There are still plenty of battles to be fought and won – the Leon McKenzie way
- Credit: Philip Sharkey/TGSPHOTO
Former Norwich City striker turned professional boxer Leon McKenzie has never been one to shirk a challenge, as he tells MICHAEL BAILEY…
Leon McKenzie has always had to fight. Be it making his way in football, securing the best possible living for his family, dealing with depression – it all required the former Norwich City striker to dig deep.
So when it comes to the ring, cramming a professional boxing career into little more than a handful of post-football retirement years, maybe that instinct is as natural to McKenzie as slotting a second goal past then-Manchester United goalkeeper Tim Howard.
'Listen, it's one of them where I'm just doing what I'm doing,' shrugged McKenzie. 'It's a couple of years now and considering I turned pro at 35, we've not done too badly.'
Modesty is not always a commodity held by boxers, but he masters it there.
You may also want to watch:
Since his York Hall debut in June 2013, McKenzie has notched eight fights: seven wins, three inside the distance; and a draw – an unbeaten record last tested by his British super-middleweight eliminator with the previously-undefeated John McCallum in October.
McCallum didn't get up from his corner for the seventh round at the iconic Bethnal Green venue, the bad feeling between the fighters that had spilled over in the build-up to the fight ending with the look of glory in McKenzie's eyes that Canaries fans had seen before. Now 37, it's McKenzie who is pushing for a shot to challenge for the British super-middleweight belt – a title won previously by future world champions Carl Froch and James DeGale, and freshly taken in impressive style by Callum Smith on Saturday.
- 1 'It was as if Covid didn't exist' - Latitude-goers report positive tests
- 2 Tributes to popular entertainer after death following tragic accident
- 3 'Vindicated at last' - Pension compensation on the horizon for WASPI women
- 4 Sneak peek inside first £2.7m luxury mansion for sale
- 5 Victoria Hall murder: Suffolk strangler Steve Wright reportedly arrested
- 6 New landlords relaunch pub with three-course dog menu
- 7 Woman in 30s suffers head injuries in violent attack by two girls
- 8 Plot of gold? Land up for sale for £750,000
- 9 Neighbours' shock as man's body found in flat weeks after he died
- 10 Man airlifted to hospital from beach given 'vital first aid' by lifeguards
'We're getting into levels now where things really do become interesting – and a lot more difficult,' said McKenzie.
'But those are the levels we want to be at. I know I've put myself in the mix. I'm in the top 20 in the UK now and it's just one fight away from the possibility of getting a British title shot, which is incredible.
'I wasn't even thinking about a British title when I started. When we first turned pro, it was more a case of let's just get it out of my system, and ideally I'd like to win something.
'I won the International Masters belt a year or so ago now and once that was done, things opened up for me a little bit more.
'Then, through my manager, I got offered a British title eliminator, which again was against someone that was undefeated – and I didn't think he was a particularly nice lad. (McCallum) had a very good pedigree from an amateur background and to be honest, he was down on paper to beat me pretty comfortably.
'But it was man against boy in there, so that looked after that and it's put me in contention for the pundits and people who are talking.
'Whoever won (out of Smith and Rocky Fielding) was always going to go on to world levels. Whether there's a possibility the belt could be vacated, I'm not entirely sure. But either way, I'm close. I'm close to getting a shot. It will happen, I just can't give a time.'
For most fighters, that wouldn't be much of an issue. Yes, injury can strike and one punch can change the world. But most with eight fights under their belt have more than a couple of years to achieve all they want to before giving up the ring for good.
'I've got to sit down with my manager and my dad, and talk about my next fight – because that one is crucial. All my fights now have got to be spot on strategically, for us to keep in the mix.
'Let's be honest, I haven't got loads of time left. I'm 38 next May and it's just like, woah...
'I want to try to do the best I can. I'll be into double figures soon but ideally, I'd love to win another belt. I can't say what it will be. Ideally I'd like to win another domestic belt and we'll go from there. But to be honest, I'm well pleased with the way things have gone and I think I've surprised a lot of people.'
