“Everybody needs a mentor in life. I was fortunate enough to find Brendan.”
Nearly four decades after he first walked into his life, and 18 months on from his death, the presence of Brendan Ingle still looms large on the life of Johnny Nelson.
Whether it be recalling a boxing career that began with 10 defeats in 16 bouts and ended with a cruiserweight world title, or his new life going into prisons trying to give hope to inmates, Ingle is never far from Nelson’s thoughts.
The relationship between a coach and a boxer has to be close for there to be any degree of success, but the Ingle-Nelson axis ran so much deeper than mere ringside counsel.
Ingle was Nelson’s salvation, his guiding light. The term mentor, arguably, does not do it justice.
“If Brendan said jump I wouldn’t say ‘how high?’, I’d just jump,” says Nelson of Ingle, the softly-spoken Irishman who transformed for the better the lives of so many young boys and girls at his boxing gym in Wincobank.
When I retired I thought I’d been lucky. Now I think I was lucky because I met Brendan. What he achieved in boxing was unbelievable for someone like me – from 10 losses in 13 amateur fights to retiring as the undefeated world champion.Johnny Nelson
“I’d have done anything for Brendan. If a man can have that much influence on someone as an individual, that says so much about the man.
“Brendan did an amazing job, I wouldn’t have boxed, I wouldn’t be in the job I’m in now, or acquired what I have acquired, if it wasn’t for him.
“And he’s missed. I do miss him.
“He showed me what life could be like and what life should be like. Some kids aren’t very academic, and I was one of them. But some kids live and learn, and I was one of those.
“They’re lessons they don’t teach in schools, life skills. That was the life skill I got from Brendan.”
Patience was another lesson, because the rangy lad from Sheffield wasn’t a very good boxer in his younger years, either as an amateur or as a professional. Nelson knew it, the rest of the young fighters at the gymn knew it – often told him so to his face – and most of his opponents knew it.
He lost 10 of the 13 amateur bouts he contested, and then when he turned professional, he lost his first three fights.
But one man wouldn’t give up on him.
“People weren’t telling me I was ‘crap’ behind my back, they were saying it to my face,” recalls Nelson.
“If people say it enough, you actually believe it.
“But Brendan, said ‘no, no, no’.
“He said ‘you’ll come good when you’re 30’, and I just replied ‘I don’t want to be boxing in my 30s’.
“But his response was ‘you’ve not got the confidence yet to match your ability’. And that’s when the penny dropped.”
If his talent was low, his commitment was unwavering, and it is that which Nelson acknowledges now was integral to Ingle never losing faith in him.
“I lived in Crookes so it was the No 80 bus from Upperthorpe, then the No 4 into Wincobank,” smiles Nelson. “I remember it well, two buses, every day.
“I think that’s what Brendan probably recognised. Looking back now, I didn’t see it, but he will have done.”
Nelson enjoyed a long and colourful professional career.
He fought for the cruiserweight world title at various junctures, the first against Carlos De Leon re-introducing him to the nasty side of people.
“Once I lost (it was actually a draw but he didn’t win the title), in the fashion it happened, in the space of 24 hours people changed. They were saying it to my face, you’re embarrassing, you’re rubbish,” he recalls.
“It was crushing, so I was back to having no confidence again.”
Nine years and 24 fights later, he finally won the world cruiserweight title, defeating fellow Briton Carl Thompson in Derby.
“That was my day, I’ve done it, I’m proud. Brendan Ingle turned me from a zero to a hero, and I was proud to say I was a product of his gym,” says Nelson, who defended the title 14 times over the next six-and-a-half years, retiring as the world champion at the end of 2005.
“When I retired I thought I’d been lucky. Now I think I was lucky because I met Brendan.
“What he achieved in boxing was unbelievable for someone like me – from 10 losses in 13 amateur fights to retiring as the undefeated world champion.
“There were a lot more talented people in the gym than me, but I just listened. When I see those guys now they say ‘crikey you did well, you were rubbish’. And I know was. But, again, I just listened.
“And once I became world champion I really believed I was the best in the world.
“That’s from a kid who had no confidence, no self-belief, didn’t think he could do half the things he could – but had Brendan teaching him.
“It wasn’t just physical training, it was mental training.
“So looking back now I just smile, I smile because I was fortunate.”
A decade and a half on, Nelson has become the mentor, taking the lessons he learned from Ingle and passing them on to people who still have time to make better choices.
“I’ve tried to pick up some of what Brendan left, going into prison, talking to prisoners,” he says.
“They see people like myself and don’t realise the past I’ve had and that I can relate. It’s about choices in life.
“Without a doubt I could have gone down that path and this is part of the reason why I go into prisons. It could have been me. If I hadn’t have boxed my life would have been so much different. I know that.
“That’s why it feels like I’m giving back.”
Nelson is also prominent on our screens as a pundit for Sky. He will be ringside tonight for Joshua-Ruiz II in Saudi Arabia.
“What’s rewarding is people forget I boxed, they say ‘you’re that guy off Sky’. You know what, that’s not bad because it means I’ve done well.”
He is also a father, and as he approaches 53, he is content at where he is in life.
“I’m a dad now, I’ve got a family of my own and I’ve got to get on with that,” he says.
“I’ve got a job, although it’s working in a sport I love.
“So I’m in a good place.”
Did he ever think about following in the footsteps of Ingle?
“Mentoring, yes, but not as a trainer, that would be too much of a headache,” admits Nelson, who along with Spencer Oliver is working on a mentoring programme through Sky Sports.
“I might be a good trainer, but I just wouldn’t be able to commit the amount of time Brendan committed to me as a coach.
“So I wouldn’t do it, because it wouldn’t be fair. Under Brendan I was never wanting, he was always there.”
In so many ways, he still is.