BOXING NEWS catches multi-talented Steven Nelson in the midst of looking after six dogs as a favour to family and friends. The charismatic light-heavyweight paints portraits and designs tattoos. He is a barber, an electrician and a car mechanic. “I do a lot with my hands!” He’s also unbeaten with 11 professional wins, 9 by KO and is forecasting a busy twelve months, stepping up in class as he climbs the rankings. Although currently a powerful 175-pounder, a drop down to super-middleweight is pending: “This time next year I’ll have a belt. I want to win titles in two weight classes and I’m not big enough for cruiserweight. I want a title at 168 pounds, defend a couple of times and move back up to 175.”
Bold maybe, but at 30 years old, Nelson is on a mission: “People mention my age, but growing up I never played sports so was never hard on my body. No miles on the clock.” As for who may be in his way, Nelson concentrates on his own improvement rather than scouting potential opponents: “I’m a casual fan of boxing who knows how to fight.” However, that knowledge of how to fight wasn’t always channelled positively:
“Joining the Army was to get away from the lifestyle I was living as a teenager. I was running with a bad crowd, getting into trouble, and knew I had to leave. So I went to the military and did pretty good on the tests, and I became a satellite communications specialist. As soon as I joined, my unit was deploying and within a couple of weeks I was flying to Afghanistan. The first day I went there, we lost four guys on the team who were killed. I grew up as a person and as a man. I’ve seen a lot of things and done a lot of things but I realised what I’m blessed with, living in America. I needed that experience.”
And it was military physical discipline which led Nelson to boxing. At 250 pounds, he felt in shape, but a first visit to a boxing gym in 2010 and the discovery of a natural talent led to more serious training: “When I started fighting in the Army it was at heavyweight 201 pounds. The next year my coach at the time Basheer Abdullah called me and said, ‘Steve I want you at 178 (light heavyweight) this year’ and just hung up! I called him back and he said, ‘You can come fight at 178 or don’t come’ and hung up again! I didn’t know anything about cutting weight but it just came right off. I smoked through the All-Army tournament and then went to the combined Armed Forces tournament and won that.”
This dramatic entrance to the military boxing programme led to an appearance in the 2012 US Nationals where he dropped a close decision to eventual Olympian Marcus Browne in the final.
“I went to London 2012 as an alternate. I had no plan – it was always one step at a time so to experience the Olympics even as a training partner was great.” Although in pole position for Rio 2016, during that Olympic cycle he began to outgrow the amateurs: “Being in camp and learning with pros I adopted a more relaxed style and three rounds wasn’t enough for me anymore.” Beginning his professional campaign, Nelson benefitted from world-class sparring with Andre Ward. “I had a really good camp with him. We were going back and forth. He is a cool, helpful guy who doesn’t come across as famous at all and really encouraged me, I learnt a lot.”
Nelson has already gained social media attention for his unorthodox ring entrances (notably once being escorted to the ring dressed as Hannibal Lecter) and for notching a KO of the year candidate versus Reyes Diaz in 2016.
“Going into the pros I needed to come up with a niche – something people are gonna remember me by. I had this idea of coming to the ring as different characters so I started to make my own uniforms. It helps keep me busy during camp, and I can use my creativity and skill to get peoples interest. In the Army if I had idle time I couldn’t just sit around – I’m fixing something, building something. Watching superhero movies it’s cool I can now come out as those characters. My first uniform was Sub-Zero from Mortal Kombat – that’s why they call me So Cold. People loved the Hannibal Lecter thing. I ordered the mask, made my own shorts and had someone wheel me out on a dolly – it was perfect!”
Earlier this year Nelson moved back to Nebraska after being based in San Diego with his fighter fiancée Raquel Miller – who herself lost out to Claressa Shields for a spot on the 2016 US Olympic team. “Now it’s crunch time in my career, I’m 11-0 and my competition is going to get better, I need to be with my coaches every day.” And daily grind in the gym with Terence ‘Bud’ Crawford, the stablemate and friend he has grown up with:
“We’re together all the time. Training, fishing, riding bikes, working on our cars. That’s my man right there. We help each others’ boxing in different ways. I’m a bigger guy so I help with his power and being able to sit down on punches, because if he spars too long with someone in his own weight class he hurts them. But I’m more durable. For me, Bud is smaller so I get to work on agility, speed and movement.”
Having signed with Top Rank for a minimum of three fights, Nelson will box on the next Crawford card on Saturday in Omaha: “Our city doesn’t have any pro sports team, even the Cornhuskers (University of Nebraska football) play in Lincoln, so me and Bud are like the franchise. The arena is packed, the crowd is crazy and you feel like you know most of them, it’s a whole different vibe. That’s the dream – for me and Bud to be fighting for titles together in Omaha.”