Jeff Horn defeated boxing champion Manny Pacquiao to become the newest world champion, a far cry from the bullied kid who contemplated suicide in school.
The 29-year-old former schoolteacher from Brisbanek revealed his career in boxing was prompted by severe bullying at school and a longing to protect himself, Sydney Morning Herald reports.
The first time he walked into a gym no one could have predicted 12 years later he would be standing arms raised after beating boxing superstar Pacquiao.
It had started earlier that day at school in Brisbane’s south. His mate had accidentally bumped into an older student, who spun around and pointed a finger at both of them: “I’m going to get you after school.”
The bully kept his promise. When school was finished for the day, Horn and his mate walked out the front gates, turned a corner and there they were.
“Get on your knees and say sorry to my mate,” ordered one, pointing at Horn’s friend, who dropped to his knees and was whacked across the face.
“Now you,” they said, pointing at Horn. “No,” Horn fired back. “I didn’t do anything wrong.” They slapped Horn across the face.
“Then I just walked away,” Horn, 29, recalls. “I couldn’t fight anyone let alone fight 30 of them. I remember walking back to my mate’s place that day. I felt so annoyed and so belittled. I’d been bullied many times before. I once got coward punched, and then got a flurry of uppercuts and it was all a blur. But that one, with the gang of 30 kids, was the one that sent me over the edge.”
Soon after, Horn walked into Glenn Rushton’s martial arts gym in Stretton as a geeky kid looking for a way to protect himself, for the confidence that comes with knowing how to properly throw a punch. He found that and a whole lot more.
He won an amateur boxing state title. Then national titles. Then he competed at the London Olympics.
He went professional, hasn’t been beaten in 17 fights (16 wins, one draw), and on Sunday week, before 55,000 people at Suncorp Stadium, will fight 11-time world champion Manny Pacquiao, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in history.
The world has fallen in love with the Pacquiao legend, from Filipino street kid to all-time great. But when Horn steps into the same square ring to contest Pacquiao’s WBO welterweight title, he will be representing every kid who was bullied at school, who didn’t fit into a group, who was always standing on the outside.
“I always had those who picked me out, who found me out, because I was small and skinny,” Horn says. “I got called ‘gay’ a lot. Words like that shouldn’t hurt me, but I was a kid. It cuts deep, especially when it’s every day. You don’t know how to stop it.
“Day by day, it takes a bit of you. I know the lows you can feel. I’ve had those feelings, like suicidal thoughts. I can remember some days that I felt that because of the bullying.”
He cracks a smile.
“I drove through the city the other day and saw the billboards with my face and Manny’s face on flags and posters to promote the fight. It’s mind blowing thinking how many people will be seeing this fight. When I walk through the city, people look at me and think, ‘Where have I seen that guy?’ It’s a crazy story when you think about it.”
About 12 years ago, he walked through the front door here for the first time. Sam Banney walked through the door on the very same day, and here he is, shadow boxing.
“When I first saw him, he was very quiet, very introverted,” says Banney, who pursued a kickboxing career but has now turned to boxing. “He wasn’t a boxer … I live next to the Pineapple Hotel at Kangaroo Point, and they’ve got this big LCD screen out the front to tell you what’s coming up. And there he is: ‘The Hornet’ up against Manny Pacquiao. Ten years ago, Glenn said that’s where he’d be.”
Rushton also vividly remembers the day Horn entered his gym.
“He was a geeky, nerdy looking kid,” he says. “Over four decades of teaching self-defence, I’ve seen all sorts of people. I wouldn’t say he looked like a real athlete. He just wanted to look after himself. If you remember the movie Back to The Future. George McFly with the ‘KICK ME’ sign on his back. That was him. Bullies can sense victims. I can beat him, and there’s nothing he’s gonna do. He had that victim look about him.”
A self-made multi-millionaire who left home when he was 14 with $20 in his pocket, Rushton looks like Queensland’s answer to Chuck Norris.
When Horn was seven fights into his professional career, Rushton sat down with Dean Lonergan, the former New Zealand rugby league player who is now a promoter with Duco Events.
“Dean, you know what I see for Jeff?” Rushton asked.
“I see him fighting at Suncorp Stadium for a world title in front of a full house.”
“I can see that eventually.”
