TRAVEL is often a rite of passage. Young people come of age via the wonders of the world. Heartbroken souls find an antidote to their angst thousands of miles away. People talk of “finding themselves” while exploring the exotic.
Before he became the longest-reigning cruiserweight champion of all time, Johnny Nelson did all this. In his 20s, he punched his ticket – and a disparate series of opponents – in an eight-fight tour that spanned 40 months and five continents.
He says it was the making of him. Travel challenged him, and changed him, and gave him answers – such as why you should always wear two groin protectors, why getting robbed can save you from getting shot… and why a security guard might masturbate a dog on the streets of Bangkok.
On an awful night in January 1990 a terrified Nelson had fled and flicked around the ring in a WBC cruiserweight challenge against Carlos De Leon. It is still regarded as one of the most soporific world title fights ever seen. Fans sent Nelson white feathers in the post; strangers laughed in his face.
Somehow, Nelson worked his way back into contention, but when he fought IBF titlist James Warring 28 months later in Virginia, much the same thing happened. Again, Nelson fought scared. Again, he spoiled and survived. And again, he had featured in an utterly stultifying contest.
“I’d become a leper on these shores,” says Nelson of the post-Warring days. “[Trainer] Brendan [Ingle] knew I had ability but I was low in confidence and he’d exhausted every avenue.
“Brendan pushed me to do it [fight overseas]. I had to either want it or walk away.”
Nelson didn’t walk away. Instead, he got on a plane – over and over again.
Date: August 14, 1992
Opponent: Norbert Ekassi
Result: l RSF 3
Three months on from the Warring embarrassment, Nelson alighted on Corsica. Ekassi had built momentum with an eight-win streak and Nelson brought name value but was verging on journeyman status.
“That period in my life, I’d fallen out of love with boxing,” he says. “My confidence was so low and I’d completely lost interest. The fight came along; it was a payday, but I knew nothing about him.”
Still, the match turned out to be uncommonly exciting, by Nelson’s standards of the time. Both men hit the deck, with Ekassi down in round two before rallying to finish a rapidly tiring Nelson in the next session – the only stoppage defeat in Nelson’s 59-fight career.
“He was rugged but nothing special,” says Nelson of his French-Cameroonian opponent. “When I knocked him down, I saw him fall and it was like he’d been switched off. But I walked to the neutral corner and when I looked back, he was up and stood there like the Tasmanian Devil!
“I only had two or three good rounds in me. I couldn’t complain about the stoppage. In hindsight, I’m glad. He could bang. Punchers like that can change a career.”
Date: October 24, 1992
Opponent: Corrie Sanders
Result: l ud 10
Ekassi had not physically forced a career change on Nelson, but the 25-year-old was already preparing for life after boxing.
“I wanted a second career, as boxing wasn’t working out,” he says. “I enrolled in uni [in his hometown of Sheffield], studying recreation management. But then the South African job came along and I never went back. What an idiot – I chose boxing over university!”
That “South African job” was a daunting assignment against future WBO heavyweight champion Corrie Sanders, and even though it ended in a one-sided defeat, Nelson was encouraged by going the distance with a noted puncher who outweighed him by 32lbs.
“The driver who took me from the airport to the hotel, he said ‘you’re small’ and did the sign of the cross in front of me,” he says. “I got to the weigh-in, same thing. People were laughing at me and doing the sign of the cross. I’d still not seen Corrie. I didn’t know he was white, or a southpaw. I weighed in [at 13st 13.5lbs], then the door opened, this guy came out and I thought ‘S**t! He’s massive!
“It came to the fight and I thought ‘let’s just get on with it’. I’ve always said a good cruiserweight can beat 95 per cent of heavyweights, but he had really fast hands and could really punch.
“I went the distance and thought to myself ‘you did well there; he should have got rid of you’.
“I just had to frustrate him. One time I spun him around and kissed him on the forehead. The blacks in the crowd were laughing.”
While there was no racial complexion to his fight with Sanders, apartheid still existed in South Africa at the time, as Nelson saw for himself. “Our gym’s doctor’s sister lived there, so we went to see her. We drove to this gated community. She had two Alsatians and they came running out and pinned me against the wall. She said the servants went home at 4pm and the dogs were trained to attack black people after that time.
