National hero: Jeff Horn interview

Mark Butcher
12/12/2017 2:40pm

Tomorrow welterweight Jeff Horn faces 'The Battle of Brisbane 2' vs England's Gary Corcoran. In the wake of his upset victory against Manny Pacquiao, the Aussie sensation spoke to Boxing Monthly's Mark Butcher...

A saviour usually takes time to make an appearance. Noted for its pioneer spirit and excellence in sports, Australia had drifted into the boxing wilderness in recent years. Greats like Lionel Rose, Kostya Tszyu and the Jeffs Fenech and Harding were mere echoes of the past while grizzled veterans Anthony Mundine and Danny Green played on like ageing rockers way past their peak.

It took a clean-cut, former schoolteacher to put Australia back on the boxing map in the most improbable of circumstances. In July, 13/2 underdog Jeff Horn swarmed Manny Pacquiao to clinch the WBO 147lbs crown on the scorecards to the delight of a partisan 52,000 crowd in Brisbane. ‘The Hornet’ suffocated Pacquiao with pressure, riding out a treacherous ninth round onslaught by the Filipino legend to secure one of the most memorable victories in Australian boxing history.

Given the fight’s huge exposure in America on free-to-air ESPN (peaking at 4.4 million viewers - US cable television’s highest-rated boxing telecast since 2006), Horn suddenly found himself projected beyond the Australian boxing sphere into global stardom. The humble Queenslander seems almost overwhelmed by his new found notoriety.

“It probably hasn’t really sunk in 100%, but I’m feeling pretty good,” Horn, 29, told BM over the phone during a recent trip to America. “I haven’t done much of my normal every day activities since the fight though that’s probably why it’s been harder to sink in. It’s been nice. It’s been a whirlwind type change since then.

“It feels very weird to be recognized on the street in America when I’m walking around. I thought there would be absolutely none of that when I came here. But, to my surprise, there were people stopping me for photographs and autographs in Los Angeles.”

Horn’s rousing decision win did not receive quite the credit it deserved, thanks in the most part to a scathing post-fight summary from ESPN’s volcanic Teddy Atlas who felt Horn had been gifted the decision, prompting the now tiresome shrieks of ‘robbery’ across social networks. Horn naturally agrees that the controversy was a direct result of Atlas’s commentary.

“I think it had a lot to with the commentary, what people [have been] saying. Because people listen to what they are hearing, rather than what they are seeing,” said Horn, who is promoted by New Zealand-based Duco Events who can count WBO heavyweight champion Joseph Parker among their stable. “That was the main reason why all this controversy started happening. I would probably prefer someone else to do the commentary rather than [Atlas] next time because it was a bit one-sided. I think the fight definitely wasn’t one-sided, so it would be good to have someone who is a bit more fair calling it.”

That upset win seemed highly unlikely during a torrid ninth round when Pacquiao sprung into life and battered Horn around the ring in a session so one-sided it could have easily been scored 10-8 to the Filipino. Showing championship heart and channelling his inner Jeff Harding, Horn hung tough to ride out the storm. Victory was the only thing flashing through his mind at that critical point of the fight.

“I don’t like losing. I wanted to push as hard as I could,” he said. “I wanted to prove all the people wrong who said I couldn’t do it in the first place, and to do it for my family as well. He would be up there [as the hardest puncher I’ve faced]. He definitely has a hard punch.”

The controversy intensified after Compubox statistics suggested that Pacquiao had significantly outlanded Horn, adding fuel to the conspiracy theorists' fire. Manually operated punch stats are, of course, merely a guideline and prone to human error. On closer inspection, this particular fight’s data seemed off-base because Compubox had Pacquiao outlanding Horn in the first – a round the Australian won decisively – yet these self-same stats were later used as ‘Exhibit A’ by those who questioned the legitimacy of the result.

“I don’t think that the stats are right,” said Horn. “They are not really painting the picture of what actually happened in the fight. The first round, which I won, they had him outpunching me. It’s not really accurate in saying what punches landed and the damage of those punches.”

In these increasingly surreal times, even the Filipino Government weighed in and called for a review of the decision. “It does feel very weird having the Filipino Government calling for a review. It’s not something I thought would have happened. I guess they are trying to support Manny. Maybe next time the UN [United Nations] will be involved!” chuckled Horn.

