Idolising boxing legend Mike Tyson and Brazil’s three-time World Cup winner Pele as a young child, Leon McKenzie couldn’t have imagined he would be living the best of both boyhood dreams in a professional sporting career that still lives on.
Now 37, the former Premier League striker has long hung up his boots and left the changing rooms for the compact and combative arena of the boxing ring as he prepares for his eighth professional bout later this month.
The ex-Crystal Palace, Norwich City and Coventry City hitman turned to boxing following his retirement from football back in 2013; since remaining undefeated after six victories, including two knockouts, and one draw.
After an 18-year career that saw him start at Selhurst Park and finish up at non-league Corby Town; McKenzie is following in the footsteps of his father Clinton and uncle Duke by finding a new lease of life inside one of the world’s most dangerous sporting stages.
Having once been bought for £1m by Coventry and won the Division One title twice, McKenzie experienced many memorable moments during his flight in the Premier League and Football League.
But now nicknamed “Big McK”; the super middleweight fighter is eager to add more titles to his name using his hands, starting with his next bout against the undefeated John McCallum inside London’s York Hall on October 17.
McKenzie invited us to his training base at England’s St George’s Park for an exclusive interview to talk about his family’s backgriund in the sport, his ambitions in the ring and transition he’s made from football.
You began your sporting career in football. Was it the fact your father was a renowned boxer that made you want to follow in his footsteps?
“It is not so much following in his footsteps, it was just when I retired from football, I had about a year out or so and I started going to the gym because him and my uncle Duke, both owned gyms, and Duke was a three-time world champion as well. I think it is just in the blood. I have been in the gym since I was six or seven-years-old, always observing and having a look and joining in when I could. Obviously football took off for me and it was only when I retired that I pulled my dad aside and said, “Dad; do you know what, I am going to jump in for a bit”. I don’t know how long it can go [on], but let me jump in and do another tick off the list in life.”
Can you explain you and your family’s background in the sport?
“Well my father, Clinton, is a former British and European champion and my uncle Duke is a former three-time world champion. The levels are there in boxing terms.”
How much of an inspiration has your father Clinton and uncle Duke been?
“Yeah, they have set the path with their own journeys and done extremely well in this field. Again, my journey will be a little bit different to my dad and uncle’s, I am not trying to follow suit. I am taking it as far as I can go. I am 37-years-old, so to achieve what they achieved might be a bit of an ask. But we have already achieved for me from where I have come from. Even just to step into the ring at the age of 35, at the time, that was a massive deal. I am succeeding and I am still unbeaten and that will continue after October 17.”
Was the transition from football to boxing what you expected, or were there some surprises for you?
“Like I said, I had been in the gym since I was a young boy, so there wasn’t really any shocks or surprises. I just needed to gain a bit of experience in actually competing.”
You are currently undefeated in the ring after seven fights – winning the International Master Belt. What is your ultimate ambition in boxing?
“In touching distance is a British title. That is an ultimate dream in itself. To establish what level I am at as well, that would be fantastic to achieve that. Really, I am only two fights away, so it is not bad.”
Your next fight is up against John McCallum, who himself has won all seven of his bouts. What are you expecting from that clash?
“I am expecting a tough fight. But it is no different to any other fight, the record is just all on paper, it really makes no difference come fight night. I have trained hard and I have put everything in my end. I am only concentrating on me, not concentrating on my opponent as such. I don’t underestimate anyone, so I will be going in there expecting [to win]. And if anything, I would like to be underestimated myself. So I hope he is doing that, which he is to be honest.”
Why did you pick ‘Perform’ at St George’s Park to train? How much has it benefited you?
“I played football for 18 years professionally, so I knew of this place. I have been here once, a good few years ago. The facilities at the moment and some of the guys’ work in here is top notch. From a technical point of view, the facilities that they have here are fantastic. Obviously James DeGale had a recent stage here where he trained for a little while. I spoke to him about it and he really enjoyed it as well, just before he won his world title. It is great to be able to come down and use these facilities and credit to ‘Perform’ and St George’s Park for allowing me to come down.”
Looking at your two sporting careers, what would you say are the main similarities between each?
“I think there has got to be a mental toughness in becoming the best that you can be.”
Similarly, what are the main differences?
“You get hit harder in the face! It is a little bit different to kicking a ball. Again, it is a very much single minded sport boxing. So you sort of step forward and everyone sort of steps back – it is just you and your opponent. That is the difference instead of you walking out with 10 other players. Again it is about experience and being able to cope with certain things. I do take on a lot, I thrive on pressure. I have walked out in front of 50,000 to 60,000 people and I loved that. So to walk out in front of the best part of 1,400 people at York Hall, it is not really an issue for me.”
How does the buzz in the ring compare to the buzz on the pitch? Does it replace it?
“I have scored a lot of goals. I did say this when I first started professional boxing; that when I won my first fight, I felt something different. A different feeling. I think that was more going on my own, because it was me alone. But I don’t think I will ever beat the feeling of scoring goals.”
You admitted to suffering depression during your football career. How, if in any way, has boxing helped you with that?
“Yeah, I guess it is timely. With anything, everything is about timing. I think fitness is a massive positive to have with people that deal with mental illness. Just to keep active, one hundred percent. Boxing is going to end for me one day, so life goes on.”
Many other ex-footballers have opened up about depression. There’s bound to be current players in the same situation you found yourself in. How important is it that more start to open up?
“Yeah, it is massive. Is it such a big topic, isn’t it. The sad thing is that not a lot of people understand and probably quite a big percentage of people don’t want to because it is quite scary. Because if you have had it, you think about what happened to yourself or your family or friends, sometimes people shy away from it. But now, I think more and more people are getting brave and are being more honest with themselves. I think the more people do speak [about it], the better.”