Happy Birthday Azumah Nelson – Africa’s Greatest Fighter Turns 65

By James Slater - 07/19/2023 - Comments

The greatest African fighter? Should the lofty distinction go to Dick Tiger (Nigerian)? To Ike Quartey (hailing from Ghana)? To Brian Mitchell (South African)? – or to Azumah Nelson (from Ghana)? There have been some pretty special fighters to come out of Africa, that’s for sure. But to many, in fact to most, “The Professor,” or, to use another of Azumah Nelson’s nicknames, “The Terrible Warrior,” fully deserves the honour of being called the greatest African boxer.


Nelson, who today celebrates his 65th birthday, was uncommonly tough, he was technically brilliant. And Nelson had ruthless punching power to go with an uncrackable chin. Oh, and “Zoom Zoom” was also blessed with stamina to die for. And a willingness, in fact an obsession, to fight the best – again and again and again, even when his own stature was concrete.

Going pro in December of 1979, this after having won a gold medal at the Commonwealth Games in 1978, this topping his amateur career, Nelson stunned the boxing world in July of 1982. In just his 14th pro fight, and after taking the fight at short notice, Nelson gave the great (some say the greatest Mexican fighter ever) Salvador Sanchez nothing but hell for 1 minute and 11 seconds short of 15 rounds. Nelson, taking the heat to Sanchez, this in a very real effort at ripping away from him his featherweight title, Nelson was stopped in the dying seconds of the final round in New York. This was Sanchez’ last fight, the 23 year old tragically losing his life in a car smash three weeks later.

But as tragic as Salvador’s death was, Nelson had arrived, even though he had lost the fight. It would be 18 fights over the course of eight years before Nelson lost again.

Nelson, at age of 26, stopped the also great Wilfredo Gomez to win the WBC featherweight title in 1984. Nelson would go on to retain the title six times (scoring notable wins over Pat Cowdell and Danilo Cabrera), before he made the move up to 130 pounds, with Nelson winning the WBC belt there also. Four retentions followed, before Nelson, now aged 32, lost to the sublime Pernell Whitaker, this in a challenge for “Sweet Pea’s” lightweight titles.

Nelson, still the reigning super-featherweight boss, dropped back down accordingly, the Don King promoted warrior beating Juan Laporte in a title defence before tangling with the ferocious Jeff Fenech. The 12 round war/ battle of attrition Nelson and Fenech went through in June of 1991 (the fight of the night, maybe of the year, taking place on a Mike Tyson card) was savagely entertaining, with Nelson deemed lucky to have avoided defeat by way of the controversial draw that was handed in by the three wise man who were privileged to have been sat at ringside.

But Nelson had been fighting the lingering effects of malaria as well as the raw aggression of Fenech. The return fight was a suitably different story, with a fully fit Nelson travelling to Australia to smash Fenech to 8th round defeat in another memorable fight. After winning this one, one of his most important and satisfying wins, Nelson gave the focused cameras an almost smug shrug, as if to say, ‘So what! I knew I was the better man.’

That Nelson was, and he went on winning, and drawing, and then losing (in fights with Jesse James Leija), and then winning again, until 1997. It was in March of 1997, after having become a three-time WBC featherweight champ with a KO win over multi-fight rival Leija, that Nelson’s age finally caught up with him. Genaro Hernandez won a split decision over Nelson, taking his title.

Azumah fought on for a while, but he never won another fight; “The Professor” dropping a decision to Leija in a fourth fight and then, ten years later, dropping an “old man” decision to Fenech in a needless third tango.

None of this mattered or matters. Nelson, who finished at 37-7-2(27), during which time he was stopped just one time, this by Sanchez, had done all he had to do to become recognised as the greatest African fighter ever.

65 today, Nelson is one of those rare fighters about whom nobody has a single bad word to say. Not even the guys that managed to defeat him in the ring.

Nelson was special. Very special. And we all applaud him for having been so.