• Steve Bunce

Fighting Johnny Nelson was dangerous

Steve Bunce January 21, 2014
Johnny Nelson set a record of 13 WBO cruiserweight defences, something Marco Huck is chasing down © PA Photos

On Saturday in Stuttgart, Marco Huck will try and move one fight closer to Johnny Nelson's record of 13 WBO cruiserweight defences.

Huck, who is known by his adoring fans simply as The Kapt'n, fights Firat Arslan in his 12th defence, which is a rematch of their brutal 2012 fight. Huck wants Nelson's WBO record but nobody wants Nelson's other unofficial and unfortunate crown.

Nelson held the WBO title from 1998-2005, fought 59 times during a 19-year career and so far eight of his opponents have died, mostly in a series of bizarre accidents or violently. Not, I should stress, as a direct result of his punching.

Buncey's Vaults

Referee Mills Lane had little option but to stop McCall-Lewis © Getty Images
  • The day that Oliver McCall lost to Lennox Lewis in a world title fight in front of just 3,800 at the Hilton in Las Vegas remains one of sport's oddest events.
  • The vacant WBC title was on offer and after three rounds the crowd was restless. At the bell to end round three it started to get crazy: 'McCall refused to go back to his corner. He was walking in circles like a caged animal.'
  • The fourth was odd, Lewis looked scared. At the end of the fourth round Don King stood up and charged to McCall's corner: "Get out there and fight, Oliver," screamed King. McCall was not listening, just crying and talking to himself. And, not throwing any punches!
  • Mills Lane had seen enough and stopped it in the fifth and McCall ducked from the ring and ran to the changing rooms. 'His sobs could be heard above the jeering crowd's screams.'
  • There was a farcical and brilliant press conference the next day when McCall delivered this beauty: "I was waiting for God to let me know when to knock out Lewis." It was hard to dislike Big Oliver.
  • Reported in The Daily Telegraph, February 10, 1997

It all started in 1986 when Nelson, who had lost his first two fights, travelled to Denmark to fight Norwegian debutant Magne Havnaa. Nelson lost on points, Havnaa went on and won a world title and in 2004 he was thrown from his boat, one hundred miles out at sea from Oslo, and drowned. The boat, so the police report said, turned violently and Magne and his wife were sent over the rails. She survived with cuts and bruises but he died.

A month later Nelson took on Chris Little at Quaffer's club in Bredbury and easily won on points over six rounds. In 1994 Little, who was known in Greater Manchester as Mr Big, was shot twice in the head and once in the foot as he stopped at traffic lights in Stockport. Little put his foot down, presumably his good one, and his £50,000 Mercedes crashed into other cars.

In 1987, Nelson travelled from Sheffield to fight unbeaten Byron Pullen at the Elephant and Castle. Pullen had won a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1986 but Nelson stopped him in three rounds; a year later Pullen picked up a virus on holiday and died suddenly on his return.

In 1988, Nelson stopped Cordwell Hylton in the first round. A decade later Hylton was sent to prison for kidnapping his former wife. She made a dramatic appearance in court and pleaded for leniency. He was a broken man and died at 42 in 2001. At the time of his death poor Cordwell was probably 'talking to walls', as Jose Sulaiman once famously said about troubled retired boxers.

In 1992, Nelson went to France and lost to Norbert Ekassi when he was stopped in three rounds. However, he was still able to travel, just seven weeks later, to South Africa where he lost on points to Corrie Sanders. On Christmas Eve in 1995 Ekassi, who was just 29, cut his hand, lost so much blood and he died two days later. Sanders, who went on and won the world heavyweight title when he knocked out Wladimir Klitschko, was shot in the hand and stomach during a botched robbery at a restaurant in South Africa in 2012. Sanders was at a family party when the shooting started, an innocent man that bravely wandered into the fire.

Next it was the turn of Manchester heavyweight Michael Murray, a gentle man with a love of poetry and the ability to earn a living playing jazz guitar. Murray had once fought for the British title but was on a losing streak when Nelson beat him on points at Wembley in 1997. On Christmas Eve in 2011, he had a stroke and died the following day.

Last December, fighter number eight joined Nelson's unwanted list when Ezra Sellers died from heart problems in Florida. Sellers was the only one of the eight to be involved in a WBO fight with Nelson, losing by stoppage inside a permanent circus building in Copenhagen one night in 2002.

Huck and Nelson would have been an interesting fight.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Steve Bunce Close
Steve Bunce has been ringside in Las Vegas over 50 times, he has been at five Olympics and has been writing about boxing for over 25 years for a variety of national newspapers in Britain, including four which folded! It is possible that his face and voice have appeared on over 60 channels worldwide in a variety of languages - his first novel The Fixer was published in 2010 to no acclaim; amazingly it has been shortlisted for Sports Book of the Year.