It may not be right or just, but the fact remains that when it comes to drawing attention and selling tickets, the heavyweights are always tops in boxing. You could have the second coming of Sugar Ray Robinson in action, but if the stadium across town has a dynamic heavyweight knockout artist on the bill, Sugar Man will be performing for many rows of empty seats. Sorry, but the big guys turn heads and make the turnstiles sing. Simple truth of the boxing business. How else does one explain what happened in Las Vegas on the night of June 28, 1991?
Yes, Mike Tyson vs Donovan “Razor” Ruddock was a compelling duel of huge heavyweight punchers, not to mention an intriguing rematch after their first meeting had been halted prematurely by referee Richard Steele four months previous. But the little recognized fact was that the night’s undercard feature was arguably, with not a trace of hyperbole, one of the best match-ups in recent boxing history, for any weight class.
Over the previous nine years, Azumah Nelson had won two world titles and established himself as a legit Hall of Famer, while Australia’s Jeff Fenech was an undefeated three-time world champ, gunning now for a fourth belt. That first Nelson vs Fenech battle, a match between two world champions with much on the line in terms of history and achievement, should have been a main event unto itself. Instead, the media and the public were focused on the heavyweight spectacle and Tyson’s vulgar mockery of his formidable Canadian opponent.
But perhaps it was just as well that sports fans and the mainstream press were less than enthralled by the Tyson-Ruddock undercard, because more attention to it would have meant yet more bad publicity for boxing. Another unpleasant truth about the fight game is it almost never misses a chance to ruin a good thing and so it was with Nelson vs Fenech, part one. We’ve seen it many times before and since: an otherwise entertaining and action-packed donnybrook marred by inept officiating.
The end result was nothing less than heartbreaking for Fenech. A major celebrity in Australia, he had the chance to become just the fourth man in boxing history to win world titles in four weight divisions, the first to do it undefeated, an achievement setting him up perfectly to become a global sports superstar. Instead, after twelve fast-paced and hard-fought rounds of which Fenech clearly won at least seven, the judges scored the contest a draw. The controversial finish eclipsed both a great fight and an inspiring performance from Fenech, and then, as Tyson and Ruddock locked horns, everyone but the die-hards put Nelson vs Fenech out of their minds.
Everyone except Fenech, of course. According to “The Marrickville Mauler” himself, the outcome changed him and not for the better. Outraged by the questionable decision, he returned to Australia and was back in the ring just three months later, but something was gone for good.
“I can’t put my finger on it and tell you exactly what it done to me, but I can tell you I was never the same fighter,” he told Daniel Attias in 2015. “After the [first Nelson] fight I came back home, obviously heartbroken and disappointed [and] I was never the same. I was never the same fighter and we never really seen [again] the guy that fought Azumah Nelson in Vegas.”
But perhaps the Nelson vs Fenech rematch should be less about the abrupt decline of one of the best boxers to ever come out of Australia, and more about the greatness of Azumah Nelson. For if Fenech insists that he was something less than his best in the return, Nelson in fact claimed to have been recovering from malaria prior to the first tilt. It’s difficult to be certain if that accounts for the contrast in performances, but what is undeniable is that when they met the second time, it was Nelson who looked every inch an all-time great.
Some forty thousand proud Australians endured a rainstorm to fill the Princes Park in Melbourne, all there to see a wrong righted, but it was not to be. From the opening bell it was clear this was a different version of the Azumah Nelson who had been so passive the previous June. Nelson’s moniker was “The Professor” and the man from Ghana was clearly intent on teaching the younger Fenech a painful lesson, as from the outset he held his ground and let fly with powerful blows from either hand. A flush right to the jaw caused the challenger’s legs to collapse in the opening round and right then and there the crowd’s hopes for a continuation of the first match were dashed.
In Las Vegas Fenech had attacked almost with impunity, pinning Azumah to the ropes and dictating the terms and in the process robbing the champion of punching room. He had fought with such confidence and ferocity that Nelson’s advantages in experience, power and accuracy were largely nullified, but now, in front of a huge crowd of his fellow Australians, Fenech appeared uncomfortable and hesitant. In round two he found himself off balance after taking a right hand and lost his footing. It appeared a slip, but the referee gave him the count. In the third Fenech pinned the man from Ghana in his own corner but failed to land any significant blows, and in the fourth, as if anything else could go wrong, he sustained a cut on his right eye.
Rounds five and six saw plenty of furious toe-to-toe warfare with both landing powerful shots. It had become a contest of wills with the champion working to stay away from the ropes while Fenech continually pressed forward. Near the end of the sixth the challenger got what he wanted as he forced Nelson into his own corner, but the hunted became the hunter when the champion unleashed a counter barrage of heavy blows that had Fenech reeling and grateful to hear the bell.
Surprisingly then, in the seventh “The Thunder From Down Under” had his best round yet as he consistently beat Azumah to the punch, and while Nelson’s advantage in sheer power had largely defined the proceedings, the fight was still up for grabs. Until, abruptly, it was not. Round eight saw a return to vicious, phone booth warfare, the challenger again forcing Nelson to his own corner and keeping him there, but if it appeared Fenech had the upper hand, then appearances were deceiving. A thudding left hook found the sweet spot on the Australian’s chin and froze him; another left and two rights sent him crashing to the floor.
Fenech then made the mistake of rising too fast from the knockdown and the hometown hero was still dazed and confused as Nelson moved in for the finish. Flush left hooks, then an uppercut and a finishing right hand had the Australian’s head snapping around like a speed bag before the referee stepped in to rescue him. The shocked crowd of Fenech fans looked on in silence as a small contingent of Ghanaians gleefully danced and waved aloft their red, green and yellow flags.
Fenech had nothing to be ashamed of; it had been a violent slugfest all the way and he had battled bravely, but his mistake was in preparing for the same Nelson who had been, comparatively, so weak and defensive back in June. This time a Nelson primed for combat had answered the bell. And “The Professor,” who already held big wins over Wilfredo Gomez, Mario Martinez and Juan LaPorte, confirmed again a most important and lasting lesson, namely that Azumah Nelson was a truly great champion, a Hall of Famer, and, arguably, the best of all African boxers. — Michael Carbert