20 May 2001
The Danish contender has to confound the cynics and prove he’s more than a snack for the champion. Brough Scott reports from Copenhagen.
Danish Pastry, Dumbo or Great White Hope? Brian Nielsen stands in front of Copenhagen’s landmark Carlsberg Brewery to celebrate being chosen as the first challenger for Hasim Rahman’s newly won world heavyweight crown. Boxing purists don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Brian Nielsen laughs.
He’s got quite a lot to laugh about. He is at the same time the most ridiculed and the most statistically successful fighter on the planet. He is a huge, genial 6ft 3in, 17½ stone, 36-year-old with a gold ring in his left ear and a 10-year professional record which reads 61 wins out of 62 fights, 43 by knockouts.
Nice work if you can find it and wily Danish promoter Mogens Palle certainly has. The list of has-beens, journeymen and never-was and never-will-bes includes a Canadian, an Englishman, an Argentine, a Mexican, two Frenchmen and no less than 56 Americans, a few of whom, in the colourful verdict of the Boston Herald’s Marcus Kimball last week, “actually had a pulse when he hit them”.
What’s more, only five of these `contests’, and none of the last 26, have been outside Denmark, where Palle and his daughter Bettina have kept boxing alive despite its banning by both Norway and Sweden. Add the facts that Nielsen walks with a a limp from breaking his leg as a goalkeeper in his twenties, and something suspiciously like a beer belly hangs over his belt, and you can see why the cynics wolfed down all those tasty lines like “Don King’s Danish Pastry”.
But the maddeningly addictive thing about boxing is the endless battle between hope and disbelief. So it was when the boxing-devoted Paul Gaardbo met us at the airport. “It’s unfair not to give Brian any credit,” said Gaardbo, a massive former Copenhagen champion, and international judge and referee who now works for Palle. “He has fought James `Bonecrusher’ Smith, Larry Holmes, Tony Tubbs and Tim Witherspoon. These were big names.”
Sounds good until you check that old Larry was 48 when he climbed in against Nielsen in 1997, and when Tim Witherspoon got “pastryfied” in 1999 it was a full 13 years since he had put Frank Bruno’s lights out at Wembley.
“But you must understand,” says Mogens, when we reach the temporary training headquarters in a swish house and garden next to a large ornate red-brick church, “Denmark is a country of just five million people. We cannot pay big money over here and they only offer us peanuts to go abroad. But I have had Frank Maloney negotiating for Lennox Lewis in this room and we were really close to a Tyson fight before Brian got dehydrated against Dickie Ryan and lost that unbeaten record.”
None of these discussions seem to faze the fighter himself, who has been dubbed “Super Brian” since he switched his massive bulk from goalkeeping to boxing and won the first of his five Danish amateur titles way back in 1988. Earning as much from assorted sponsors as he does from the ring, he is a man obviously happy in his own tough and unworried “I just like fighting” skin.
The fact that he won a bronze medal in the 1992 Olympics, flooring the eventual Cuban gold medallist in the semi-finals, and that in all 62 professional fights he has only once been on the canvas, suggests that at the very least he knows how to look after himself when the opening bell calls.
Most of all he has a very specific reason for being serenely confident in his ability to beat Rahman if Don King’s unlikeliest of showdowns is allowed to happen in Beijing on Aug 4, which would earn Nielsen more than all his other fights put together. Four years ago, in preparation for the Holmes fight, the Nielsen camp hired the then-impoverished Rahman as a sparring partner. “In America,” says Nielsen, “you spend time with sparring partners, hang out together. Hasim is a good guy. He has improved but so have I. I can beat him for sure. He doesn’t like to be hustled or hit around the body.”
This revelation is backed up by Mogens claiming that it was Rahman himself who first suggested the fight. “When he got back home from South Africa, he called me here,” said the promoter. “He has become a friend. He said he wanted to give Brian his chance.” Quite why Rahman should be so keen to fight his former employer if he had indeed been the inferior player when they last locked horns was something to ponder as “Super Brian” donned his baseball cap, piled us and his boxing kit into his Mercedes and zoomed past Carlsberg land and Hans Christian Andersen’s house to a clinically clean gym above the public baths in Frederiksberg.
Even Hans Christian could not make the next tale up, for the focus of Nielsen’s workout was not Rahman, but the already-booked “must win” June 14 engagement with Orlin Norris, the American heavyweight whose knee mysteriously locked up when Tyson clocked him after the bell a couple of years back and then predictably unlocked once hostilities were declared over. Norris is the shorter, squatter type of heavyweight, so waddling up the stairs comes Nielsen’s new sparring partner, Brad Rone from Las Vegas, long-time workmate of Tyson and 10-round loser to Norris last year. To say Rone is squat is to suggest a dumper truck is solid.
Rone had overslept the day before but looks reasonably awake as he dances around with a giant protector across his astonishingly wide lower regions. He boasts that in all his years no one has yet put him on his enormous backside, but the figure opposite has now transformed himself from the “I have always been fat” butt of the photocall jokes. Sure there are rolls of flesh around the Nielsen stomach, but as he warmed up you could see the ripple of rock-hard muscles beneath. As he jabbed and thudded beneath the sweatsuit, you could see he was here to work.
By the fourth round Rone had taken one or two blows that even his mighty midriff could hardly handle. By the fifth he was blowing incongruous jag-toothed kisses at the big man in front of him. Then he got kissed on the chops by the Nielsen right and suddenly the human dumper truck had been dumped flat on its back with a crash that threatened the swimming pool beneath.
“I am a fighter. So I have to say it was a lucky punch,” said a chastened Rone, before delivering his own tribute. “But Brian has just done something not even Evander Holyfield or Mike Tyson could do. He has knocked Brad Rone down! He’s strong and must be smart.”
Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings, it’s said the truth can come. But from sparring partners?