To say that Jeff Horn isn’t your typical professional boxer would have to be the understatement of the year. Scratch that, make it the century.
The 29-year-old baby-faced Australian is a former relief physical education teacher who supplemented his income with professional fights worth even recently as little $2,000 Australian. He isn’t a gym junkie, he doesn’t sport a single tattoo, and he dare not subscribe to any pre-bout superstitions.
That’s enough to break the stereotype.
But what truly separates the Queenslander most from his peers is his hatred of the gamesmanship and smack talk that surrounds his sport. Instead, he likes to think of himself as “a normal guy” who takes pleasure in the little things like playing board games and heading to the cinema with friends.
Horn still returns to schools with his training team to run boxing classes — all fitness, no sparring — and you can imagine the looks of disbelief on his students’ faces when he attempts to convince them of his alter ego outside of the classroom.
“They are always pretty surprised,” Horn said to ESPN. “They don’t see it coming at all from me when they find out that I can fight. It always ends up becoming a discussion of the room, ‘Do you think you can beat this guy? Do you think you can beat that guy?'”
Horn’s rise up the ranks in professional boxing came through results born from initial unorthodox necessity as opposed to a burning desire to be champion of the world. It began when the 12-year-old Horn became the subject of intense bullying as a Brisbane schoolboy.
“At primary school, and even high school, I got name called and picked on quite a bit,” Horn said.
“I got into a couple of fights because of it and I often came off second best. On one occasion I had a gang of guys come up to me and tell me to get down on my knees and say sorry to them for trying to help one of my mates from getting out of the fight. I got slapped across the face, and that was pretty much the moment I thought I need to learn how to protect myself.”
Shortly after his frightening experience, he was in the gym and putting the gloves on — or one glove as it were.
“I started off boxing with my mates but we didn’t have two pairs of boxing gloves. So we had one each and we were doing left hand vs. right hand type boxing for a while.”
Fast forward a decade and Horn, under the guidance of trainer Glenn Rushton, has evolved into Australia’s best pound-for-pound boxer.
As an amateur, Horn won the Queensland state title in just his second fight before going on to record three straight national titles between 2009 and 2011. He then reached the quarterfinals at the 2012 London Olympics as a light-welterweight while he was studying for his education degree — an “amazing” experience, “I remember walking into the stadium, with all the Aussies I had watched compete over the years, doing ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie’ with them, it was pretty spectacular”, he told The Queensland Times earlier this year — before turning professional in March, 2013.
Horn remains unbeaten in 17 professional fights, the only blemish on his record, a draw, coming in his fourth bout against Melburnian Rivan Cesaire. He righted that wrong four fights and seven months later when he stopped Cesaire to win the vacant WBO Oriental welterweight title. He continued to build his record and his reputation with a string of title fights, and he impressed against American former WBO light-welterweight and IBF welterweight champion Randall “The Knock-Out King” Bailey, winning by a referee’s technical decision in the seventh round of their clash in Brisbane.
His most notable fight, also his most recent, saw him pitted against former IBO welterweight champion Ali Funeka in December. Horn won in the sixth round, on a technical knockout, and as a result caught the eye of Filipino boxing legend Manny Pacquiao. Four months later, after a couple of stalls, the pair had agreed to a July 2 fight date.
Horn is now finishing preparations for what is not only the biggest day of his career but also the most significant of his life. The fight with Pacquiao will take place in front of his home crowd at Brisbane’s 52,500 capacity Suncorp Stadium, and Horn admits he still has to pinch himself.
“Ten years ago [if you told me I would fight Pacquiao] I probably would have laughed and said ‘yeah right, I’ll bet you I won’t,'” Horn said. “I wouldn’t have believed it back then when I was pretty much just out of school. But I guess if you work hard at something and you’re a professional at what you do, people recognise that and you will get the rewards eventually.”
Horn said his preparations have gone well, he’s “very happy” with the way things have gone, and he thinks he can trouble six-time world champion Pacquiao with his “awkward timing and the right hand — that’s as much as I can say”.
“I haven’t cut any corners for this fight, I have worked extremely hard, and I enjoy reading the comments of people saying ‘he’s no chance,’ ‘he can’t match the speed of Pacquiao,’ this and that. I just look forward to proving those people wrong.”
So, why can Horn beat Pacquiao?
“Because I believe in myself. I think that’s the biggest thing. You can lose the fight before you step in the ring if you don’t believe in yourself, and I can picture myself winning.”
Sparring partner Czar Amonsot, the WBA Oceania super lightweight who was selected because he has a similar height and build to Pacquiao, is less circumspect of the Australian’s hopes, telling The Courier-Mail recently that Horn “is explosive, his right-hand lead is fast and powerful, that’s a punch that could give Pacquiao a lot of trouble”.
Still, tasks don’t come much greater in boxing than a bout with Pacquiao, a warrior who has enjoyed an illustrious professional career. The 38-year-old may be past his prime, having lost three of his past eight fights — including the MGM Grand showdown with Floyd Mayweather, the “Fight of the Century” — but he is still a force to be reckoned with and his 59-6-2 career record proves just how consistent and durable he has been.
“I have been mentally preparing for the moment and picturing Pacquiao across the ring from me so I don’t think it’s going to impact me too much on the day, because I have been mentally seeing him already,” Horn said.
Horn is the undoubted underdog for the fight in Brisbane, and defeat won’t be disastrous for him; indeed, it’s expected by many outside his camp. But the old adage “never judge a book by its cover” could not be any truer for Horn, and those who underestimate him, who write him off, do so at their own peril.