Boxing: Nelson's `bottle' problem is put to the test

Much maligned cruiserweight has a chance for title redemption.
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The Independent Online
STAGE FRIGHT is a cancerous condition for a fighter. It implies cowardice and a more damning, insidiously damaging accusation could not be made of a professional boxer. It suggests an inherent inability to do the job. And the slur sticks like glue.

When a debuting professional's bowels betrayed him in the third round at Glasgow four weeks ago, the young man was allowed to leave the ring immediately with what little dignity he had left. That was an accident, an aberration unlikely to happen again. But to a few he will forever remain the guy who lost it, big time.

The Sheffield cruiserweight Johnny Nelson has received white feathers through the post and lived to fight another day. But his status is currently uncertain after two bitterly disappointing non-efforts on the world title stage. Does Nelson have the bottle for the job? Saturday night should reveal all when he challenges Carl Thompson for the World Boxing Organisation championship at Derby Storm Arena.

It is a fight that has twice been postponed in order to allow Thompson's two fights with Chris Eubank. And it is a fight that Nelson, 33, must win in order to salvage even a semblance of respectability from a 13-year career that has threatened so much more than it has delivered.

Nelson's unrequited fan mail followed a desultory draw when he challenged the veteran Carlos De Leon for the World Boxing Council title in 1990. The total lack of aggression from either man was by entirely mutual consent and infuriated the Englishman's home-town crowd. The consensus was that Nelson, for all his talent, lacked heart enough to make the grade at world level.

Two years later Nelson received a shot at the International Boxing Federation champion, James Warring. This was a chance for the Englishman to clear his name, against a distinctly average former kickboxer. Nelson had impressively won and defended the European title by the time of the fight in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and looked ready to make amends. But, on the night, Nelson fled shamelessly for 12 rounds. At times he looked petrified. His credibility and marketability hit rock bottom. "It's a psychological problem," his trainer, Brendan Ingle, said at the time. "I know what needs doing but it's going to take time with him.But it's a strange game. Anything can happen."

Commercially dead in Britain and America, Nelson was forced into virtual exile. He won the lesser World Boxing Federation version of the championship and then that organisation's heavyweight title, also. Nelson defended these belts on every continent. He was treated as the second coming of Muhammad Ali in Thailand and robbed by bandits and the judges in Brazil.

But, out of the limelight, the pressure was off and Nelson enjoyed his rehabilitation. He earned wellenough to buy a house in his local area and sat back as Naseem Hamed brought world title glory to Ingle's stable. Nelson claims that the younger man's achievements had a cathartic effect on him. He says that years in the company of the recently departed Hamed have finally given him a winning attitude.

"I was a late developer," Nelson now admits. "But I've grown up just in time. And I've never felt so confident."

Words, however, mean very little as Nelson enters this contest. He talked good fights prior to his previous world title challenges. And Thompson is a dour, uncompromising champion who is hungry for recognition.

The evidence of his hard-won victories over Eubank shows that if it comes to a firefight, Thompson will not flinch. He could be Nelson's worst nightmare if the challenger's resolve is insufficiently bolstered. And many doubt that Nelson has much resolve to bolster in the first place. And while the scorned fighter claims rebirth, the weight of evidence supports his detractors. Is Nelson's treacherous nervous condition cured, or is he simply in remission? We will soon find out.