Life must be hard for the modern boxing ghostwriter. With all the details of his subject’s career immediately available on Wikipedia and BoxRec, and footage of the actual fights on YouTube, the autobiography he comes up with needs to contain something really remarkable if it is not to be utterly otiose.
Pity, then, Richard Coomber, sports correspondent of the Hartlepool Mail, who is tasked with attempting to make something out of the life story of Johnny Nelson. Nelson was an unremarkable fighter, competing in a division no one cares about (cruiserweight), who won and repeatedly defended a meaningless title (the WBO’s) by beating a series of fighters no one has ever heard of. Coomber tries hard to make us see this as noteworthy, but the best he can do is to point out that Nelson brought little to boxing by way of talent, was usually afraid to fight, and two of his earlier attempts to win a different meaningless title – against Carlos de Leon and James Waring – were unwatchably feeble. This, presumably, is the explanation for the book’s title: but as “hard roads to glory” go it hardly compares with, say, Joe Frazier’s.
Nelson started out in Brendan Ingle’s Wincobank gym, and there is some interesting colour on some genuinely significant figures in British boxing, notably Naseem Hamed, Herol Graham and Ingle himself. Nelson and his story, however, simply pale by comparison. The most exciting thing that happens in the book is that Nelson doesn’t get kidnapped. The second most exciting is that he doesn’t fight Mike Tyson.
Hard Road to Glory is well put together and written as pacily as possible. Nelson appears to be a decent man, and is after all a British world champion. But given the thinness of the material, it is hard to recommend this book to anyone but the most committed of boxing fans.