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On the road with Johnny Nelson and Naseem Hamed

Johnny Nelson
Covering European title fights in Europe was never a chore, particularly the night Johnny Nelson won the crown, writes Steve Bunce

IT was a February morning in 1997 at East Midlands airport when Paddy Reilly’s mum put him on a private jet. Paddy, also known as Clifton Mitchell, joined me and Naseem Hamed for the flight to France and a fight; it was Johnny Nelson’s latest and arguably his last chance at reinvention. The stakes were high that cold winter morning in the Midlands as we buckled up, ate the free crisps and waited to take off for Nelson against Patrice Aouissi in Berck, a seaside resort about an hour south of Calais. It was a difficult place to reach and not an easy night for Nelson. In the end, he made it look simple and won in the seventh round.

Clifton Mitchell had lost a European heavyweight title fight in Germany to Željko Mavrivić about 10 weeks earlier; he would never fight again and I can’t remember if he knew that when the plane took off. He was very close to Naz, very close. I was there because I had asked for a ride and wanted to cover the fight. I had always loved covering European title fights in Europe. I had driven, flown and taken the Eurostar. A private jet was an upgrade.

Nelson had no fear of travelling overseas for fights. His boxing passport is arguably the most impressive ever by a quality British boxer. He won and lost obscure cruiserweight and heavyweight titles in boxing outposts like São Paulo, Auckland and Chiang Rai in Thailand. He made a defence in Las Vegas and won a heavyweight belt at York Hall at less than 48 hours’ notice. It was an extraordinary career and for lovers of belts, here’s the list: WBU heavy, WBF heavy, WBF cruiser and WBO cruiser. Defeats for the WBC and IBF cruiser versions.

Johnny loved European title fights away from home; he won the title first in Germany, stopping unbeaten Markus Bott in 1990, then again when he beat Aouissi seven years later.

However, there was a hard time when British boxers were sent off to Spain, Italy, France and Germany to lose European title fights. And often to make decent money.

The very best of British were turned over on the continent in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s in important fights with a nasty edge. The fights were important because that was – winning the European title – generally the only way to a world title fight. There was a lot on the line and that is why boxing’s darkest arts occurred; cut boxers benefited from illegal substances to keep wounds closed, some were given gloves that had been tampered with. It was the Wild West and it really was not that long ago. Alan Minter took his own security in the ‘70s.

The stories of atrocities by judges, referees and the home fans are legend. Even Mickey Duff whacked somebody one night in Germany at a fight when the ringside area became a bit lively. There is an extra bit to Duff’s knockout story, and some versions talk about the man’s toupée flying off. In another version, they have a rematch one night after a European title fight in London. Duff wins again; I like all versions.

Plenty of quality British boxers were stitched-up in the ring and there are instances of trainers and members of the travelling entourage needing stitches after battles outside the ring. It was chaos and it continued well into the ‘90s, make no mistake.

Nelson seemed to float above aggravation; some might argue he did the same in the ring. There was an incident with an armed gang in Brazil, but in general Nelson and his travelling party from the Ingle gym went in and out of Europe without any great wars. There was a night in Dublin, but that is a tale for the campfire.

In the ring against Aouissi that night, Nelson transformed and salvaged his career; Nelson entered the ring having lost 12 times in 40 fights and he had been mercilessly ridiculed for his performances against both Carlos De León and James Warring. The boxing press then was truly brutal, unrecognisable now. It was a very different time, there was no fear of upsetting people, just bans and threats of court action from promoters, fighters and managers. There was a lot of abuse and Nelson got it more than any fighter – at his level – I can remember before or since. Reg Gutteridge was particularly savage.

In the fight before Aouissi, on an emotional night in Sheffield, Nelson sent Dennis Andries into retirement; a few weeks later we got the plane to watch him beat Aouissi. It was the turning point in his career and Nelson would have 18 more fights after that night in France, remain unbeaten and defend the WBO cruiserweight title 13 times.

Little Naz had delivered a blunt pep talk before the fight that night in Berck. That was a very special time inside the Ingle boxing business. Naz had kept up a running commentary and I think he threw punches until the end. Nelson won the vacant European title, but there was more than just that glorious belt on offer that night. He had to win, the business needed him and that is why I was on that tiny plane. I think Nelson was in a main event on television 15 or more times after that fight.

In France, in my opinion, he became Johnny Nelson the fighter. And that man could fight a bit.

The flight left very early the next morning and the pilot delivered us a bag of croissants.

Nelson flew back with us on the flight and, like a bunch of kids, we took every single free item from that plane. Not one diet ginger ale remained. And once we landed, I went to a payphone in the terminal and dialled in my copy on the freephone number; Hamed retained his title in 93 seconds a couple of months later; I have no idea if Paddy’s mum was there to meet him.

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