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World Boxing Federation Champions Of The Past: Johnny Nelson

Posted on January 7 2014
By: Clive Baum  
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Since the World Boxing Federation was originally founded by American Larry Carrier in 1988, many of the sport’s biggest names have won a WBF title, and proudly defended the blue, red and gold belt all over the world.

In this inaugural column, we take a look at former WBF World Cruiserweight and Heavyweight Champion Johnny Nelson, a boxer many would have sworn could never achieve what he eventually did in a fifty-nine bout professional career spanning from 1986 to 2005.


Christened Ivanson Ranny Nelson, Johnny entered this world on January 4 1967 in Sheffield, England. He started boxing because he wanted to impress his elder brother Alan, but in the beginning he was, to put it mildly, not very impressive.

“I was the biggest coward in the gym. If I got hit, my knee would come up, then my arm, in protection. I was like Speedy Gonzales, I would grab hold of the other fella, then get out of the way", he once told writer John Gibson.

But Nelson wouldn’t always be a so-called coward, as he found enough courage to embark on a less-than-glorious amateur career. Any person who gets inside a boxing ring to fight deserves respect, and when you continue to do it despite losing most of your bouts you probably deserve even more respect.

Nelson lost ten of his thirteen amateur outings, and when he received a torch and a blanket as a price for losing what would turn out to be his last non-paid fight, he decided he might as well start to get some money for getting hit in the face. This despite his trainer Brendan Ingle warning him that he still had a lot to learn, and would not be any good for years.

So it’s safe to say that expectations were not high when a 19-year-old Ivanson made his professional debut on March 18 1986 at the Westfield Country Club in Hull. Fighting as a Super Middleweight, Nelson lost the fight on a six round decision to Peter Brown from Bradford, but at least he got paid.

Already a journeyman, Nelson lost his next two fights as well. In May of ´86 he was overmatched against 11-0-1 Tommy Taylor, but lasted the full six rounds. In October of that same year, he travelled to Denmark where Norwegian debutant Magne Havnaa beat him on points over four rounds.

While Brown and Taylor didn’t go all that far in the sport, Havnaa would go on to win a world title some years later, and perhaps Nelson saw something in himself during the twelve minutes the bout lasted that made him finally believe more in his own capabilities.

Nelson returned from Copenhagen as an 0-3 fighter, but things were about to change for the former altar boy, who’s mother wanted him to be a priest and thought he was taking dancing lessons and not going to the boxing gym and fighting for money.

Six weeks after the Havnaa fight, Nelson finally won when he outpointed Chris Little at the Quaffers Club in Bredburry. It wasn’t exactly a monumental accomplishment, and Little would never win another fight, but for Johnny it was the start of something wonderful.

In his next fifteen fights Nelson came out victorious in thirteen of them, including a second round stoppage of Danny Lawford for the Central Area Cruiserweight title, and suddenly he found himself in position to challenge for the coveted British crown against champion Andy Straughn.

Although he now held a respectable 13-5 record, Nelson was undoubtedly the underdog that night in May 1989 in London against the 17-4-2 Barbados-born champion, but having already achieved much more than anyone expected, he had nothing to lose.

Nelson defied the odds and stopped Straughn in eight rounds. He was now a true player in the boxing world, if not at world level then at least on the European scene. After a convincing title-defense the following October, a second round knockout of Ian Bulloch, he was given a shot to take the next step.

WBC World Cruiserweight Champion Carlos De Leon (45-5) from Puerto Rico was lured to Sheffield for a defense on January 27 1990 against the still relatively unknown Englishman. The fight ended in a draw, De Leon retaining his title, but while it was certainly a respectable result for Nelson, the fight was nothing short of a nightmare for him.

The Coward was back!

“I was fighting a man who in his day was one of the very best and I was doing it in my own backyard. The reality suddenly hit me”, he told John Gibson in the previously mentioned interview.

“Everywhere I went people were wishing me good luck and slapping me on the back. I was stopped on every street corner. Suddenly I was a celebrity and I thought it was really nice. I took my eye off the ball and didn't think about my tactics or the fight”.  

"When I climbed in the ring I could see the stars from Coronation Street sitting ringside.
 Linda Lusardi, the Page Three girl, and loads of well known folk like her. All come to see me. This was real pressure and I totally froze.”  

"I was terrified I'd get knocked out or beaten up in front of all these people. So I hit and ran, hit and ran. It went the distance and I got a draw, but I had stunk out the place.”

Less than three weeks later, Nelson returned to the ring and stopped American Dino Homsey in seven rounds of a non-title bout. Six weeks after that he knocked out Lou Gent to retain his British title, and two more non-title victories over respectable Americans Arthur Weathers and Andre Smith, put him in line for a crack at the vacant European championship.

