His countless victims may raise a split eyebrow or two, but Azumah Nelson has long since finished with dishing out punishment.
So when the African boxing legend tells you “I don”t want to see people suffering”, it merely reinforces the path his life is now taking.
These days the softly-spoken 52-year-old channels his energy into trying to deliver the fruits of education to poor youngsters in his home city of Accra.
Which is apt for a man who, despite the ring moniker of “The Professor”, had to forfeit his own schooling so he could sell coconuts to help feed his family.
“A regret I have is that I was unable to get an education because of circumstances,” said Nelson, in Perth this week along with Ghana”s amateur boxing squad who are preparing for the Commonwealth Games with their Australian counterparts.
“I was about 15 years when I started taking care of my family … buying coconuts, selling coconuts, different things. It was difficult sometimes to get food.
“And that has always been there for me.
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If I see a child unhappy, sometimes, you know, I cry. I say, “why God, why?”. Even if I start talking about it, the picture (in my mind) … I will cry right now.”
Tears indeed start to well up in the deeply religious Nelson”s eyes as he displays a compassion rarely seen during a stellar ring career which saw him hold WBC world featherweight and super-featherweight titles for 13 years.
A father of six, he began the Azumah Nelson Foundation two years ago, buying a 50-acre plot of land in Accra, and he is now raising funds to build a complex and get it up and running.
“It was in me for a long time when I was young that when I grow up and if I had money, I would start giving to others. When I became a world champion and beat Wilfredo Gomez, I was happy because that was the time I could start making money. I said, “God I thank you, because I have a lot to do and people to take care
of – my parents, my brothers and sisters, pay school fees, so I am happy”.
“So for a long time I wanted to open a foundation and give youngsters an education, give them a chance through sports … boxing, football. Or if you want to learn to be a carpenter, a mason, or something, we would like to help give you the skills.”
But such dreams don”t come cheap – Nelson says the complete project will cost around $23 million. A black tie dinner is being held at Perth”s Duxton Hotel this Friday with Nelson the guest of honour to raise funds for the foundation.
The man financing the Ghana team”s trip is Perth gold mining chief and big boxing fan Dave Harper, who has lived in the West African country for the past 22 years.
Back in WA for this week”s Africa Down Under mining conference, Geodrill managing director Harper – who is also the chairman of the Ghana Amateur Boxing sponsorship committee – helped arrange for the Ghanaian boxers to spend a week training with the Australian squad before taking on a WA Select team on Saturday and a full Australian team on Sunday, both times at the Empyrean in Northbridge.
Accompanying the Ghana squad is Nelson”s 14-year-old son Dalvin, who will have his first amateur bout on Saturday. Nelson acknowledges the differing circumstances in his own need to fight and his son”s interest in the sport.
“It”s not like my time, you know. Everything is there for him. He”s going to school, the car takes him, it brings him back, he comes home, there”s food to eat, a bed to sleep in, he plays (computer) games … it”s not like my time.
“Sometimes I”m thinking, why am I doing all this? But it”s to give him confidence. You say to him life is not easy – everything that is good didn”t come
easy, you have to struggle to get what you want.
“But he is disciplined, a quiet guy, funny – I speak to him once and he makes you laugh.”
Of course, no story about Nelson coming to Australia would be complete without a nod to Jeff Fenech. Officially, the Sydneysider squared the ledger when he outpointed Nelson – then four weeks short of his 50th birthday – in 2008. That trip to Australia ended in acrimony, with Nelson taking legal action against Fenech, claiming he was owed money.
But the pair are forever linked through their two meetings in the early 1990s.
After a fortunate draw in Las Vegas in June 1991, Nelson agreed to give the embittered Aussie a rematch in Melbourne nine months later. Eight one-sided rounds later, Nelson had left no one in doubt who was the better man.
“When I first fought Jeff Fenech, I was with malaria and I went to the hospital and was on a drip two days before the fight,” Nelson said.
“The fight was so near so I couldn”t say “no, I can”t fight” – I said “OK, I can finish the fight”. I had a lot of experience and I thought I could beat him with experience. But I got tired with three or four rounds to go, malaria makes you weak, and in the last round he caught me with some punch and I was wobbling but
it was near the end of the round.
“So I was confident – I thought “Jeff, if I was sick and you cannot beat me, if I am not sick I will come to your place and beat you”. And that”s what I did. That was not something difficult at all. I knew there was no way I could lose if I was strong physically and I proved to him he could not beat me when I was strong.
“He was never the same after that fight.”
Nelson finished with a career record of 39 wins, six losses and two draws, although three of those defeats – including the 2008 loss to Fenech – came in his last three outings when he was long past his best.
He says he doesn”t follow the sport as closely as he once did but did admit to having the odd pang of regret that his time had come and gone. “When I”m watching two guys who are making so many mistakes but making a lot of money. Then I think, “Let me go back and I”ll show them how to do it”.”
NEIL DEVEY, EXCLUSIVE, The West Australian August 28, 2010, 8:13 pm