Azumah Nelson (born 19 July 1958) is a Ghanaian former professional boxer. Widely considered the greatest African boxer of all time, and is currently the 17th greatest pound for pound boxer of all time in Boxrec’s ranking, he held the WBC featherweight title once and the WBC super featherweight title twice.
During a near-20-year career, Nelson won world titles at featherweight and junior lightweight and fought many of the best fighters of his generation, including Salvador Sanchez, Wilfredo Gomez and Pernell Whitaker.
“I feel blessed and favored because not all live to be 60,” Nelson told The Ring on Tuesday. “When I look back, it feels like 60 years have come very fast, because not long ago I was busy fighting in the ring in different parts of the world. I’m very thankful to God for always being there for me through the years.”
Azumah Nelson has been described as the greatest boxer to come out of Africa. Born the year after his home nation of Ghana gained independence, he played a major part in putting this new country on the world map. A glittering amateur career saw him win every title except an Olympic medal, as Ghana boycotted the 1980 Games when he was a favourite to win. After turning professional, he took a last-minute bout for the world title with the great Salvador Sanchez, a bout that changed his life. Two years later, in 1984, he won the WBC Featherweight World Title. Like many champions, he rose from humble beginnings, suffered tragedy along the way, but he won and remained a world champion at featherweight and super featherweight for eleven years. Very few champions have carried such a burden of expectation, and Azumah delivered success at a time when his country needed a hero.
Nelson came from nowhere to almost shock Sanchez in 1982, giving the Mexican legend all he could handle before succumbing in the final round. He bounced back to surprise Gomez in 1984 for the WBC 126-pound strap, making six successful defenses.
Nelson’s professional boxing debut, in 1979, did not generate much attention, except in Ghana, where he was known because of his family ties. Internationally, Nelson lacked the recognition for such an event to be given its due importance. With the years, however, all of that changed because he garnered worldwide fame as a boxer.
He beat Billy Kwame in Accra by a decision in eight to mark his professional debut. In his third fight, he fought on 3 March 1980, he knocked out Henry Sadler in the ninth round to win Ghana’s regional 126-pound title. On 13 December of that year, he knocked out Joe Skipper in round 10 to add the African continent’s belt to his Ghanaian regional championship.
In 1981, Nelson beat Bozzou Aziza in Togo; it was Nelson’s first fight abroad. He then beat Miguel Ruiz in his first United States fight, held in California. He added the Commonwealth of Nations’ Featherweight title with a fifth-round knockout of Brian Roberts.
Despite all his early achievements and being undefeated in 13 fights, Nelson was virtually unknown outside Ghana. Because of this, he was a decisive underdog when he challenged WBC featherweight champion Salvador Sánchez on 21 July 1982 at the Madison Square Garden in New York.Despite losing that fight by a knockout in round 15, Nelson’s stock as a boxer rose after that fight, and he established himself as a deserving leading contender in the eyes of many fans. Further, Nelson was put at a significant disadvantage when his custom mouthpiece was stolen and he had to make do with a makeshift one purchased from a store and cut to his mouth with a knife, leaving him in pain for the whole fight. The Sánchez-Nelson fight would be Salvador Sánchez’s last fight, as he died almost two months later after suffering a car accident in Mexico City.