes in life it just happens, I just thought I'd go check on Jeff. He actually hung up on me, he wouldn't let me in his room; 'Basil go away, I'm sick'.

"I said 'Jeff, let me in'. He didn't.

"I went down to the lobby, all the boys were there. I said 'Boys, we've got to do something with Jeff'.

 

 

Two weeks after the surgery Fenech was able to attend his daughter’s wedding in Sydney. Picture Rohan Kelly
Two weeks after the surgery Fenech was able to attend his daughter’s wedding in Sydney. Picture Rohan Kelly

"If we would have gone to dinner, and this is what scares me, Jeff wouldn't be alive."

Fenech speaks softly: "I went down to watch the boys train and I didn't feel well so I headed back to my room, they said I maybe had pneumonia so I just took my medication and went to bed.

"I'm blessed that Basil came first and a couple of the other boys followed. Apparently they brought an ambulance, I don't remember.

"It was surreal. I knew I was sick, apparently I rang my wife crying, saying I needed emergency surgery, but I don't even remember ringing her."

Nassis won't soon forget seeing the skin of Fenech's chest contort to his pained heartbeats.

"That was the big concern, to see a man's heart beating through his chest, you could see it," Nassis said.

"I've seen my grandparents pass away, I've seen the last stages of life, and to me that's exactly what it looked like, he was heading into heart failure."

Yet the day after having an infected heart valve replaced, Fenech was orchestrating Brubaker's preparations from his hospital bed.

 

 

Fenech is still recovering from his surgery and carries a bottle which feeds fluids into his arm through a tube. Picture: Rohan Kelly
Fenech is still recovering from his surgery and carries a bottle which feeds fluids into his arm through a tube. Picture: Rohan Kelly

 

 

"Jeff had an oxygen mask on his mouth, for all we know he's not going to make it through the next night, but he's still giving us instructions to do this and that and taking his oxygen mask off to tell us what training we should be doing," Nassis said.

"And camp went on. We were getting up every morning going for a run, we were inspired."

On Tuesday, Fenech's tubes come out and he plans to head straight to the gym and hold pads, absorbing Brubaker's thundering punches.

"I wish I could've been there every day, I haven't, but he's worked hard and these last couple of days are the most important," Fenech said.

"Me being able to put the pads on and talk him through things is going to be really important."

Brubaker only started fighting 10 years ago.

"I had my first amateur fight on my 18th birthday," Brubaker said.

 

Fenech is still recovering from his surgery and carries a bottle which feeds fluids into his arm through a tube. Picture: Rohan Kelly
Fenech is still recovering from his surgery and carries a bottle which feeds fluids into his arm through a tube. Picture: Rohan Kelly

 

 

"I've always been the underdog because I started late. This time last year I was fighting at Bankstown Emporium, warming up in the car park, thinking 'I'm better than this, what has my career come to?' I didn't want to be there.

"It's amazing what a year can do; new team, headlining the biggest show in Australian boxing, my face is plastered up around Darling Harbour."

With a 16-2-2 (8KO) record, natural welterweight Brubaker will be a major underdog against Tszyu (14-0,10), who could be as much as eight kilograms heavier by the time they step on to the canvas inside the ICC Exhibition Centre for the super-welterweight fight.

Not that the size disadvantage perturbs Brubaker.

"I've always had that mongrel inside me," he said.

 

 

Jack Brubaker trains ahead of his fight with Tim Tszyu. Picture Rohan Kelly
Jack Brubaker trains ahead of his fight with Tim Tszyu. Picture Rohan Kelly

"I love the big stage. I'm an exciting, entertaining character. I feel you've got to be something a little bit special, as long as you're your authentic self.

"I deserve this fight.

"I've worked hard for a lot of years.

"I grew up on a horse riding ranch and to keep the farm running smoothly there's a lot of work, a lot of chores, mowing lawns, feeding animals.

"When I started my apprenticeship after Year 10, I was getting up at 5am to get to Waterfall Station to be on site by 7am. I've worked hard all my life.

"I played rugby league all the way through childhood. When I got my plumbing job, the boss said I couldn't get collarbone or leg injuries, so I took up boxing at 17. I figured it wasn't a problem to come in with a black eye."

 

 

Brubaker (left) and Tszyu ahead of their fight. Picture Rohan Kelly
Brubaker (left) and Tszyu ahead of their fight. Picture Rohan Kelly

Known for his all-out attacking style, Brubaker has left his chin exposed in previous fights, but Fenech and Nassis have carefully crafted a game plan they believe will use his aggression while preserving him from Tszyu's counters.

"Off your toes," Fenech shouts at Brubaker.

Running up Brubaker's leg are tattoos of Mike Tyson, Muhammad Ali, Arturo Gatti, a daily reminder of the rags-to-riches stories boxing so often delivers, and artwork of the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, where he hopes to one day headline.

 

 

 

Tim Tszyu trains ahead of his match up with Brubaker. Picture Rohan Kelly
Tim Tszyu trains ahead of his match up with Brubaker. Picture Rohan Kelly

 

 

"This is it, if I can overcome the last couple of years I can definitely overcome Tim Tszyu on December 6," Brubaker said.

"After I win this fight, I might even tattoo Tim Tszyu's belts on me."

Before the bell rings, they'll stand there in the corner under the lights. A berserker. A believer. And a commander who won't buckle until his heart stops beating.