Again the underdog, Nelson travelled to Karlsruhe to take on undefeated German, and fellow future world champion, Markus Bott in December 1990. Eleven months after the De Leon fiasco, the year ended on a high for Nelson after all, as he stopped the local hero in the twelfth and final round.

After one defense of the European title, Nelson was awarded a shot at IBF World Champion James Warring in May 1993 in Bealton, Virginia, USA. Despite the fact that he was still struggling with his self-confidence, and had yet to compete at true world-level, Nelson describes it in his 2007 autobiography, Hard Road to Glory, as a chance he could not afford to refuse.

“Waring’s people must have sensed I was mentally fragile and they played a trump card as we were waiting for the fight to start”, wrote Nelson in said book. “As I stood there looking at Warring, psyching myself up, I heard someone in his corner call out to him: “remember the De Leon fight”. That was all it took. I went back into my shell.”

Nelson put on another horrible performance against Warring, and no matter how much trainer Brendan Ingle shouted and cursed at him he just couldn’t break out of that shell. Again he had wasted a huge opportunity in the worst way, and this time he lost by wide scores: 120-108, 118-111 and 117-111.

The humiliating performance against Warring almost put Nelson back in the journeyman role he had finally escaped, when he travelled abroad again and lost two fights to Norbert Ekassi in France and future WBO world heavyweight champion Corrie Sanders in South Africa.

It was no shame losing to Ekassi and Sanders, at least on paper, but when an opportunity to challenge Australian Dave Russell (23-7) for the WBF World Cruiserweight title came in October 1994, Nelson was again the underdog when he packed his bags and jumped on a plane headed for Melbourne.

But this time it finally all came together for him, as he put on a wonderful performance and basically toyed with Russell until the Aussie quit in round eleven. Ivanson Ranny Nelson, AKA Johnny Nelson, was finally a world champion in his third attempt!

Four months after winning the WBF World title, the new champion made his first defense against another Brit, Tom Collins, and didn’t waste any time as the fight was stopped already in the first round. Less than two months later, Nelson travelled to Belgium to make his second defense, this time against Ugandan-born Franco Wanyama.

A former Olympian with loads of experience, Wanyama used every trick in the book to unsettle Nelson, and elbowed and headbutted the champion. When he finally got too frustrated and retaliated in round ten, referee Marcel Roloux immediately disqualified Nelson, who was ahead on all three judges’ cards at the time.

Shortly after the heartbreak in Belgium, Nelson got another unexpected opportunity when he was offered to move up in weight and challenge WBF World Heavyweight Champion Jimmy Thunder in New Zealand. Still in decent shape from the training camp for Wanyama, Nelson accepted.

In Auckland, outweighed by ten kilos, Nelson showed his doubters that he had come a long way since his poor start in boxing and the De Leon and Warring disasters, when he won a deserved unanimous decision over Thunder, a big puncher who had stopped fifteen of his previous seventeen victims.

Now a two-weight WBF World Champion, the Sheffield-Southpaw decided to continue the “Have Gloves, Will Travel” theme that his career was already such a good example of, and in November 1994 he went on the road again for his first defense.

“Bizarrely, I went all the way to Thailand to defend my WBF Heavyweight title against a Russian, Nikolay Kulpin. Quite how the promoters came up with the idea of staging the fight, I still don’t understand, but it was clear from the moment we arrived that this was a big deal”, Nelson explains in “Hard Road To Glory”.

“There were billboards with my picture on and people came up to me and said, “you are a very big man, you will win”. Once Kulpin arrived and they saw that he was a real heavyweight, they changed their tune. “He is a bigger man, you will lose!”

Nelson didn’t lose! He fought a good fight and was too quick and busy for Kulpin, winning a clear unanimous decision. Thailand embraced Nelson, and the good experience made him agree to next travel to Brazil to defend his world title against local icon Adilson Rodriguez (60-5). 

Unfortunately the Brazil experience was not as good as the Thailand adventure. After twelve rounds, most people with two eyes could see that Nelson had outboxed Rodriguez, except for the tree judges who all scored the fight for the South American champ.

The result was so controversial that the World Boxing Federation ordered a rematch, which took place four months later, also in Sao Paolo. However, the result was the same and a discouraged Nelson decided he had had enough of the big boys, and would return to Cruiserweight.

Back at his natural weight, Nelson once again took the traditional route by first winning the British title, then the European and then the WBO world crown. He made thirteen successful defenses of the WBO title before retiring, as champion, in 2005. Very fittingly, his last fight was again on the road, in Rome, Italy against Vincenzo Cantatore.

Today 46-year-old Johnny Nelson, who finished with a 45-12-2 (29) record, still lives in Sheffield and works as a boxing expert for SKY television. He can proudly look back at a career that took him from run-of-the-mill amateur to journeyman professional, to eventually one of the best Cruiserweight boxers of all time!


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