Aussie Rules: Jeff Horn interview

Ciaran Baynes
30/06/2017 7:35pm

From bullied schoolkid to world-title contender, Jeff Horn’s story has captured Australian hearts. Ciaran Baynes meets the man who aims to shock Manny Pacquiao...

Jeff Horn admits he doesn’t come from a traditional boxing background. He was a kid from the right side of the tracks in Brisbane, Australia. Horn endured bullying at school. He studied to become a schoolteacher.

The story of “The Hornet” overcoming bullying has been told in various forms across the Australian media as it embraces the clean-cut, polite boxer.

On 2 July, the 29-year-old welterweight will be fighting in front of an anticipated 55,000 crowd when he challenges WBO champion Manny Pacquiao at Suncorp Stadium in Horn’s Brisbane hometown.

One last incident, shortly before Horn left school, was the trigger to visit a boxing gym at 18. A fellow student slapped his face after Horn refused a command to kneel down.

“[School] years eight to 10 [ages 12-15] were the worst years for me,” Horn says as he relaxes after a training session at trainer Glenn Rushton’s $10 million mansion.

“After that last incident my confidence was down. I felt I might go through life with that stigma of being seen as a target who would be picked on. I knew it could happen and wanted to be able to protect myself if I was in that position again.

“I wasn’t a fight fan before. I never watched any boxing growing up — just Anthony Mundine vs Danny Green [their first fight in 2006] because it was a big event.

“After a year I started to take [boxing] more seriously. I went straight into the adult league and had tough fights straight away. I got beat in my fourth fight at the nationals. Because I started late I had to go through it quickly.

“I’ve always been taking massive jumps — just like now.”

Horn, qualified as a school teacher before the London Olympics (“an awesome experience”), where he reached the quarter-finals in the light-welterweight division.

He continued to teach until New Zealand-based promoting company Duco Events began paying him a weekly wage two years ago.

“I always had that back-up plan,” Horn says. “I knew if I didn’t make it in boxing I’d be a teacher.

“In that time I got married as well. Boxing was a big part of my life but I had other things. I think you need that.

“I know I don’t have the mould of a normal boxer. I’ve had stability all my life, which has kept me mentally strong. I can always look on the positive side of something.”

These qualities will be tested fully when Horn steps into the ring early Sunday afternoon Brisbane time (Saturday night on 1 July in the United States) to suit American TV requirements.

Horn gives the impression he will not be overawed. “I’m on the bigger side of the guys he’s faced and he’s not as frustrating to fight as a Mayweather,” Horn says.

“He’s there to be hit sometimes, as he proved against [Juan Manuel] Marquez. It’s just trying to time Pacquiao. He’s so off rhythm. He’s in and out and uses so many angles. But if you time his movement into your punch you can get him.

“It’s a positive for me that he hasn’t stopped anyone in a while, but I still have to be worried. He dropped [Jessie] Vargas in his last fight. He’s still got it.

“I won’t be able to handle it if I just stand in front of him and let him swarm all over me. I’ve got to get in a position where he can’t do that, use lateral movement.”

In Horn’s favour, he is probably the first genuine welterweight with knockout power Pacquiao has fought since Sugar Shane Mosley. Horn actually surprised himself with his hitting power when he laid out Samuel Colomban in his fifth fight to win the Australian title.

“It was the first time I felt like: ‘Holy crap, I’ve got that knockout, one-punch power,’” Horn recalls.

“I was a 3-1 underdog in that fight. When I hit him clean 78 seconds into the fight he was out cold.

“I stopped guys in the amateurs but it wasn’t one punch, bang, the guy’s sleeping in the corner.

“Since then my right hand’s been key to my success and it’s good against a southpaw.”

Horn is also boosted by the effervescent energy exuded by his trainer Glenn Rushton, a former national karate champion, whose acumen in financial investment built the mansion that has, onsite, the gym Horn first walked into and still trains in today.

“I don’t have any insecurity going up against [Pacquiao’s trainer] Freddie Roach,” Rushton says.

“I left home at 14 with 20 dollars in my pocket.

“There’s nothing about fighting I don’t know. I never see anyone doing anything that I go: ‘That’s new, that’s unique.’ There’s nothing that I haven’t seen.

“Jeff takes instruction really well and puts the plan into action. Against Manny you don’t want to make any mistakes. [Horn’s] got to be the best boxer [on the night] and I’ve got to be the best trainer.

“When Jeff and I walk out there it’s like Mick Jagger walking out at Wembley Stadium. It’s where we want to be.”

Horn has been matched in competitive bouts through the first 17 fights of his career. Rushton believes that most modern-day Australian boxers seek the easiest route to big fights.

“When they get a shot, they’re nowhere near the pace,” Rushton says.

“Promoters said I was the hardest to deal with because I wanted someone [as a Horn opponent] world ranked who’d won their recent fights.”

The only half-blemish on Horn’s 16-0-1 (11 KOs) record is a draw with Rivan Cesaire in his fourth fight due a clash of heads, which Horn rectified with a stoppage victory in the rematch.

A big stage in Horn’s development came in his seventh fight, when he travelled across Australia to Perth to win a six-round decision over two-time world title challenger Nafouel Ben Rebah (then 37-3), who had won 14 fights in a row and insisted on a winner-take-all contest.

“He lost the first round and I said: ‘It’s winner take all, get your arse out there, we didn’t come over here for nothing.’” Rushton recalls. “He didn’t lose a round after that and they said [Ben Rebah] suffered more in six rounds than he did in his world title fights.”

The win over Ben Rebah brought Horn to the attention of New Zealand promoters Duco, who have guided Joseph Parker to the WBO heavyweight title.

Since then, Horn has beaten fighters he was expected to beat although he stepped up in class with stoppage victories against former WBO champion Randall Bailey and world title challenger Ali Funeka.

Horn suffered a flash knockdown against Bailey and, erroneously, was given a count against Funeka in his last fight. (Replays showed the “knockdown” was the result of a clash of heads.)

“Bailey got me with a good one — and the head clash was painful as well,” Horn says.

“I’ve felt that feeling of the shock [of a knockdown] and the buzz throughout your whole body, but I recover pretty quickly.”

Bailey’s corner pulled him out after round seven, after Horn’s repeated body attack took its toll, while a spectacular right hand downed Funeka in the sixth and left him too unsteady to continue, setting up perhaps the biggest fight in Australian history.

“I mentally visualise looking out at 55,000 people and get goosebumps,” Horn says.

“I try not to think of it too much. When you do, your heart rate goes through the roof so I just try to keep calm and put my thoughts into something else.

“When I get in the ring, I’ll turn it on.”

According to Rushton, the living legend across the ring at Suncorp Stadium will not change Horn’s mindset.

“He’s a cyborg,” Rushton says of Horn. “There’s no emotion. He seeks and destroys.”