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Talking Boxing

Interviews, opinions, features and news from the greatest sport in the world!

November 10, 2016

An inevitable journey

Boxing is in McKenzie's DNA.

SHAUN BROWN

Football will always be a big part of Leon McKenzie’s life. Crystal Palace, Peterborough United, Norwich City, Coventry City… four clubs which helped him accumulate over 300 appearances and nearly 100 goals during 14 years of McKenzie’s life.
  
That’s gone. The first sporting career is over.

His suicide attempt, his stint in jail (for trying to avoid speeding convictions), his sister’s death… individual chapters in a story which featured a new and uplifting development in 2013 thanks to boxing. It's always been in his DNA. His father Clinton, a former Southern Area and British champion at 140lbs. His Uncle Duke a three-weight world champion.

Leon McKenzie becoming a professional boxer, looking back, seemed inevitable even if it did happen a bit later in life.

“How many 35-year-olds do you know that turn pro?” McKenzie asked Talking Boxing.

June 29, 2013. Leon McKenzie, at 35, made his debut in a professional boxing ring against John Mason, a fighter with six fights experience. His bout against McKenzie would be his last. McKenzie treats every fight of his own like it’s his last. The next one is this Saturday night for the English super middleweight title against Jahmaine Smyle (13-2, 4 KOs) inside the sweat box that is York Hall.

“If you’re an intelligent person, you can look at a 35-year-old turning professional at boxing that he's definitely got something about him to even think about stepping in the ring at that age. Or he’s just trying to do one fight, see how it goes and bail basically. But you can’t ask the same question nine fights on.”

There had been doubts when McKenzie went from footballer to fighter. It doesn’t matter about your surname. You’re coming in at the very bottom. The only way is up, but the climb is monumental. You don’t play boxing, as they say.

“At the end of the day, I don’t feel like I have to beg because I’m doing a lot of this myself, and to get to this stage is a big deal,” McKenzie said.

“I’ve had to fight in small halls from day one. I’ve had to sell my own tickets from day one. It’s only like now we’re at the stage that people are taking notice. I don’t regret having to prove myself. But at the same time, as time goes on, every fight I keep winning... let’s face it there’s still going to be some ignorant people and probably jealous people. And there will be other people that will say 'fair play'.”

Jahmaine Smyle probably couldn’t give a you know what about Leon’s life, and what he has been through. He has something that Leon wants, but isn’t just going to give it up because it keeps the story going. Curtis Woodhouse lived boxing’s Cinderella story after hanging up his own football boots to become British super lightweight champion. Smyle has every intention of ensuring there’s no repeat of such a fairytale.

“It’s an English title, but for me it’s just another fight in that respect. I don’t want to look at it like it’s this world title shot. This is another fight. The only respect I can really give is that he’s champion. I’m looking to take this belt from him. It’s business, it’s nothing personal. I’m just going in to do what I need to do.”

That sounds like McKenzie might not rate the champion, but that’s far from the case.

“I wouldn’t say I don’t rate him. You can’t not rate an English champion. When someone’s holding a belt of that credibility there’s got to be something about that person, he’s got to have a bit about them.

“As a fighter, he’s very strong, he’s very top heavy. I see him a little bit one-dimensional, but at the same time he’s very game, and that’s how I explain Jahmaine Smyle. I don’t think he’s the most technical of boxers, that’s facts. But he’s effective at what he does. He’s fit, he’s strong and he’s game and that’s how I see Jahmaine Smyle. There’s no disrespect to what he brings to the table.

“On paper this is my toughest fight once again. If anything, I think I’m the one that’s getting underestimated from their side. If they’re seeing it like some of my other opponents have, like I’m this old man, and I used to play football. You can’t play boxing and all this rubbish... until these people look into the deeper picture of my life and understand my DNA... that’s only then that they’ll realise that I’m f*****g tough and I can fight, and I can sure as hell box! And it’s all in my blood. It’s in my DNA. Until these opponents start realising that it might be a bit different, but so be it. Hopefully they’re not underestimating me and it’ll be a fantastic fight.”

The styles should gel for the kind of domestic tear-up that should be televised. A fight that will likely make the paying public very happy. McKenzie, however, isn’t there to be bullied or steamrolled for your pleasure, he’s ready to go through whatever punishment is necessary to win his first domestic belt. And who knows, it may even lead to a British title shot should the title be vacated after champion Callum Smith takes on challenger Luke Blackledge next month in Manchester.

“No, I don’t, sorry. I like Luke Blackledge, he’s a top man outside the ring. We’ve spoke a few times on Twitter but I don’t see it going more than three rounds,” McKenzie said when asked if he thought Blackledge had a chance against one of the world’s rising stars at super middleweight.

“That’s just because I see Callum Smith as world level, and hopefully he vacates it after this and get through this fight and who knows for me in 2017.”

The word ‘journey’ may be frowned upon by boxing’s hardcore element but there is no better way to describe what Leon McKenzie is embarking on right now. Nine fights, one on Sky Sports and now just days away from an English title shot. He would have liked to have had a few more fights [the fight against Smyle will be his first since January] but you won’t hear any complaints from him. At this stage of his career this is the pinnacle. This is what he and his father have been striving to achieve.

“Whatever’s written is written. I’ve asked the universe for this many, many times,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie describes himself as an emotional person, a spiritual one too. After everything he has been through, it is faith, his girlfriend, his children and his close bond with his father that have kept him going through times that would have finished many.

“Let me tell you something, when I was in my first year of professional boxing when I was training for my first fight I literally lost everything in that year. I don’t say these things for people to feel sorry for me, or for you to show my sympathy, but at the same time I was on my face. I’m talking about going through my second divorce, just life things that challenge us when we least expect it. Just come out of prison and all these little things. I had to start again.

“Boxing, yes, came into my life at the right time and I feel very fortunate. I’ve had some fantastic people around me along the way. Fantastic girlfriend who has been by my side from when I lost everything to now fighting for an English title. My dad is my best friend. My mum and dad I’m both very close to. Ultimately my five children, they’re my world. I feel like children give you purpose in life. Purpose to wake up every day when I’m not having such good days.

“My little girls, they can make me smile, they can do something and all of a sudden I can snap out of what I’m feeling and the emotions I’m feeling. My children are a massive part in my journey. But I can only ultimately thank God for being able to one - me entering a second career and actually be doing it well. Two, to still be here after the best part of 5-6 years ago I tried to take my life. I’m very fortunate to be here, and that’s the reality. I shouldn’t even be here. That speaks volumes in what it says about me as a character, and that’s why so many people have grown even more closer to me via public. Some world class boxers and my peers. They’ve grown so close to me because, the reality, at the end of the day is that mental illness can happen to anyone. Everyone’s got a trigger.

“I feel like it’s nice to be respected and to be inspiring other people. I get so many messages and emails saying, ‘Leon, you know what? No matter what happens this next fight you’ve inspired me. I didn’t want to get up the other day and you made me want to get up.’ It’s mind blowing. I’ve had random emails from people saying ‘Leon, you saved my life this year’. Now what that does to me is incredible. It’s an incredible feeling. I’ve not won this title yet, but it’s like I’ve won already, and that’s what I’m trying to make people understand with this particular journey.”

Follow Shaun Brown on Twitter @sbrown2pt0