Nelson has his eye on Hamed

James Reed visits Accra to meet a Ghanaian hero and veteran champion
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The Independent Online
At night visions of fights kept him awake. To cure his insomnia he would rise silently, touch his wife, Peggy, tenderly on the head and leave the bedroom to stand by his boxing glove-shaped pool, his adoring huskies at his side.

"When I can't sleep I walk to the gym and train. Then I sleep well because I'm a man of action," remembered Ghana's Azumah Nelson, now 37, who ended his 18-month exile from the sport on 1 December by winning the World Boxing Council super-featherweight title from Gaby Ruelas. It was the boxing shock of the year and made every midnight walk to his private gym worthwhile.

Nelson is now looking for one or two more fights before finally retiring to his spacious bungalow in the Achimotu district of Accra. His home is protected by a high wall, several hands and his incongruous pet huskies.

"I want money because glory is no good to an old man like me. I need money for my family and there are some very good fights waiting for me," Nelson said last week in London after talks with Naseem Hamed's promoter, Frank Warren. The talks were amiable but nothing was signed. There is also a suggestion that the American promoter, Bob Arum, a man noted for his ability to bring warring parties together, is keen to match Nelson against the golden boy of American boxing, Oscar de la Hoya. Nelson will choose when the sums are right.

The African already has glory, his position as a folk hero in Ghana is permanent. Outside Nelson's home hawkers gather in expectation. "Champ, champ," they eagerly chant each time he drives in and out. They offer bags of water, fruit and flip-flops. The professor, as Nelson is known, buys from all of them. "They are rascals but I like to keep them happy," he said.

In front of Nelson's gates, between the Blood of Jesus church and Tina's Chops Shops, hustlers and traders set up stalls each morning. It is known as Champ's Market. Each morn Nelson's kitchen staff wander through, selecting the best and freshest food.

"They are my people. A champion must be simple like the people, he must have simple interests like the people, otherwise they will not like you," Nelson insisted. On main junctions of the chaotic road system that connects the city of Accra portraits, often on crushed velvet, of the country's leader, Flt Lt Jerry Rawlings, Nelson Mandela and Azumah Nelson are for sale. At each light Nelson is offered a free portrait. "No, it makes me look too ugly," he told one woman.

Nelson is the ultimate boxing hero: born in a temporary shanty town on the outskirts of Accra, Samuel Nelson Azumah is one of seven children. As a small child he chased cars trying to sell anything and admits he often stole to feed his brothers and sisters. He turned to boxing, was a national hero as an amateur and has become a millionaire as a professional. Last week, when he finally returned after the Ruelas victory, he was met by 60,000 people at the airport and the four-mile drive to his home took six hours.

The win would be an ideal fight to end a brilliant career but he is intent on continuing. "Ever since I started I have just wanted to keep going and when I was retired I was so restless," Nelson said.

Nelson's first chance at winning the world title came in 1982. He was given just two weeks' notice for a 15-round fight against Mexico's brilliant featherweight champion, Salvador Sanchez, at New York's Madison Square Garden. Nelson was winning when he finally ran out of steam and was stopped in the last minute of the 15th and final round. "I was a boy," said Nelson, who was just 24 but had never met anybody of Sanchez's class.

"The people who run boxing saw the next champion that night and I knew it would be hard for me to get another chance." He was right. It took over two years and when his chance finally came he had to go to Puerto Rico to meet the modern great, Wilfredo Gomez. It was a brutal encounter and Nelson, who had a funky afro hairstyle at the time, finally knocked Gomez senseless in the 11th round.

Nelson has fought 22 world title fights, winning 17, losing just three and drawing two. His two encounters with the Australian hard-man, Jeff Fenech, were incredible - especially the final fight when he knocked Fenech out in front of 50,000 people in the Australian's home town of Melbourne.

His two other defeats were controversial. He lost to the American, Pernell Whitaker, on points in a double title fight in 1990 but found out just days before the fight that his beloved first wife, Beatrice, was ill. Nobody told him just how ill and when he returned to Ghana he went straight to her bedside and she died three days later. In his other defeat, against Jesse Leija, he claims it was black magic, a juju curse that cost him victory and led to his first retirement.

"When I am right I don't feel any pain, nothing scares me," Nelson said last week before boarding his plane and heading for his glorious reception. In his travel bag there was a tape of De la Hoya and Hamed.