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Bunce Diaries: A macabre series of events

Johnny Nelson
Action Images/Brandon Malone
The fate of Johnny Nelson opponents is truly bizarre, writes Steve Bunce

LAST week I sat with Ron Gray – fighter, promoter, gentleman and matchmaker – talking about his three fights on two Muhammad Ali undercards. We agreed it was a fun oddity.

He mentioned that most of the men on the two bills were now dead, and that reminded me of the bizarre number of men that met Johnny Nelson, a pro for 19-years and veteran of 59 fights, who have since died.

The deaths have been natural, odd, suspicious and bloody. I have checked and no contemporary fighter has a record of dead opponents to compare with Nelson – he is untouchable.

On the first day of 2020 another name was added to the sad list with the death of the great Carlos De Leon, a victim in life of having to go 12 horrible rounds with Nelson in 1990. It was a bad fight, make no mistake, an awful draw to watch, but one judge gave it to Nelson, who was only 23 at the time, by six rounds.

As I said, De Leon was just the latest to join the list. It all started with Magne Havnaa, who was making his debut one night in Denmark in 1986. Nelson lost on points, Havnaa went on and won the WBO cruiserweight world title four years later.

Poor Havnaa died in 2004, Nelson was world champion, when he was thrown from his boat one hundred miles out at sea. The boat, so the police report said, turned violently and Magne and his wife were sent tumbling over the rails. She survived with cuts and bruises – he drowned.

A month after losing to Havnaa there was a show at Quaffer’s in Bredbury and Nelson fought Chris Little. Nelson won easily on points, his first win in four fights, over six rounds against the local face. Eight years later, Little, who was known in Greater Manchester as Mr Big, was shot twice in the head as he stopped at traffic lights in Stockport. Little put his foot down – he was also shot in the foot – and crashed his £50,000 Mercedes into other cars. He was dead.

The Elephant and Castle was the exotic location for the fight in 1987 against unbeaten Byron Pullen, a Commonwealth Games medallist. It went three rounds, Nelson stopped him; Pullen lost his next four and the following year he picked up a lethal infection on holiday and died suddenly on his return. He was just 23.

Cordwell Hylton was stopped by Nelson in the first round in 1988 and struggled through a hard boxing career, losing 43 of his 73 fights before walking away in 1995. A couple of years later he was sent to prison for 12 month after he was found guilty of kidnapping his estranged wife. She made an emotional appeal in court to get the charges dropped – it never worked. Hylton died at 42 in 2001.

In a 14-month period starting in August of 1992 Nelson lost three times and all three of the men to beat him are now dead – one of them went on and knocked out Wladimir Klitschko to win the world title. Norbert Ekassi, Corrie Sanders and Franco Wanyama all had a story.

Ekassi died on Christmas Day in 1995 after losing so much blood from a gash on his hand. He was just 29 and had stopped Nelson in three; Nelson lost 12 times and that was the only stoppage loss.

In late 1992 Nelson took Sanders the full ten and 11 years later Sanders beat Klitschko. In 2012 during a stupidly violent robbery at a restaurant near Pretoria, three men started firing as they entered the premises. Sanders was hit by bullets as he protected his daughter and died a few hours later.

Last year the death of Wanyama went under most radars and it is so, so sad. Wanyama beat Nelson in Belgium for the WBF cruiser title in 1993. Wanyama was an Olympian for Uganda, could really fight, but he was abused by too many  people in our business for too long and finished his life having to occasionally sleep rough on the streets of Rugby. He died on his own in sheltered housing. A gentle man suffering so much at the end from his hard and chosen life.

In 2003 Nikolay Kulpin died. Nelson had beaten him over ten rounds in Thailand in 1994 when Kulpin was ten and zero. Kulpin was only 34 when he died.

The next man in the horrid sequence was Michael Murray, who had fought for the British title and mixed his fighting with playing jazz guitar. Nelson beat him on points in 1997 and Murray had a stroke and died on Christmas Day in 2011.  

Napoleon Tagoe failed a pre-fight medical in 2001 and was withdrawn from fighting Nelson at York Hall. He was replaced by Alexander Vasiliev, the fight switched from being a WBO cruiserweight defence to a vacant WBU heavyweight title. It was a crazy time in British boxing. Vasiliev lost on points and died in 2015. Tagoe, incidentally, died in 2017, aged 44. His wife in Ghana told the press that he had given up: “He kicked the bucket this morning,” confirmed Mrs. Tagoe. I’m not joking, that is the quote.

In December 2013 Ezra Sellers died from a heart complication. He had dropped Nelson and was then stopped in the eighth round at a permanent circus building in Copenhagen in 2002.

There might one or two others that I have missed. And there might be a few others nervous to hear: “Didn’t you fight Johnny Nelson?”

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