Former WBO world cruiserweight champion Johnny Nelson calls himself a product of Brendan Ingle’s gym. Never intent on being a boxer at all, Johnny Nelson you could say became world champion by accident!
“I didn’t actually want to fight I just went there (Brendan’s gym) to make friends. The school I went to, there was a certain group from the rough side of Sheffield we got picked to go to a posh catholic school, the majority of us we wasn’t well to do kids so by the time I had finished school the mates that I had, they were rich kids so they would go off to university or to work for their fathers. I wasn’t a brainiac at school so I had to start again. I had my friends that lived on my doorstep but you didn’t really socialise with them that much because you had kind of stuck with your school mates, so once I had finished I thought I need to start again here, do something I can get attached to and it was just to make friends, I didn’t want to box. I had no intention of boxing it was just to make friends down the gym that was it.”
Nelson wasn’t even a boxing fan when he stepped foot into the gym. “My dad watched it and I would watch it with him, but as a young child I can’t say I dreamt of being a world champion or (thought) ‘God I want to be Ali!’ I just didn’t think that was going to happen to me. I always just thought it was somebody on television. Some people know their path in life, some people find their path in life and some people trip on their path in life and that’s what happened to me, I just tripped on my path in life and eventually it clicked for me but it took a long time.”
Johnny made his professional debut March 1986 and went on to lose his first three fights, this could knock a contenders confidence but not The Entertainer! “I had thirteen amateur fights and only won three! I didn’t care if I won or lost, like I said I just wanted to make friends. I didn’t have big dreams I didn’t care if I won or lost because I had no aspirations of becoming a world champion. I just went there to be part of a group, the guys train together, we travel on the bus together, we would all train together. They didn’t understand it with me because I didn’t care but they did care if they won or lost. I was the butt of the joke in the gym because I would still carry on coming and keep persisting. Again it wasn’t to become a champion, I thought that’s where my mates were. At times I went to a fight and thought I hope my opponent don’t turn up. That’s just how it was!”
The cruiserweight from Sheffield did then rack up fifteen wins from his next seventeen fights winning the central area and the British cruiserweight titles, earning a shot at the WBC world cruiserweight title against De Leon. The outcome of that fight was a draw and the home crowd turned on Johnny during that fight. “I think that was the beginning of my actual desire to want to box. Up to that point I had won titles and I actually didn’t think I was that good, I just thought everybody else was crap! I had no self belief I just thought they were rubbish and that I was lucky to get in the ring with people that can’t box that well, that was what I actually thought that’s the honest truth. When it came to boxing for the world title I was panicking thinking I am going to get exposed here, everybody is going to realise I am a fraud, they will see I can’t really fight and the guys I have been beating are crap. Not thinking about the other side like the glass is half full, I am actually not bad so when I fought De Leon for a world title in Sheffield I can understand peoples frustrations because they saw I had the ability when I didn’t see it, I didn’t perform because I panicked thinking I am going to embarrass myself in front of people here and get knocked out. In thinking like that I was completely negative. I looked at De Leon’s record and at one point he was the best cruiserweight in the world and I thought he is top drawer, I am going to get exposed here and this is how i fought, negatively, not realising that I can do it. So the mind is a very strong tool. The one thing I learnt from boxing is that your mind is your biggest opponent not the man your fighting. So I boxed De Leon and drew and I can understand the frustration of folk because they saw a young man throw away the opportunity to change his life and still the penny hadn’t dropped until then but once that had happened everybody had turned against me it hurt that much that all of a sudden I felt I had to prove something to myself and to those people that turned against me because my friendships changed overnight people who were all over me during the build up to that fight didn’t want to know. This was human nature at its worst and I thought ‘Wow this hurts’ so that affected me and made me want to achieve. That was the beginning of the turn around for me. I didn’t realise it would take almost nine years after that to get the world title.”
