Leon McKenzie scoring for Charlton in 2009, and in training camp for his boxing debut (PA Sport)
When former Premier League striker Leon McKenzie retired from football at the start of this year and declared his intention to train for a boxing career, the timing of his decision triggered a tidal wave of misconceptions.
Weeks prior, England cricket hero Freddie Flintoff had made a highly-publicised crossover from the pavilion to the ring. Mainstream interest was sky-high, but boxing die-hards were repulsed by his amateurish win over fellow novice Richard Dawson.
McKenzie was one of those die-hards – despite his near 20-year footballing career, he comes from a boxing family. Pugilism is and always has been in his heritage.
His father Clinton represented Britain at the Montreal 1976 Olympics, losing to eventual gold medal winner and all-time great Sugar Ray Leonard. He then held the British light-welterweight title during a 36-14 pro resume.
Leon’s uncle Duke McKenzie became a world champion at flyweight, bantamweight and super-bantamweight in the late 80s and early 90s. He is now a successful sports pundit and businessman.
Rather than Clinton and Duke, however, it is the likes of Flintoff, Sonny Bill Williams and Curtis Woodhouse (the latter being the only one of the three to truly settle into boxing) who are associated with McKenzie’s upcoming fight debut on Saturday.
In an exclusive interview with Eurosport-Yahoo!’s Liam Happe, the former Norwich, Coventry and Charlton forward made it clear just how determined he is to move away from the narrow-minded crossover stigma.
“I do not have anything in common with Freddie Flintoff, Sonny Bill Williams or those other guys crossing into boxing from other sports,” the 35-year-old explained. “My story is different to theirs.
“I am from a family of champions, it’s in my blood. This is a serious thing for me and I’ve prepared for this for months and months.
“When you see me in the ring, you’re not going to think I have never fought before, and that’s the difference between me and most of those guys.”
Of the notable boxing crossovers, it is Woodhouse has the most in common with McKenzie as a former footballer with a lengthy resume of clubs. At 18-5 and as a former English light-welter champion, Woodhouse has made the full leap, something McKenzie wants for himself.
“I give Curtis Woodhouse credit because he is working hard to make a career out of this,” he added.
“It can happen. People from other sports can cross over into boxing. You are always going to get people trying it, getting negative publicity and thinking ‘oh well’ and giving up because it has not gone how they expected it to go.
“Things like that should not stop guys who are serious about becoming boxers from getting into the sport. That would be stupid.
“I hope, eventually, people will look at me and think ‘There’s Leon McKenzie, the boxer’ rather than ‘There’s Leon McKenzie, the ex-footballer’. I think that will come over time.”
McKenzie’s life to this point has been no walk in the park, as discussed in his autobiography released late last year which touches upon his battles with depression amongst other struggles.
He says boxing presents him with a new challenge, one which he can start from the bottom and build his way up as far as he can in a relaxed, simplistic, workmanlike manner – something he looks forward to getting underway.
“Duke and Clinton have been by my side the whole way and we have done everything we can to make sure we win this fight," he said. Whether the fight goes one, two or four rounds, I am going to win.
"The main thing for me is to get that first fight out of the way, get the experience under my belt and then hopefully step up in class a little.
“After my debut is out of the way, we will be straight back to training and looking to kick on.
It all begins at York Hall in Bethnal Green. The famous, intimate boxing venue has hosted the debut of so many of his peers, including his father.
First up for Leon is 31-year-old Czech boxer Vladimir Fecko (6-58-3) over four rounds.
“Training has gone to plan and I’m in really good shape,” McKenzie explained. “The best shape of my life, to be honest.
“It is important to get the rounds in, but it depends on how the fight goes and also my opponent.
“No disrespect to him, but if I get a chance to knock him out I will take it and of course he will be trying to do the same.”
Does such a change of scenery, even against a journeyman opponent to begin with, lead to a lot of pressure?
The answer was a categorical ‘yes’ – but McKenzie loves that. Bring it on, he says.
The super-middleweight went on: “I am nervous. I’ve always been that way, though, and whatever I do with myself whether it be football, boxing or something else, I’ll always have some nerves.
“To me, nerves are good. They help me measure how I am doing and how far I’ve come along.
“I’ll be nervous going into my debut on Saturday but definitely not so much as to make me freeze!”
There are of course huge differences in training for a fight and training for a football match as part of a squad. McKenzie realises his weekend performance will this time come all down to him.
“Unlike with football, there are not 10 other players to rely on when you’re tired. When the bell rings in boxing, you’re on your own,” he said.
“That alone makes training for boxing harder than for football, and it makes it more mentally challenging.
“Having sole accountability over my performance does make things simpler, it makes the results easier to take on board.
“Above all, it’s just important that I relax and listen to my team on Saturday, and not get too panicky about things.”
He continued: ”To begin my journey at York Hall of all places is overwhelming, if anything.
“To know I am going to head out there, where my father made his own debut, with all my people there to cheer me on throughout the first step of my new chapter in life is massive.
“I’ve played football in front of crowds of 50,000 and 60,000 people and the excitement factor is something I rise to. That’s the bit I love.”
Liam Happe | Follow on Twitter
Leon McKenzie spoke to Eurosport-Yahoo! courtesy of the sponsors ahead of his professional boxing debut, twentyfour7 football magazine and the MyDeals website.
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- Leon McKenzie
- Curtis Woodhouse
- Freddie Flintoff