A lot of other people, that is. But from the background of having a former British and European champion as your dad in Clinton McKenzie, and three-times world champion Duke McKenzie as your uncle, the feeling has always been a little different closer to home.
'We've always known – you can never be too sure and I'm not a young man in terms of professional sport, but I've always been around boxing – even when I was playing football. I just never competed.
'My dad has said I definitely would've gone well past domestic level if I was going into it at an age where you are gaining more experience and I would have been a lot younger, sharper and everything else.
'But for me, I played 18 years of professional football at decent levels. I played and scored goals in all four leagues, played at the top level I could push myself to play at, and scored goals at the top level. With that, I made more than 400 appearances.
'Let's be honest, injuries affected my career to push on even more. I had to deal with the emotional side of that, and the psychology of that was hard at times.
'So to end up having 18 years at very good levels in the sport that I love, I really can't complain.'
That is why football was always McKenzie's first choice, even if the boxing ring was never far away.
And now it has become his place of work, those experiences on the pitch are underpinning his fighting success.
'There are things I incorporate football-wise,' added McKenzie. 'I have a fitness coach so I'll go to the running track, and I have my strength and conditioning stuff. I'll do swimming drills. There is so much football stuff that I use, but on a daily basis I'm throwing punches and building my body, psychologically tuning things that way.
'So it is definitely a lot harder compared to having a team around you, not being the only one to have to produce. I have got my team around me of course, but they don't step forward with me. They have to step back when it's fight time, and that's when I'm up.'
Achieving success in two sports is something few master, but switching from a team sport – one of 11 colleagues heading into collective battle – to the individual, solitary discipline of boxing is the definition of juxtaposition. More control, more pressure.
'It is more control; the pressure doesn't really affect me,' acknowledged McKenzie. 'I used to love the big games in football. I was never a player that hid. I wore my heart on my sleeve and you'd always see me having a go. Even if I was playing rubbish, that defender was going to know I was there and that was what I tried to put into my football.
'With my boxing, I do have some ability which is natural. But again, I've got a massive heart. So to beat me, you're going to have to be ridiculously good (laughs). That's the only way I look at it.'
A former Crystal Palace, Peterborough United and Coventry striker, it was Norwich that played a major part in McKenzie's football story as he helped City to the second tier title back in 2004. And like many boxers, the fine city also played a part – however small – in McKenzie's continued love for the boxing ring.
'I mean, I used to go down to Graham Everett's gym and I'd have the pads on and everything, when I was still kicking a ball. He was a little bit taken aback then,' recalled McKenzie.
From former European and British champion Jon Thaxton, all the way through to the current British belt-holding twins of Ryan and Liam Walsh, trainer Everett and his Kick-stop Gym know a boxer when they see one.
'We were going to start sparring and the lot – I never actually did get to spar, but we were going to.
'And I remember him saying to a couple of his fighters, 'Listen, he's not a joke – he can fight'. And that was back then.
'The Walsh brothers – what a fantastic story that is for Norwich, how they've done. I know Graham very well anyway, but they are all so fit. They work hard, they train hard. All of what they are receiving now, they deserve it because they have got it all through hard work.
'Listen, the Norwich group and the set-up there, even with Danny McIntosh who won the European title. He's making a comeback, he was a European champion and again, it's not easy to do that and that's another kid from Norwich.
'There are so many guys that have come through Graham's gym and done so well. I've got so much respect for all those guys that have won, for me, fantastic belts.
'And that is coming from Norwich, which has not always been on the map. For me, those guys have really put Norwich on the map – probably without realising just how much they've done.'
In his own little way, Leon McKenzie is doing that too.
He wants to hang his gloves up at the age of 40, after the shot at a big fight night back in Norwich.
Most would only hear the clock ticking. For Leon McKenzie, you sense it's just another battle to take on – and win.
• Follow Michael Bailey on Twitter @michaeljbailey