Exclusive: Johnny Nelson aims to be the comeback kid

Johnny Nelson has had two knee operations and a replacement hip, he’s not fought for almost a decade and he’s nearly 48 years old.
Johnny Nelson and trainer Brendan IngleJohnny Nelson and trainer Brendan Ingle
Johnny Nelson and trainer Brendan Ingle

But the former world cruiserweight champion is making a comeback.


Johnny Nelson and trainer Brendan IngleJohnny Nelson and trainer Brendan Ingle
Johnny Nelson and trainer Brendan Ingle

Next year he is planning to fight Marco Huck for the WBO title that Nelson successfully defended a record 13 times – to rob the German of a chance to break his record.

But why after ten years away from fighting would he put himself through six months of gruelling training to step in to the ring with a 29-year-old?

“I watched his last fight and I thought ‘I could do him’, said Johnny looking ten years younger than his age.

“The TV people asked me if I would beat him and I said I would knock him out. It was not taken too seriously at first then a German TV company rang me and I said yes, I will fight him.

“I want to do it and they want to do it it’s just a matter of sorting it out. I told them I don’t want to do a warm-up fight, just give me six months to get fit and I will fight and beat him.

“The whole point of doing it is to stop him breaking my record and I know I can. It will be one fight, in and out.

“He has defended his title the same number of times as me, 13, but he’s only ever defended it in Germany.

“I spoke to him and he said: “You’re the same age as my dad. I said: ‘Yes and I bet he could still give you a hiding too’.

“I spoke to my boss at Sky and asked if he had a problem with it. He said: ‘As a friend I am concerned for your health, as your employer it’s a great story. And we will definitely back you’.

“They want to do it in Germany but the ball is in his court.

“I have a great job and I don’t need the fight money which is good but not that good. I’m 47 now and I thought if I’m going to do it, it has to be now.

“I retired because of a knee problem and I’ve had operations on both knees now and a hip replacement earlier this year. It had bothered me for seven years and even back when I was fighting but I didn’t know what it was.

“I had the op and within a month no-one would have had any idea that I have had a total hip replacement.”

Speaking to Johnny in a city centre cafe he is as keen and animated as ever and has had time to reflect on his love for boxing and the addictive nature of the adrenalin that only sport can provide.

“The reason I have not been in to the boxing club over the years is that I knew I would want to spar if I did.

”I spoke to Brendan and he said he had a dream that I would box well into my fifties and he was really emotional about it, he dreamed I would beat this guy and carry on.”

The old magic between champion and trainer of champions Brendan Ingle soon came back.

“Brendan stood there watching as I did the lines, he was walking up and down and talking to me as I trained like he used to. He said I shouldn’t take any notice of what people think.

“It was hard enough to get out of boxing but I felt happy and at home back training in the gym, that’s why I had to stop in the first place. It’s a drug it feels so good.

“I knew I would want to go back, it was the best feeling ever. I had been sneaking into the gym in the daytime so no-one would see me when it’s empty.

“No-one else there, no music, just me and Brendan in the gym like it used to be, it was fantastic now I’m in training to start fight training. If it happens it happens.”

He’s convinced that he’s taking on something he, and equally importantly, his team, knows he can handle.

“It will be ten years since I have boxed if it goes ahead. The people that know me and train me know that I will if I go into the ring at 48 and get turned over that makes them look bad too, I won’t do that.

“I asked them all for their opinion: ‘Do you think I’m mad?’ They all said that because of the lifestyle I lead they said no, you can do it.

“It felt really nice to be back in the gym, I remember winning the world title and after everything had settled down I thought: ‘Is that it?’

“I thought, I want more. Now this has happened, there is just something in me that wants more. I want more because I still can.

“Brendan has always said his system of training should work until you are in your 50s.

“I am the only person in the world that can give him this gift, proving his system. I am a product of his gym. I started there and I will finish there.

“I love Brendan like a father and people who know me know that he saved me quite a few times. This is the gift I can give him.

“Brendan always used to say I could box until I was fifty. I said there’s no chance, I won’t be boxing at that age.”

There is more to Johnny’s desire to box again than ego.

Deep down he feels that other boxers from the Ingle stable, Naseem Hamed, Herol Graham, Silky Jones and Brian Anderson achieved more than he did.

Somewhere deep inside Johnny Nelson is the gangling, nervous kid who had to learn to be a champion rather than having the natural talent to light up the ring like other, and in many cases less successful boxers.

“There were a lot of fighters at the gym that I thought were better than me Brian Anderson, Naz, Herol Graham and Silky Jones. Now this is something I can do that will make me special too. I still think that the other guys have achieved more.

“Silky Jones I was in awe of his ability. Mick Mills and Slugger O’Toole I am still in awe of them. This is my chance to show what I can do and that really motivates me. In my head I’m still playing catch up to those guys.

“I just think I was lucky and in the right place at the right time I do really believe that those guys were that good. I think this can be my turn to be special now. I can be one of the club.”

So what did his wife and three daughters think to the idea? A tin helmet moment?

“When I told my wife I said I was going to the shop and drove round the corner and rang her and told her I wanted to fight again.

“She went mad and I thought OK, I’ll leave it for an hour!” When I got back she and my daughters were all over me saying: ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Are you mad?’

“I showed them the guy and said: ‘This is him and I know I can beat him’.

“She said to me: ‘I know what happens, once you start you won’t be able to stop.

“They made me to promise that it would be just for one fight, for one night only.

“Their reaction was probably harder to deal with than the fight should be. I had to convince them first but I know what I’m doing.

“I have too much to lose to do something stupid.”

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