Leon McKenzie

Leon McKenzie

I promised Leon Mckenzie that I wouldn't take ten minutes of his time.  He's a busy man - a British title eliminator to prepare for, a training camp in full flow and he's in the middle of re-decorating.  Twenty five minutes later we hung up the phone.  The man I spoke to was not the man I was expecting.  Former Premier League footballers don't always come with the reputation of being easy to talk to, but Leon bucked the trend with style.  When I put it to him that people may be quick to assume he has an ego because of his past, he put his side across:
"Listen, the world can be judgemental at times." Leon (6-0-1) tells me.  "Footballers don't always have a good reputation.  I hold my hands up, I made some stupid decisions in my time.  But I've walked every path, I'm at an age now where I know how to conduct myself.  I've been through so much, I'm more humble now.  It's difficult when you're a footballer earning thousands of pounds a week - there is ignorance because you don't live in the real world.  But when I left football I took some time off and met some really good people, intelligent people.  I've been through tough times in my life - getting in the ring is freedom to me!"
Leon has been through tough times.  But he's ploughing on in his second professional career, as a professional boxer.  He didn't enter the sport until late, becoming a pro at 35.  So does he feel like he is playing catch up?
"Yes and no.  I know I don't have time on my hands, but age is irrelevant to me.  Not many people thought I would even get to eight fights!  In my last fight I won the International Masters Title - it's not the most decorated title but I achieved that.  Not many fighters ever get to that level.  Anything I achieve now is 100% a bonus to me, but make no mistake, I am geared to go as far as I can."
Winning that title has put Leon in the position where, in his 8th professional fight, he will be in an eliminator for a British Title match.  Scheduled for 17th of October at York Hall, his opponent that night is John McCallum (7-0-0) of Scotland.  In the buildup John has been confident in the media of being able to move on to his own British Title eliminator, but McKenzie has a steeliness about himself, an inbuilt, engrained confidence.
"McCallum is very sure of himself, he's a cocky kid.  Fair enough he has a good amateur background, but he's underestimating me.  If he thinks he is in for an easy night he's got a shock coming.  I have no pressure.  I'm one fight from a British Title shot, even to get to British level is incredible.  I never thought I would get to this level - purely because of time - so I'm grabbing this opportunity with both hands."
This opportunity has come about through Leon's hard work, skill and dedication.  But there has been another helping factor - his link up with promoter Steve Goodwin of Goodwin Promotions.  When I spoke with Steve he gushed with praise about McKenzie, proud to be able to open up doors to a British Title opportunity.  Leon is equally respectful to the man who is guiding his career.  "Steve's been excellent for me.  To produce what he has, the opportunities he's given me, I'm so thankful to him". 

When McKenzie captured his debut professional title it was his first experience of the ten round distance.  He showed good stamina, not fading through the championship rounds, something that may prove key in his October battle.  What did he make of the fight?

"Your first ten rounder is a tick off the list.  He was a bit of a journeyman, he didn't help me to look good.  But what I did show was maturity and composure, I showed I could go the distance and showcased my skills.  I boxed his head off.  Richard Williams and Mark Prince in my camp, they're both former champions and that's helping me massively.  I know I don't have that many fights left, each training camp takes its toll.  But I will be finishing my career with another title - whether it's the British, English or Southern Area."

To get his hands on the British Title recently vacated by Paul Smith he needs to get through McCallum, and then has the potential prospect of either Callum Smith or Rocky Fielding.  McKenzie is respectful to both fighters but at the same time relishes the prospect.
"I would have nothing to lose, I would fight either of them.  They're both well schooled, so of course the odds would be against me, but I have belief.  when I turned pro I sparred with (now World Title holder) James De Gale - he told me I will win a domestic title.  That's the kind of respect I have wanted in the game."
Part of that belief comes from Leon's uncle, the former fighter himself Duke Mckenzie.  How much of an influece has Duke been to his nephew?

"Look, Duke should be in the Hall of Fame, no doubt about that.  He's won 3 world titles at 3 different weights!  He's always been there to give me advice, whether as a footballer or in the boxing.  He only had to step away from my career for personal reasons and hand over the reigns, but he has been there for me since I was a kid and I appreciate that."
Some of his own personal reasons McKenzie talks about are his battles with depression.  "There are time when I struggled to get out of bed in the morning with depression.  But then that just makes me more determined now.  For my fight in October, McCallum thinks I'm a footballer just doing boxing, but I've been in the gym all of my life, I'm schooled!  We're going to have fireworks, I have real fight inside of me.  It's always been with me - one of my beliefs is if you get knocked down you fight it.  I hope he's training well and keeps underestimating me!"
McKenzie now uses his profile to try and help others.  He regularly posts to social media the charity work that he involves himself in - including a considerable amount with the charity Mind, who help people with mental health issues.  "I'm very passionate about certain things.  I've suffered with depression, it's hard to be brave and speak out about it.  But I really hope that if it helps someone out there who is listening or reading, well I will have used my profile for good."
It is clear that Leon doesn't fit all of the stereotypes that may be labelled to him.  Chatty, humble, helping others and open enough to discuss his issues - this is a man who has undertaken battles inside and outside of the ring.  In October he takes on his toughest boxing challenge, but you know that he has the acumen and willpower to stand toe-to-toe with McCallum and who knows, we could see him fighting for the British strap next year.
Follow Leon on Twitter @leonMcKenzie1
Leon wanted to give a special mention to those that have supported him both emotionally and through sponsorship.  These are Mark Cootes, Formark Scaffolding, Ryan Dudfield, Brad Rodgers, Daniel Newham, Boxfit and Ringside