Behind the Gloves: The man who became cruiserweight's longest reigning champion

A look into the career of Johnny Nelson, who despite all adversity, became world champion and broke records along the way.

Ivanson Ranny ‘Johnny’ Nelson was born January 4, 1967, in the ‘Steel City’ of Sheffield. During his childhood, his parents divorced which left his mum to pick up the pieces and bring Nelson up on her own as a single mother - he later reacquainted with his father in his thirties.

Having left school with no qualifications, and no career route mapped out, the future looked bleak until one day he visited the late Brendan Ingle at his gym - a place which had produced one of Britain’s finest fighters of a generation in “Prince” Naseem Hamed.

Despite his shortcomings as an amateur with just three wins from 13 bouts, Nelson turned over to the pro circuit after realising he could make a living from it.

His first three fights however, ended in defeat with Peter Brown, Tommy Taylor and Magne Havnaa all winning on points. Many may have hung the gloves up and called it a day but not Nelson - “The Entertainer - he would use these defeats as his motivation to come back stronger with the help of Ingle’s tutelage.

His third defeat to amateur sensation Havnaa gave him confidence that if he stuck at it, he could become a champion. 

Journey to becoming world cruiserweight champion

By 1990, his career had drastically improved with his record now at 15-5 with a British title to his name at 200-pounds.

A nine-fight winning streak saw him earn a WBC world cruiserweight title shot at Sheffield’s City Hall against Carlos De Leon of Puerto Rico. Renowned for struggling with nerves, they were on show that night with the contest ending in an underwhelming draw.

The aftermath of the result was devastating as Nelson endured criticism from fans who had witnessed the performance. Falling into deep depression, the Briton even contemplated suicide.

The genius of Ingle was shown in the outcome of this. Acknowledging Nelson was struggling to live in Sheffield with so much negativity surrounding him, he was sent to Germany to undergo a testing training camp.

This was gruelling for Nelson both physically and mentally, but it had a fantastic impact on his life inside and outside of the ring.

The fight against De Leon and his time in Germany proved to be a massive turning point in the career and life of Nelson. He came back a changed man with a completely new mindset on life and his boxing career and European champion after defeating Markus Bott - who subsequently tested positive for steroids afterwards.

More defeats followed, including his second pursuit in becoming world champion against James Warring for the IBF crown and future heavyweight champion Corrie Sanders.

After a flutter at heavyweight, Nelson returned to cruiserweight and notched up six consecutive wins between 1996-98 and in doing so, secured a third crack at world glory.

Standing in his way was WBO titleholder Carl Thompson - later known for upsetting David Haye in 2003 - at the Storm Arena in 1999. All his career had been leading to this fight.

With the pain of the past at the back of his mind, Nelson rose to the occasion here as he dominated his opponent. He was in control of each round before ending proceedings in the fifth to win via TKO and to earn the right to be called world champion.

Once his dream was fulfilled, for Nelson it was now about securing his legacy and going down as one of the best cruiserweights of all time. Any critics Nelson had left were silenced emphatically, as he led the division with defence after defence.

Fast forward six years and Nelson was still world champion, after successfully defending his title 13 times until 2005. In this period, he became the longest-reigning world cruiserweight champion of all time.

He also holds the joint record of most consecutive title defences with Marko Huck, who held the title between 2009 and 2015.

Nelson was due to defend his world title for the 15th time against Welshman Enzo Maccarinelli, but a knee injury suffered in sparring forced the champion to pull out of the fight.

Sadly, a few months later, it was announced that Nelson was retiring from boxing while still world champion. It was not the way he would have wanted to end his career, but his legacy and impact on the sport was already set in stone.

His rise to world supremacy was improbable but great all the same. He defied all prior expectations, and BoxRec ranks him as their number one cruiserweight of all time.

Life after boxing

Nelson has remained in the limelight after retiring and is employed as an analyst and presenter for Sky Sports Boxing. He’s easily one of the most likeable pundits around and was the former co-host of the extremely popular show titled Ringside.

Nelson himself has admitted if it wasn’t for boxing he would be in prison today and he doesn’t forget, especially when it comes to giving back to his community.

Outside of the sport Nelson has offered his experience to inmates in an attempt to improve their life management skills ahead of their release. Also, in recent years, Nelson has become an ambassador for Sheffield’s MIND charity.

Here, the 53-year-old has opened up on his own mental health struggles to help inspire others suffering with identical problems.

The boxer-turned-analyst - who released his autobiography titled, Hard Road to Glory in 2010 - has really had a fascinating life and is a prime example of someone who battled his demons and won in order to achieve his dreams, especially when you consider not many people stood by him in his time of need.

Ingle is one of the few who did and his contribution towards changing Nelson’s fortunes is priceless. Who knows where Nelson would be if he did not step into Ingle’s gym for the first time, but it is clear that he would not be in the position he is in today.

Nelson has had a truly storied career over the years, rising from obscurity to domination in the cruiserweight division.

But what is perhaps more impressive is the progress over the years of the man behind the gloves. He achieved phenomenal feats in the ring, but he has conquered even more away from the squared circle.

Nelson has rightly gone down as one of the greats inside the ring. But the success story of the man, not the fighter is even more remarkable, and the great Brandan Ingle can look down today with immense pride of what Nelson has accomplished and continues to do today.

This piece was written by Lewis Oldham. Follow Lewis on Twitter, @LewisOldham99

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