From the first time I saw Azumah Nelson, the night my father took me to see his American debut at Madison Square Garden against the legendary Mexican Salvador Sanchez the night of July 21, 1982, I knew he was destined for greatness. It was one of the few times in boxing history that a fighter won despite losing. For the next 16 years, Nelson accomplished more than any other Ghanan or African fighter in the history of boxing, culminating in “The Professor” being the 32nd greatest fighter of the last 45 years
Not only was Nelson a complete unknown going into his fight against Sanchez, he only had 13 career fights. I told my father this guy had no business being in the ring with an experienced great like Sanchez. Although at 24, Nelson was a year older than Sanchez, his 13 fights paled in comparison to the legendary Mexican’s 45 fights. Sanchez was also making the ninth defense of his WBC Featherweight title. I was expecting a short main event. My father explained to me that every African he ever saw fight (Cornelius Boza Edwards, Dick Tiger, Ayub Kalule, etc.) were tough warriors who always came to fight. As great as Sanchez was, my father stated that Nelson had one advantage which was that Sanchez didn’t know what type of fighter he was facing. Nelson knew exactly what kind of fighter he was facing in Sanchez. This turned out to be prophetic as Nelson gave Sanchez the toughest fight of his career before finally succumbing to the champion’s will in the 15th and final round. When Sanchez tragically died three weeks later, my father predicted that Nelson would be the next dominant 126-pound world champion. It would take him over two years to get another shot at the title.
Despite dealing with the unknown, Sanchez dominated the first three rounds by staying outside and landing several crisp combinations. Late in the third round, Sanchez stunned Nelson with a right cross right down the middle. Nelson, despite losing the first three rounds, kept coming and landed some of his own hard right crosses. Rounds four and five saw Nelson finally cut off the ring and lure Sanchez into a slugfest. Nelson landed several cracking shots to the head and body. Sanchez landed several shots of his own but was unable to keep the relentless African off of him. When the fifth round ended, my father and I both came to the conclusion that Nelson was the real deal.
While biding his time, Nelson would win his next six fights, five by knockout, before finally getting his next title shot, this time on December 8, 1984 against Puerto Rican legend Wilfredo Gomez in Gomez’s backyard of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The fight was televised in syndication back in the United States. My father and I watched this fight and knew that Gomez, one of my father’s all-time favorite fighters and fellow Puerto Rican, was too shopworn to beat the 26-year-old buzzsaw from Ghana. Nelson systematically broke down Gomez before finally putting him away in the 11th round and claiming the WBC featherweight crown. My father and I, even though we loved Gomez, were pleased with the result because we knew from the night he fought Sanchez that Azumah was going to be a special fighter. The victory over Gomez would be just the beginning.
Nelson’s toughest competition as 126-pound champion was Marcos Villasana. Villasana gave everyone hell back then as he was a power punching, iron-chinned Mexican with tremendous intestinal fortitude. Nelson won two hard earned decisions over Villasana while bulldozing the other four men he defended his title against during his three-year title run. Finally, on February 29, 1988, Nelson moved up to 130 pounds to fight for the title the legendary Julio Cesar Chavez had recently vacated.
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.
Unable to secure a fight with Mitchell, Nelson moved up to 135 to challenge Pernell Whitaker for his world lightweight title in an attempt to become a three-division champion. “Sweet Pea’s” defense and speed was a puzzle that “The Professor” could never solve as Whitaker completely baffled the Ghanan icon in winning an easy decision. With Nelson’s goal of becoming a three-division champion thwarted, he went back down to 130.
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 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 Gomez and second Fenech fight being the greatest examples. Nelson was the most versatile super featherweight in the history of the underrated division. He also had one of the most underrated featherweight title reigns in boxing history. “The Professor” would end his illustrious career with a record of 39-6-2 with 28 knockouts and more than worthy of being the 32nd greatest fighter of the last 45 years.