MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
As a world-ranked amateur fighter, John Joe Nevin’s job was to impress the judges. And as the world saw in the Rio Olympics, doing that in the ring can be trickier than it may seem.
But now, as an undefeated pro based out of the Harrowgate Boxing Club, the Irish-born Nevin has a bit of a different mission. Sure, he still needs to win over the judges. But winning favor from the fans is also paramount.
The ability of a fighter to draw and energize a crowd ensures marketability, which equates to dollars, bigger fights and a shot at a world title. So when Nevin, a two-time Olympian and 2012 silver medalist, takes on super-featherweight Jesus Lule this Friday, Aug. 26, as part of SugarHouse Casino’s first-ever professional fight card, it won’t be enough just to win. He’s also got to put on a good show.
Nevin’s Bucks County-based manager, Tom Moran, has worked with a handful of world champs, including former heavyweight titleholder Tim Witherspoon, in a career spanning more than 25 years. In Nevin, he sees a guy who is already a national hero in his homeland and who could become a hero to Irish-Americans with captivating performances and proper exposure.
“I’ve always believed the Irish-American market is untapped” for boxing, Moran said last Thursday during Nevin’s daily workout in Harrowgate’s sweltering East Venango Street gym.
“The Hispanic market, they are enormous in boxing. And I think the Irish are big boxing fans. With John Joe, because of his profile and his talent level, he’s worth the investment.”
Nevin, 27, has yet to make his official Philly debut, but he’s already garnering a modest following in the Northeast. He’s made several promotional appearances alongside popular local musicians like Mike LeCompt and Raymond Coleman. LeCompt wrote a song Son of Ireland that has become Nevin’s unofficial theme song. The Ashburner Inn is helping to sell tickets to the fight. (Prices are $65 for ringside or $40 for general admission.) State Rep. Mike Driscoll plans to take a bunch of fans to the fight in an Eagles bus. In Bucks County, Nevin is now a member of Moran’s Levittown-based Ancient Order of Hibernians lodge.
Although Nevin still lives permanently in his native Mullingar, County Westmeath, with his wife and two children, he stays in Bensalem while training with financial backing from Moran’s GreenBlood Boxing organization and Britain’s Berkeley Sport and Media. In Philadelphia, he has a place where he can remain relatively anonymous and accelerate his development into a savvy pro.
“I’ve got my family behind me, my team behind me and I’m believing in myself. I’m where I want to be,” Nevin said.
Nevin first donned the gloves at age 7.
“All my cousins were doing it and I was watching too many Rocky movies, too,” he said.
Nevin gained international prominence as a teenager. In 2008, he traveled to Italy and won an Olympic qualifying tournament to earn a berth in the Beijing games as a bantamweight (up to 118 pounds). Later that year, he won the European amateur championship in Poland and advanced to the round of 16 in the Olympics.
He won a bronze at the 2009 world championships in Milan and another bronze at the 2011 world championships in Azerbaijan. He lost the gold medal bout in the 2012 London Olympics.
Nevin helped Ireland to a record-setting haul of six boxing medals at the London games under head coach Billy Walsh (who took over the USA men’s program last November and led it to three medals in Rio). Yet, the loss to Englishman Luke Campbell, 14-11, in the gold medal bout still haunts him.
“I could talk about every minute of that fight. It was a close fight, but there was no point when I thought I would lose that bout,” he said.
Earlier in the tournament, he had beaten Mexican Oscar Valdez and reigning world champion Lazaro Alvarez of Cuba. Just last month, Valdez won the world featherweight title as a professional.
Nevin’s performances nonetheless made a big splash on both sides of the Irish Sea. The 10,000-seat Olympic boxing venue sold out when he fought. Ireland’s pubs were similarly packed to the gills. Although Nevin was all business at the games — rarely stepping outside his training “bubble” — celebrations were waiting for him when he returned home.
“It was unreal, not just in Ireland but across the world,” he said.
Nevin carried the buzz into the 2013 European championships in Minsk, where he won his weight class and was named most outstanding boxer. That result elevated him to No. 1 in the world rankings.
After watching some of the controversial outcomes at this year’s Rio Olympics, Nevin is happy he left the amateur ranks when he did. Fellow Irishman Michael Conlan’s loss to a Russian fighter in a unanimous but highly disputed decision drew widespread criticism from the boxing community and resulted in the ejection of several judges from further participation in the tournament.
“I’m just glad I got out in time. I’ve seen some crazy decisions,” he said. “(In that situation) you make your complaint and give them 500 U.S. dollars and then you never hear anything more. And it’s only getting worse.”
Looking to parlay his own amateur notoriety into a pro career, Nevin signed with GreenBlood in October 2013. His pro debut came on St. Patrick’s Day 2014 at the House of Blues in Boston, a nationally televised six-round unanimous decision over Alberto Candelaria.Moran’s Irish hero narrative was on the fastrack.
“We were going to move fast. I jumped into a six-rounder right away against an undefeated opponent,” Nevin said.
But his progress came to a halt less than a month later. While on a break at home, someone attacked him with a golf club during a melee outside a relative’s home. The blow shattered his right shin and fractured his left fibula. Nevin had a rod inserted in his right leg and was confined to a wheelchair for months.
Amazingly, he returned to the ring six months later and won his next six bouts against lesser competition over the next 13 months. Friday’s fight will be his first since having the rod removed.
Much like he did during the London Olympics, staying largely out of the limelight has also been crucial to his recovery and professional growth. Under the tutelage of veteran trainer and Pine Valley resident Bozy Ennis, Nevin is learning the tactics that made men like Sonny Liston, Joe Frazier and Bernard Hopkins Philly ring legends.
“He’s a professional now,” Ennis said. “Amateurs have a different type of style. They hold their hands up high. I’m getting him to tuck his chin and let his hands go more. I’m teaching him defense and how to catch shots with his hands, to move his head more and don’t stay in front of the opponent.”
Ennis is also working on Nevin’s power, getting him to put his weight behind his big punches. At the amateur level, power punches count the same as jabs. But in the pros, power scores big points.
“I come from the European style, up on my toes moving,” Nevin said. “Bozy is teaching me to fight with both styles now. He’s a tremendous defensive coach and he believes I can be a world champion.” ••
MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO
Ready to rumble: John Joe Nevin, pictured above training at Harrowgate Boxing Club, will face super-featherweight Jesus Lule this Friday, Aug. 26, as part of SugarHouse Casino’s first-ever professional fight card. MARIA YOUNG / TIMES PHOTO