“If you can’t see that, we’re wasting our time.”
Cut to a media conference in Brisbane in late April. Pacquiao and Horn came face to face for the first time. Members of Horn’s family posed for photos with the boxing legend, although his grandfather, Jack Dykstra, leaned in close and whispered: “Manny, he’s going to beat you”.
It’s a fascinating twist on the small-time-boxer-takes-on-world-champion script from the first Rocky movie.
Pacquiao has made more than US$500 million out of boxing, has residences all over the world, a fleet of Mercedes Benz and Range Rovers and once accidentally left a $500,000 gold Rolex in the restroom at a hotel. He has about as much security detail as the Kardashians.
When I visited Manilla earlier this month to interview Pacquiao, people lined up outside Pacquiao’s gym just to catch a glimpse of him train. They were all waved away by menacing looking guards with guns shoved down the back of their pants.
“I live in Acacia Ridge,” Horn says. “I bought a place. It cost $340,000. It’s not very luxurious, although it’s got a big yard. I drive a Mazda at the moment, but it’s a sponsor’s car. I’ve also got my old Toyota Camry. Hopefully with this fight I can buy my wife a new car so she can get rid of her Hyundai Getz.”
Surely this fight will turn him into an overnight millionaire?
“No, I wish,” he says. “There’s potential. I’m guaranteed $500,000 from it, but then you take out all my expenses and tax. If I beat him, there will be a rematch and I am guaranteed $2 million from that. That does spin me out. All I am thinking about is setting up my wife and our future family.”
The bout is expected to draw a record crowd to Suncorp Stadium. Horn has seen plenty of footy over the years at Queensland’s rugby league cathedral. Now he’s going to be fighting there.
When he attended game one of this year’s State of Origin series, he wasn’t so much concerned with the result as closing his eyes and visualising himself fighting with the roar of such a large crowd all around him. Now, each time Horn spars, Rushton plays a recording of a large crowd.
Because Pacquiao is so adored, there’s some chance the crowd won’t entirely be in the corner of the local boxer.
Most of them will be expecting an early finish. Pacquiao might be 38, he might be past his best, he might be a different fighter to the one Juan Manuel Marquez knocked out cold five years ago, but he’ll go into the fight as a short-priced favourite. If it was anyone other than himself, Horn would be cheering on Pacquiao.
“He’s been one of my favourite boxers to watch,” he says. “I really like his story and what he’s done.
“I think it’s crazy how much he’s come up in weight divisions.
“He’s probably sitting heavier than he should be. All those Marquez fights were entertaining.
“I watched him tear Oscar De La Hoya apart and remember thinking, ‘There must’ve been multiple guys in the ring’. I hope that doesn’t happen to me.”
Horn understands why few people think he can win. He likes it that way. What’s that line from Bruce Willis’ character — a boxer — from Pulp Fiction? That’s how you’re gonna beat ’em, Butch. They keep underestimating you …
Says Horn: “I’ve been told I’m lucky so many times it’s not funny. Just lucky to win fights, lucky to win state titles, lucky to win Golden Gloves. Lucky to be fighting Pacquiao. I put myself in these positions so if I get offered these fights, I take them straight away.
“I like that people look at me and think, ‘We can roll him over pretty comfortably’. When they get in there, something changes in me,” he says. “They always say after I’ve beaten them, ‘I didn’t realise how strong you are’.”
There’s a suspicion that Pacquiao isn’t taking the Horn fight seriously, and is already focusing on a possible bout with Amir Khan. Neither Pacquiao nor his entourage were dismissive of Horn when I spoke to them last month. They were respectful.
“That’s good to hear,” Horn says. “I want him to be ready, I want him to come with his best and I want to beat him. I don’t want to have that label again. You’re ‘lucky’ because he’s past it. He’s 38 but he just tore Vargas to pieces.”
Horn is taking it seriously. He always does, and almost every day there is a reminder of where he has come from: skinny, bullied kid contemplating suicide to the boxer who might just stop Manny Pacquiao.
At the media conference in April, as Horn was speaking on stage, Pacquiao was thumbing one of the three phones he carries everywhere he goes.
“You know he’s not listening,” Horn says. “You know he’s doing something else. I was complimenting him and he wasn’t even listening. It took me back to school days.”