Ex-Norwich City striker Leon McKenzie is ready to face his toughest sporting challenge
- Credit: Alex Broadway/Focus Images Ltd
Leon McKenzie is a natural born fighter. Here, the City fans' favourite tells Paddy Davitt why he is now drawn to professional boxing.
Amongst the old photos of famous faces that adorn the weather-beaten walls of his Uncle Duke's gym, Leon McKenzie's burgeoning boxing career is further proof the former Norwich City stalwart is emerging from the darkest period of his life.
McKenzie's work-out is ferociously intense; the muscular torso and honed physique a testament to a man living the life in the hardest sport of them all. But the 35-year-old has emerged from far tougher battles since retiring from professional football.
Depression, attempted suicide and a prison stretch have formed the backdrop to McKenzie's sad story since walking away from the game. A professional fight debut later this month at the iconic York Hall in Bethnal Green is simply another step on the road to redemption.
'It is a passion of mine that I have always had in my life,' he says. 'It is in my blood, of course, coming from a boxing family. I also think I am good at this. When I say I am good I do not mean that in a big-headed way. What I mean is if I wasn't confident of stepping in that ring I wouldn't do it. I have a lot of good people around me and the opportunity came to me. You can see by the way I train I am taking it seriously and I want to put in a good performance on June 29. It's another dream come true and I can't complain at the direction my life is going. To get the opportunity to be a boxer is overwhelming in itself, but York Hall is where it all happens.
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'There is a sentimental feeling involved because my Dad made his professional debut there. I have been training really hard for a number of months now and hopefully people will respect my ability to box.'
McKenzie has an enviable support network in his corner. Dad Clinton is a former British and European champion while Uncle Duke conquered the world at fly and bantamweight.
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'That speaks for itself,' he says. 'They both have pedigree. They are both professional men who have been at the top level of boxing and they have a lot of respect within the sport and the boxing world. I don't feel any pressure carrying the name into the ring because I will never achieve what they did.
'I'm 35 now so I would have to box quite a long time to reach that level. The age thing may bother some people but not me.
'It is a family affair and that makes it even more special, but I don't wish I had done this earlier because I had a fantastic football career. I gave it my all in that sport. All I can say is if you look at how I am training and preparing my actions speak for themselves.'
McKenzie's daily grind is a graphic illustration of the sacrifices required.
'I feel strong right now. Some days it takes its toll,' he says. 'I get up at 5am, go for a steady slow jog for 40 minutes or so. Then I came back, have a bit of porridge, go back to bed for a few hours, then I am up and have my breakfast and get ready to train in the gym around 2pm. I have a conditioning coach called Chris and he helps me with my weights and strength-stuff and we'll do interval running as well.
'I am doing everything it takes to produce. It goes back to my childhood. I am very humble and thankful for everything that I have got.
'I would say it is harder than football because psychologically you are on your own in this sport. You're the only one who steps into that ring when everybody steps back. I have nerves and excitement but that is good. I can't wait to rock and roll. When I was going out to play I always had that edge to me so it's a similar feeling. That has never left me. Now this is the real thing. I have to box and I have to produce.'
McKenzie is yet to find out the identity of his first opponent for his professional bow, but there is an inherent realism in the goals he has set.
'One fight at a time. I think that is probably the wisest way to approach it,' he says. 'I'm not going to say I will do this or do that because a boxing match can be finished by one punch. I am a realist and very aware of my surroundings. At the same time I have a fantastic pedigree around me with my Dad and my Uncle. I hope we are ready and we can perform.
'I am not sure what that will be but I am confident of doing that and we have our eyes on a few things. I could win the first few (fights) quite comfortably and then you step up in class and that is when the tests start.'
McKenzie's courageous autobiography depicted the brutal reality of his struggles since retiring from professional football. Boxing is another conduit to get his message across.
'It is some story, but I never planned for it to work out that way,' he says. 'The book was very meaningful and my whole life is in it. I wanted people to look at depression from a different angle.
'You get good and bad days because it is a serious illness and I pray for anyone who goes through that struggle. For me to have another dream and step into the ring shows it can come true.
'The reasons I went public in the first place were to try and help others in a similar situation. I believe there are a lot of issues we face generally within society. All I can do is speak out about my own experiences and try to make people believe that no matter how tough it gets you can get through it. It wasn't hard for me to do it because I felt it was the right time.'