Champion of the World
The reformed fighter did go on to win the WBO world title which he still holds the joint record of most title defences, thirteen, equalled with Marco Huck. ‘Having the record? I didn’t actually think about it. To me the reason why I know that I was different to most of the successful guys in the gym was because once I had won the world title, I didn’t become complacent. I wanted more, I thought right now I have achieved that, but it wasn’t enough, I thought, is that it? I want more than this, this isn’t it. Each time I boxed I didn’t think I could get complacent then I realised I had the same mentality, not the same ability, but the same mentality of your Alis, Fraziers, all the successful fighters that managed to win titles and unify titles and still fight and put on performances of top level. Because you got to think to yourself it’s very hard to motivate yourself once you have climbed that mountain. To me I had got it, I thought I know I won the title but its not enough! I was still hungry and then the belief started to come. I thought I’m different and each time I won I never ever was complacent I always had that hunters mentality. I find with a lot of fighters they win a title because that’s their dream but once they got it they usually lose it in the first or second defence because their drive, ambition and desire is no longer there because they have got what they want. When I got the world title it still wasn’t what I wanted, I wanted more I didn’t know what it was but I wanted more and that’s what drove me on. Creating that record is something I didn’t even think about until I had retired, people would tell me ‘you have created a record.’ I would say ‘oh really?!’ it wasn’t a big deal to me. They made a big deal out of Marco Huck matching my record and that’s when it came to light, but looking at Huck I thought this ain’t real, this guy has only boxed on his own doorstep, that’s BS. The record was a bigger deal to everybody else than it was to me because even when I won all those defences I still wanted more it wasn’t enough for me. That is what defined me from a lot of champions who are very similar to me like your Leonards, Haglers, Alis in the way I thought. You see these guys with the millions in the bank and you think what makes these guys get out of bed in the morning, it’s because their mentalities are different, it doesn’t matter what they have got or achieved they still want more. When I boxed I always wanted more to prove it to yourself, you got to think selfish like that.”
The unthinkable comeback?
There were rumours that Nelson would box the mentioned Marco Huck and it seems it was close to being finalised. ‘He (Huck) got offered about £600k and still kept moving the goalposts and kept saying he wanted this, he wanted that. I thought it was an excellent story because both fighters have created a record. Why not put both fighters in the ring with the record at stake, I never lost it in the ring he achieved it in the ring when he invited me out to Germany I told him the truth I told him that he has done well but he is not really a champion because champions are able to box all over the world and come back, he never boxed outside of Germany and they didn’t take to kindly to my words. It was a great story also because of my age and his age at the time its intriguing because they are thinking a young Johnny Nelson would’ve dealt with Marco Huck but how will an aged Nelson deal with him? I didn’t want to come back for a career and I made that very clear and I think that’s what might have been a stumbling block to any promoter who expressed an interest in the fight. I just wanted to come back for that fight. I didn’t want a warm up fight. I didn’t want to pick that fight and have a few more I just wanted that fight, because it takes long enough to get it out of your system it would have taken me six to eight months to get myself back into fight condition. I know I was fit but then there’s fight fit and my 50% fitness is probably Huck’s 100% fitness but when I boxed my 100% fitness was never matched because I knew I was fit and knew I could do it and that was the secret to my success, so I said give me six months to get fit and we are on and the fight was almost done but Marco Huck kept moving the goalposts and his former promoters said to me ‘Look Johnny he doesn’t want to fight you, you’re either going to make him look bad and he wins or you win and his career is over because of your age.’ It would have been an excellent story, but what did he do? He went and boxed in America for around $300k and lost. I thought more fool you!”
Brendan Ingle, is one of the finest coaches the sport has had and Nelson classes him as the main reason to his success. “Without Brendan Ingle there would be no Johnny Nelson. Without Brendan I wouldn’t have boxed, from the first day I set foot in that gym I knew I couldn’t have boxed if I had walked into any other gym. I remember when I was in school and my mum sent me to London to get a job and I went to a gym there and these guys were in there battering each other and I thought ‘No way, I ain’t doing that man!’ Brendan’s style of training his way of teaching, that suited me. Brendan is not just a boxing coach he is a life coach and he moulded me. He told me ‘Johnny you won’t become good until your in your thirties.’ He said this when I was a teen and at the time I thought I don’t want to be boxing when I’m thirty-odd. Brendan coached me, he schooled me, he was my friend, I trusted him and he still is my friend and he is one person I will always respect. Everybody has that one mentor, that person that guided them. Mike Tyson had Cus D’Amato, David Beckham had Alex Ferguson. Brendan has had many fighters walk away from him and once they walked they never really achieved ability wise what they could have, Naz walked, Herol Graham left and they had never boxed as well as when they were with Ingle. Loyalty to me towards Brendan was everything. I saw people come and go, I saw people mess up, I saw people regret leaving, I saw all that and I thought I haven’t got a problem here I’m happy. I got Brendan and I am a product of his gym because I didn’t have natural ability, I didn’t come from an excellent amateur pedigree, he helped me from scratch, from the start to finish so I represent exactly what the gym is all about. It’s about giving anybody and everybody a chance and if you put the work in expect the results. I hope I make him and the gym proud because of that because I know I am a product of the gym.”
Price Naz and Herol Graham, both men are held in high regard within British boxing, both students of Brendan Ingle. Success breeds success as the famous saying goes.
