Robert Silva is back with his third greatest super featherweight in boxing history – Azumah Nelson.
The first time my father and I ever saw Azumah Nelson was in Madison Square Garden on the night of July 21, 1982 against the legendary Mexican Featherweight Champion Salvador Sanchez. To this day, it is still the single greatest fight I ever attended. Nelson was an unknown substitute from Ghana that night. It turned out to be the toughest fight for Sanchez as 126-pound champion. Despite losing, Nelson showed the boxing world that he was a star in the making. That he was, as he would not only eventually become a great Featherweight, but an even greater Super Featherweight and the greatest fighter ever to hail from the African continent.
Nelson was an incredible boxer-puncher who would adjust his style to yours. He could box from the outside and counterpunch you to death. He also could walk you down and beat you to the body if you decided to move. His first reign as 130-pound champion saw the best of both styles at work.
After defeating Mario Martinez on February 29, 1988 to win the vacant WBC Super Featherweight Title, Nelson successfully defended his title 10 times over a 10-year period. Along the way, he fought notable contenders such as Gabriel Ruelas, Calvin Grove, a rematch with Martinez, Jesse James Leija and Jeff Fenech. Missing from that list was a potential unification title matchup against IBF champ Brian Mitchell. Nelson refused to fight Mitchell because of Mitchell being from South Africa. Nelson was the pride and joy of Accra, Ghana and felt it was his obligation not to give Mitchell an opportunity at unification because of South Africa’s immoral apartheid regime. Nelson didn’t want to, as he saw it, spit in the face of the oppressed Black South Africans by rewarding Mitchell with a big money fight, despite the fact that Mitchell never embraced South Africa’s ruling class policies. It was another case of real life politics ruining what would’ve been a classic encounter between not only two of the greatest Super Featherweights of all-time, but possibly the two greatest African boxers of all-time as well.
On June 28, 1991, Nelson defended his 130-pound crown for the sixth time against the three division champion and undefeated Australian Jeff Fenech. At the time, Nelson was a month shy of his 33rd birthday and Fenech had just turned 27. Many boxing experts felt Nelson was too strong and cagey for the aggressive Aussie. My father and I begged to differ. We had seen Fenech rip through each of opponents and his aggression and speed were at a level Nelson wasn’t accustomed to. Also, Fenech at 5’7 was actually two inches taller than the Ghanaian great. On that evening, Fenech proved us right as he bullied, outmaneuvered and outworked Nelson the entire fight. I had Fenech easily winning nine of the twelve rounds and expected him to easily win the decision and capture his fourth world title. Unfortunately, Fenech was robbed as the fight was scored a draw. To this day, it is one of the five worst decisions I’ve seen in the history of boxing. Nelson, knowing that the vast majority of the boxing world knew he got away with a gift, consented to a rematch, this time in Fenech’s hometown.
On March 1, 1992, in front of over 30,000 fans in Melbourne, Australia, Nelson accomplished what my father and I felt was impossible; he thoroughly outboxed and outclassed the legendary Australian. Nelson, in his finest performance, put on a counterpunching and body punching clinic. He dazzled Fenech with in-and-out movement and used Fenech’s aggression against him with pinpoint counterpunching. Nelson won every minute of every round as he completely lived up to his “Professor” moniker. Finally, in round eight, the referee put an end to the the one-sided beating. Just like he did almost 10 years earlier against Sanchez in his American debut, Nelson made my father and me a believer. That was the night that Nelson proved he was the greatest fighter ever to come out of the great continent of Africa.
After two more successful defenses of his Super Lightweight Title, Nelson engaged in the first of four fights with Jesse James Leija. The 28 year-old Leija was a poor man’s Fenech; a very aggressive boxer who didn’t posses the Aussie’s flair and speed. However, just like the first Fenech fight, Nelson was thoroughly outclassed by the Texas native and was once again awarded with a gift draw. Eight months later, in an immediate rematch, Nelson was once again out-fought and this time officially defeated by the younger challenger. Nelson’s six-year reign at 130 was over after 10 successful defenses. Nelson briefly retired before making a comeback 18 months later at the age of 37.
On December 1, 1995, the 37 year old Nelson battled WBC 130 pound champion Gabriel Ruelas. Despite defeating Ruelas a few years back, Nelson came in a huge underdog to the much younger and taller champion. Ruelas was coming off a tragic victory over Jimmy Garcia. Garcia took such a severe beating that he suffered brain damage and died 13 days after the fight. Nelson caught Ruelas at the right time. Ruelas seemed affected psychologically by the Garcia fight. As soon as round one commenced, Nelson jumped on Garcia and battered the champion. Ruelas was never in the fight, causing the referee to stop the fight in the fifth round. Nelson regained his crown and Ruelas would never be the same again due to the beating Nelson administered and his psyche due to the Garcia tragedy.
In his very first defense of his newly regained world title, Nelson sought to avenge his defeat to Leija. In a performance similar to his title winning effort against Ruelas, Nelson once again turned back the clock in a convincing sixth round stoppage of Leija. Here was a man six weeks shy of his 38th birthday putting on one of the greatest performances of his storied career. Unfortunately, it would be the final win of his career. In his very next fight, on March 22, 1997, Nelson lost a very tough split decision to Genaro Hernandez. Then, a year later and eight days before his 40th birthday, Nelson fought listless in losing a 12 round decision in the fourth and rubber match against his greatest rival Leija. He would make a questionable comeback 10 years later, losing a decision to Fenech in a battle of the senile legends.
Azumah Nelson set a standard for fighters from Ghana that, despite excellent fighters like Ike Quartey and Richard Commey who also were born in Ghana, has yet to be replicated. Like several great champions, Nelson traveled the world in defending his title and convincingly defeated the hometown challengers, the second Fenech fight being the greatest example. Nelson was the most versatile Super Featherweight in the history of the underrated division. All of these qualities not only made Nelson the greatest African fighter of all-time, but also the third greatest Super Featherweight of all-time.