There is nothing like a boxing press conference, and there is no boxing press conference like a Jeff Fenech boxing press conference. We thought we’d seen the last of them, but they are back; he is back, mouth and all.
At a Sydney harbourside restaurant, everyone mills around in tiny circles, shaking hands and waiting for the TV cameras. Some of them are in very good shape and wear sharp suits, others are in very bad shape and wear T-shirts, but they are all very friendly with each other.
Someone asks if I want to talk to Fenech. He’s just over there wearing the restaurant’s T-shirt and shaking hands with someone. I think, no. Fenech has already said everything, and when Channel Seven rocks up he’ll say it all again. It’s his opponent I want.
Fenech is 44 and skipping a trillion skips a day. He’s lost umpteen kilos. But Azumah Nelson is 49. A 49-year-old boxer! Nelson wears an immaculate brown pin stripe, has a very round head and a salt-and-pepper moustache and looks like a pocket tank. His voice is as gentle as his handshake, his English is only fair, and he thinks he’s in Melbourne. It’s not surprising – a short while ago he was at home on his farm in Accra, Ghana and no one in the world wanted to punch him in the face any more. Then Fenech rang.
“When Jeff called I asked him what’s going on. Are you OK, do you need money?” Fenech had apparently woken up one morning, 16 years after catching two left hooks and a right cross to lose his second Nelson fight, and decided he wanted revenge. “He said, No, no everything is fine. He just wants us to fight again. I said, oh, man, my body is relaxed. Then I thought about it and I said, Let’s go.”
Let’s go? Why would a peacefully retired man of nearly 50 say “let’s go” to that? Does a man wait 16 years for revenge against a man he now calls a friend? I don’t understand.
Nelson is telling me how hard training is, the pain when his sparring partners hit him. He’s never lost his skills, he says, but his body feels like a heavyweight’s, hard to move, and he can’t judge distance, to give and take punches. “I can’t dodge at the moment because the reflexes aren’t there yet. But it’s coming. The body is slow.”
Will it be hard fighting your friend?
“No, no, no. That is not a problem at all. His big shoulders move forward suddenly and I am suddenly reminded what a warrior Azumah Nelson is. “I am a man. I like people to be a man. And this is like business. If my son was a boxer and he’s in my way, I’m gonna fight him.”
You would fight your own son?
“Oh, yes. That is being a man.”
Do you think people will take this fight seriously?
“I want people to come and watch. Before the fight they might say here are two old men, but after they will say we are good enough to beat the young ones. We will surprise them.”
Possibly. Fenech is the fastest fighter Nelson fought and he didn’t lose either bout. He knows boxing, he says; he feels confident. If all goes well, maybe he will fight another retired champion, Julio Cesar Chavez.
That is one tough Mexican, I point out.
“Yeah.” He smiles gently.
At the press conference, screens show younger, slimmer Fenechs and Nelsons unloading mayhem. One diplomatically cuts just before Nelson’s left glove impacts Fenech’s chin. The woman next to me holds a boxing pose and sends a left jab at my face. “I won a competition to train at Jeff Fenech’s house for an hour,” she says, feinting an uppercut.
Have you ever punched someone? I ask.
“No, I’m a pacifist,” she sighs.
Jeff Fenech thanks everyone he can think of, past and present. He says he wants revenge. He says Azumah Nelson is his friend and the greatest fighter ever out of Africa. It is very confusing. Nelson says the President of Ghana himself rang him up and asked him why he was going to fight. Even the Ghanaian President is confused.
Someone asks if they are doing it for the money. Fenech says he’s doing it for a Down’s Syndrome children’s charity. Nelson mentions a charity foundation. I check: yes, this is a boxing press conference. It doesn’t feel like a revenge mission, though, it feels like a cuddle.
Trainer Johnny Lewis talks about “two old classy boxers”, and he’s right. June 24 will be strange, but good. Nelson is a warrior, Fenech Australia’s greatest boxer. Be rude not to watch. Just don’t ask why.
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