‘The funny thing is you are all in the gym at the same time. Naz is younger than me and Herol is older. Now, if you had no idea who all the fighters were and you walked into Ingle’s gym you would not know who was a champion or who was a challenger. I was a gym champion but I couldn’t perform in public and it took a while for that penny to drop to think ‘Johnny you are doing exactly the same as Herol Graham, you’re doing exactly the same as Naseem Hamed why can’t you do it in public?’ So when we were in the gym we all looked at each other and picked things from each other thinking I would do that or I wouldn’t do that. Naz, I loved his confidence, I loved how he grew but what Naz did in the gym we all did. When he flipped over the ropes we all did it in the gym, but none of us were stupid enough to do it in public in case we fell so Naz was the only one to do it publicly and when he had done it once he had to always do it. When you walk into Brendan’s gym if you look at the ceiling above the ring you will see black marks on the ceiling which is when us bigger guys done it our feet hit the ceiling and you would land nine times out of ten but you would drop and think ‘I don’t want to do that in a fight!’ Everyone thought Naz was amazing for doing it but we all did it in the gym, what Naz did was he had the courage to do it in public and of course his ability was second to none but Naz knew it. As my Mum says, ‘A ghost knows who to frighten’. So when in the gym he knows who to put it on and who not to, Naz was an amazing athlete. Herol Graham was a magician, an absolute magician. We all developed at different times, at different levels. It were actually very good, very healthy and we all learnt off each other its just how it is.’
There has been a great production of boxers from Sheffield with the likes of Naz, Herol along with Junior Witter, Kell Brook and Kid Galahad among the ranks currently. All of these names have come from the famous Ingles gym. “If you look at what Brendan has done currently, out of all of England, out of his gym I think he is one of the most successful trainers in the world! You can tally up the amount of British, Commonwealth, European and World champions out of one gym. There is no gym in England that compares to that because he has made them, he created them, he hasn’t stole fighters asking them to ‘come and fight for me’ he created them. He is the most successful trainer this country has ever had and they will not appreciate what Brendan has achieved for years to come. I think, look at the champions he has had look at what he did he did it from scratch, fighters from all different shapes and sizes. Herol Graham for me was an absolute genius, he was the man. But you look to find flaws in everyone, I think Herol Graham, brilliant, but his mentality when it came to a fight he was running on fear, like he had seen a ghost that’s what Herol was like in the dressing room he wouldn’t talk to anyone. He was really quiet and really withdrawn but if you look at the flipside of it Naz was loud and there was always music playing, I loved that side of Naz, there was a fighter called Brian Anderson, British champion I loved his mentality because he just wanted to fight. So you start thinking to yourself who do you want to be like, do I want to be like Herol withdrawn and quiet and then come out and box your fight or do you want to be like Naz blowing up with a lot of energy and let people see that? He intimidates people with how relaxed and happy he is, do you want to be like Brian Anderson who wants to just get in there and get stuck into it? I think Herol Graham was the best fighter that came out of the gym. Skill wise? I think Naseem Hamed, if I told you the things he did to fighters of all weights and sizes you wouldn’t believe me, he smashed heavyweights they couldn’t touch him, and on his day he was brilliant and Brendan said to Naz ‘you could win titles at four different weights. But unfortunately your going to be like chocolate and end up eating yourself and self destruct.’ He was right! Kell Brook coming through, he has got it! What you have seen of Kell so far is only 60% of what he can do, the kid can fight, and I am not just saying that. I have seen what he can do. Junior Witter can fight on his day but he has had a small window and I think if he had got the big fights against the likes of Ricky Hatton, he would have shot up there but he wasn’t a guy who puts bums on seats! He wasn’t a character like Hatton, so of course they were going to push Ricky forward because he was like the boy next door and eventually you get disheartened that’s what happened to Witter. There was a another fighter called Fidel Castro Smith who’s fight name was Slugger O’Toole! This guy was absolutely outstanding but Brendan said it’s never just about ability. It’s about character and if your character is strong enough that will carry you through but your character can make you or break you.”
Many fans like to wonder ‘what if’s?’ with regards to fantasy match ups. I asked Johnny if he could pick any fighter past or present who would be your dream fight and why?
“Oh wow! My dream fight for myself? I would have liked to have unified the world title, for me I would have like to have boxed, people won’t know these guys, Juan Carlos Gomez, this guy was a Cuban, he was unbelievably brilliant, he was the WBC champion when I was WBO champion. It’s a fight I would have loved to had because I thought he was a really good fighter and I would have beaten him, and beaten him well. If you want to talk about big names, why would I want to fight them?! Why would I want to get in the ring with the likes of Sugar Ray Robinson? Muhammad Ali? These guys were brilliant. These guys are my favourite fighters but I want to look at guys I could beat and wouldn’t mind beating. Jack Johnson, Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard all these guys are my heroes, I was inspired by them all. These guys are not guys you want to fight, you want to be inspired by them!’
Written and interviewed by James Lupton.