Validation came nine days later, when a review by the WBO involving five independent judges (watching without sound), again, scored in Horn’s favour (3 to 1 with 1 even), rubber stamping it as a fair decision.

“It gives me the fallback I need. It’s how I felt. The fight went like I won it,” said Horn. “So [it’s great] to have it rejudged again by another few judges – that’s about eight judges now who have [either] scored me winning the fight or with one of them giving it to Pacquiao..just.”

Horn’s heavily attended victory parade along the Queen Street Mall in Brisbane illustrated his immense popularity in his home city and saw the fighter presented with keys to the city by Lord Mayor Graham Quirk who just happens to be the fighter’s second cousin. Walking out at that packed Suncorp Stadium on 2 July, Horn fed off the support of the home crowd to galvanise him in his struggles.

“It definitely gave me a big buzz,” he said. “Made me feel very proud at that moment. I just tried to take in the crowd as much as I could to spur me on throughout the fight. I feel very proud to have done that for Australia. We haven’t been doing too well in the past in boxing terms so to win such a big fight like this will definitely help put boxing back on the map.”

There is, of course, a rematch clause. While Horn would prefer that to be in Australia, the thought of conquering Vegas similarly appeals. Horn would also be open to defending his newly acquired WBO crown in the UK if the right financial considerations were made with the sanctioning body’s No.3 contender, British and Commonwealth champion Bradley Skeete, a possible opponent. “I would potentially go over there depending on what offer is on the table. I haven’t seen much of [Skeete], no. But I have definitely heard his name and we were actually thinking about fighting him in the past.”

The Australian already holds fond memories of the UK having fought in the London 2012 Olympics where he reached the light-welterweight quarter-finals. “It was a very, very good experience. Just to be around all those athletes who were in the village and being a part of that type of event that the whole world was watching. It was a massive occasion and a very proud moment to go out there and compete.”

Horn has been matched tough throughout his pro career with his seventh fight against former world title challenger Nafouel Ben Rebah (W6) featuring something of a twist as a ‘winner-take-all’ contest. Understandably, no further motivation was necessary.

“That made me want to win that fight very badly!” said Horn. “I wasn’t willing to go all the way to Perth and lose a winner-takes-all bout against him – that’s for sure. It definitely made me try a lot harder after the first round, which I copped a bit of a flogging in, to make it turnaround and fight even harder.”

Steps up in class over established names like Randall Bailey and Ali Funeka [known to most keen fight observers but not ESPN’s Pacquiao-Horn commentator Stephen A. Smith] helped Horn push through the dark moments against Pacquiao. “My whole career I’ve been stepped up on so many occasions,” he said. “It’s all I pretty much know. It’s always another step and another level and that’s what Pacquiao was. It just felt like the normal thing to do, to step up and fight another big fight.

“My ambitions [now] are probably to unify the world titles. Just to have the big fights and be classed as the number one welterweight in the world. I plan to be around for at least another five years in the sport.“

Trainer Glenn Rushton, a self-made millionaire through the finance sector, is one of Aussie boxing’s larger than life characters. When the 18-year-old Horn wandered into his gym as ‘a nerdy, geeky young lad’, Rushton was quick to spot an unpolished diamond.

“Glenn’s been great. He believes in me the whole way. It rubs off on me, I guess, his belief,” said Horn (17-0-1, 11 KOs), who trains at a gym on the grounds of Rushton’s mansion home. “He makes me believe in what I can do. Glenn’s a very good trainer and thinks a lot about fights. He does a lot of research and figures out the right gameplan to win.”

A bright and modest man, Horn earned a Bachelor of Education degree at Griffith University enabling him to teach secondary school begging the question, ‘What’s tougher - boxing or teaching a rowdy class of kids?’ “It depends how long the lesson goes on for!” Horn told BM with a laugh. “Boxing is definitely harder physically but some days you can [return] home from teaching and be completely exhausted, mentally from the kids.”

The story of Jeff Horn is ultimately one of transformation. A victim of bullying in his school years, the young Australian took his frustrations to the gym where a desire to learn self-defence took him beyond discipline and into Australian boxing folklore. If the WBO champion could speak to his teenage self, or indeed any kid suffering from bullying, he would have some encouraging words. “I would probably tell him, just to keep going, keep pushing forward. Everything’s going to work out in the end, just keep treating people the way you’d like to be treated and keep working hard towards whatever you dream.”

This interview originally appeared in the September issue of Boxing Monthly magazine.