The house is a nondescript property surrounded by a tall cement wall. But everybody in this residential neighbourhood in Achimota knows where the Professor lives. The courtyard is quiet save for a siren that rings regularly, marking the beginning and end of three-minute periods. Training rhythm determined by sound, a handful of teenagers swiftly throw punches in the air inside a dimly lit gym, a rectangular structure located in the corner of the large patio. They are 15 and 16-year-old kids, young and nimble but with high expectations placed upon them: their coach is the biggest boxing name the African continent has ever produced – Azumah Nelson.
THE BEGINNING: Nelson’s professional fighting career began in 1979. The impact of this would arguably become as important for boxing on the continent as the Rumble in the Jungle – the 1974 fight that took place in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) pitting Muhammad Ali against reigning world champion George Foreman.
His interest in boxing started when he was 7 or 8 years old, Nelson recalls. His father, also a boxer, took him to his first fight. “My father loved boxing, but my grandfather didn’t want him to fight, so he had to train in secret,” the champ said. “When he took me to the fight I saw the water coming out of the loser’s face. I didn’t understand if it was sweat or tears, but just this air of defeat. I immediately felt the urge to fight the other guy, the one that was winning.”
BECOMING A WORLD CHAMP: For years, Nelson’s career was mostly a Ghanaian affair; he was a local hero revered by his countryman, famed for 13 consecutive victories. But this changed in the summer of 1982. In Madison Square Garden, New York, the unknown Ghanaian boxer fought the World Boxing Council (WBC) featherweight champion Salvador Sánchez. The Mexican pugilist knocked out Nelson on the 15th round, but the boxing world became suddenly aware of the underdog-type of boxing talent that had been brewing in Ghana. Worldwide acclaim came two years later, when Nelson Wilfredo Gómez in San Juan, Puerto Rico, winning the 11-round fight to become the WBC featherweight champion.
Nelson went on to become a three-time world champion of boxing in two separate categories, winning the WBC featherweight title once, and the WBC super featherweight title twice, first in 1988 by defeating Mario Martínez in Los Angeles, and later in 1995, by reclaiming the title against Gabriel Ruelas. He retired in 1998, with 39 wins, six losses and two draws. His record and status led him to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2004.
LIVING UP TO THE NAME: He defeated 28 of his opponents by knockout, and the nickname, the Professor, was attributed in part by the lessons he would dish out in the ring. But these days, the 54-year-old saves most of his knowledge accumulated over the years for a new crop of young Ghanaian boxers who he hopes to turn into champions. One of them is Dalvin Nelson, his 16-year-old son, who mimicks his father’s moves in the dark gym.
There is potential, he said, stating, however, that kids today are a different crop. “The boys now don’t like hard work, they do a bit of manual labour and already feel they’re big.” Azumah said. “When I was 15 I was waking up in the morning to buy coconuts so I could resell them and bring some money for my family, besides training every day to become a good boxer.” He added that he wants Ghana’s future boxing champions to be respectful and humble.
Besides training, most of Azumah’s time now goes to developing the Azumah Nelson Foundation, a non-for-profit organisation he set up in 2008 to create opportunities for young Ghanaians via mentoring and providing education through sport. He plans to build a new complex, including a boxing gym and a school, to support the work of his foundation. But he is also keeping his eyes on the next potential Ghanaian champion, a 23-year-old he has trained and mentored. “Gembo,” Azumah said. “Remember that name.”