“But it was all about money. There were rich blacks, too. If you had money, you got on there. I saw one black guy in a limo and he locked his doors when he saw me walking near his car.”
Date: April 30, 1993
Opponent: Dave Russell
Result: w rtd 11 (won WBF cruiserweight title)
Even walking around in apartheid-era South Africa was not as fraught as taking on a local hero in front of a violently partisan crowd in Australia. “As I walked to the ring, the fans were shouting every abusive name you can imagine, kicking me, throwing stuff. John [Ingle, Brendan’s son and Nelson’s cornerman that night] said ‘if you win, they’ll really kick off’, but I thought ‘I’m not going to lose!’
“I knew if it went the distance they [the judges] wouldn’t give me anything, and if the ref stopped the fight they’d be mad, so I wanted to make him quit. That’s exactly what happened. Round 11, he didn’t come out… and that’s when the fun really started.
“Fans were throwing water over me, one hit me with a belt. There was a mob outside the venue. The cops said ‘you’re gonna have to wait a bit’, but two to three hours later they were still there. So John and me ran into a police car. The fans actually chased after the police car, with its sirens on and everything! We got back to the hotel and the police advised us not to leave it.
“Other people had told me Australia was great, but I wasn’t a fan, but probably because of where I was. The people were stuck in time, like it was the ’70s.”
Still, Nelson survived, and had the WBF cruiserweight title to take home. “The WBF was a big deal over there,” he says. “It was like the WBO in its early days here.
“Having that title, I didn’t believe it made me world champion, but it was a good chance to make some dough. I was grateful for that.”
Date: October 1, 1993
Opponent: Franco Wanyama
Result: l dq 10 (lost WBF cruiserweight title)
Nelson’s reign lasted little over five months, and ended on a sour note. “I couldn’t tell you much about Belgium; it was just in and out,” he says, “but it was still an experience because it showed me the problems in our sport; the kind of skulduggery than can turn you off boxing.”
The record shows a disqualification defeat for Nelson, but he insists he was merely giving back what he’d got. “You take it once or twice, that’s OK,” he says, “but when they keep doing it, they know exactly what they’re doing. He hit me low, he rubbed my eye, he was blatant. So, I started doing it back. Then I got DQ’d.”
Uganda’s Wanyama landed low blows, rabbit punches and headbutts, and Nelson was guilty of repeatedly holding. He was warned several times and had a point deducted, but even so was ahead on all three cards when he was slung out for a shoulder barge.
“Chris Eubank once told me to always wear two groin protectors,” says Nelson. “After that fight, I always did.”
Date: November 19, 1993
Opponent: Jimmy Thunder
Result: w ud 12 (won WBF heavyweight title)
Nelson would become champion again just seven weeks later, though he’d have to travel back up to heavyweight and to the other side of the world to do so. But this latest Antipodean adventure was an altogether more pleasant experience.
“I felt really comfortable in New Zealand,” says Nelson. “After the fight I was asked to go and train their national [amateur boxing] squad. My wife and I were talking about it but eventually she decided she couldn’t do it. She’d struggled moving from Huddersfield to Sheffield!”
That positive impression was aided by lifting another WBF belt after beating a well-regarded and famously powerful heavyweight who outweighed Nelson by almost 23lbs. “Jimmy was a big, big star,” he says. “He was like [Frank] Bruno was over here; his face up on billboards.
“Before the fight, we didn’t use the gym they provided because we knew they’d be watching us. A security guard at the hotel said he had a ring in his garage and could get some guys to spar me. Four massive guys turned up, muscle on muscle; they all looked like The Rock.
“When it came to the fight and Jimmy got in the ring, John [Ingle] said ‘f**king hell, he’s big! Whatever you do, just run, don’t let him hit you! “But it was so easy. I couldn’t miss him. I mugged him so bad they didn’t even try to rob me. After that, he had to leave the country because people were taking the p**s that much.”
Date: November 5, 1994
Location: Chiang Rai
Opponent: Nikolay Kulpin
Result: w ud 12 (retained WBF heavyweight title)
Why on earth was a bloke from Sheffield fighting a Kazakh in Thailand? “[International matchmaker] Ernie Fossey was a friend of Brendan’s and he had contacts all over the world. He arranged it,” says Nelson. “I don’t know why they [the Thai promoters] wanted me, but they treated me like a king.
“I’d never seen Kulpin but the Thais told me ‘He big guy! He kill you! You dead!’ He looked the part – he was a big unit, but he was too slow; easy pickings.”
Nelson retained his WBF belt with a unanimous decision, but the fight was just one highlight of a trip that left him “gobsmacked”.
“The venue was a football stadium and it was packed out – 33,000 people,” he says. “Everybody came out. I was carried in [on a palanquin, or ‘royal sedan’, traditionally used in aristocratic ceremonies]. People were throwing flowers over me. There was a helicopter filming me on my way to the stadium. If I hadn’t been there myself, I wouldn’t have believed it.”
Even more unbelievable was what preceded this.
“We had a few days in Bangkok first,” says Nelson. “They took us to a restaurant and handed me a menu. It was full of pictures of women next to the food. I thought they were waitresses but no, I was supposed to choose one of them! I said no and the guy said, ‘OK, you want ladyboy?’ I said, ‘No, I’m good!’ He couldn’t understand why I wasn’t interested in that part of the hospitality.
“There were sex shows in the bars. It was a proper eye-opener. You’d be in the street and see all these hookers, and they’re all guys! I’m open-minded, but f**k me… the stuff I saw. I was totally gobsmacked. There was a security guard outside a shop masturbating a dog! I said, ‘look what he’s doing!’ and the guide just said ‘that’s how you get loyalty out of your pet’.”
Date: August 22 & December 3, 1995
Location: Sao Paolo
Opponent: Adilson Rodrigues
Result: l sd 12, l ud 12 (lost and then failed to regain WBF heavyweight title)
“I was really looking forward to that one; I’d always wanted to go to Brazil,” Nelson says. But he claims he was robbed – twice – in the ring, and then risked having his fight purse stolen by the police.
“Again, Maguila [Rodrigues’ nickname] was another big unit but nothing special. He was walking on to shots, tripping over his own feet. He didn’t win a round but they gave it to him.”
Nelson lost a split decision, with one judge scoring 11 rounds even, which perhaps says it all. “It was that bad, even they [the Brazilians] wanted us to box again,” says Nelson, and that’s exactly what they did three-and-a-half months later.
“I took the rematch because I thought they wouldn’t do it [rob me] again, but lo and behold, exactly the same thing happened. I was so p**sed off.”
But Nelson’s nightmare was far from over. “We were driving back to the hotel, six of us crammed into a Fiat Uno, so the cops pulled us over. I’d had enough by now and said I wasn’t getting out. Everyone else got out but I said ‘No, stuff ‘em.’ Then John [Ingle] started shouting ‘Johnny, get out!’. I looked and saw the police pointing their guns at me through the window.
“OK, so I got out, hands up, got spreadeagled on the car, but now I’m really sweating because I’ve got my whole fight purse [about £30k] tucked in my waist. I was paid cash. I knew if they find the money, they’re taking it.
“The driver started talking to them in their language and I kept hearing ‘Maguila, Maguila’. Then they found out I’d boxed him and the driver told them I’d lost. They all started laughing at me, and they let me go.
“We’d got away with that one, but the driver was still excited, kept talking to me and turning around looking at me while he drove, then wham! Straight into the back of a car…”
A CHANGED MAN
Eight fights, including five losses, and playing pass-the-parcel with a minor title as he flitted between Brazilian bull rings, Mediterranean islands and apartheid-era Africa, dealing with dodgy cops and dodgier judges, and either getting rounded on by dogs or watching them get pleasured, it’s an understatement when Nelson says he “learned a hell of a lot” during that chapter.
It was an unorthodox education, for sure, but one that paid off. Nelson may have forfeited university for the privilege of getting punched by Corrie Sanders, but three years later he “graduated” all the same – resurfacing in Britain as a changed man, and as a boxer who would never lose again, winning British, European and WBO titles before retiring in 2005, having made 13 defences of his world belt.
“Looking back, it was the making of me,” says Nelson, now 54 and a Sky Sports pundit. “You couldn’t buy those experiences. Those were the best days of my life – even though I hated them at the time.”