Herbert Nelson

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9 October, 2010 by rhesus12

Wrote this recently for the dompost. Doesn’t really capture the fact that Herbert’s quite the funny guy. I’ve since been to his gym and had to juggle medicine balls, and other Russian tortures.

Herbert Nelson runs the Olympic Hopes boxing gym in Moera, Lower Hutt,  which he built from scratch. Most days, despite a full-time job as a lab technician at Geological and Nuclear Research, he’s training his fighters or training himself. He’s had a measurable impact on the lives of many of his charges, more than a few of whom are looking to rebuild themselves after troubled starts.

He’s a gregarious, passionate advocate of boxing as a sport and as a way of life based on courage, tenacity, humility and service.  Twenty five years ago, when his name was not Herbert Nelson, he was also a submariner and decorated captain second rank in the Soviet navy.

He had been responsible for the navigation of a 73-ship formation based in Russia’s far-eastern Kamchatka Peninsula, and had served in Cold War operations in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.  He prefers not to give his Russian name.

“I don’t think my old name is relevant now.  New country, new wife, new direction in life.”  He chose “Nelson” for its naval connotations and “Herbert” because it means “bright army” in Gaelic.

The inspiration to leave the navy came with the rise of Mikhael Gorbachev.

“Glasnost removed the blinds from my eyes. I had not known what was going on. I was in the military and you just didn’t know what it was like for ordinary people. I had to face that I had been fighting for something that was totally corrupt because I had believed the propaganda. I had to leave.”

Leaving the navy meant leaving Russia, and a conversation at a Moscow party with the former Russian Ambassador to New Zealand, Yuri Sokolov, convinced him to settle here.  Nelson knew a little about the country from his school days, mainly Soviet-style facts concerning its political alignment, longitude (the same as Kamchatka), and geological composition.  He had certainly never heard of Taita, where he now lives with his wife Helen and their children.

Resigning the navy was not easy and cost Nelson much, including his first marriage.  He says that what allowed him to make the decision, to assess threats and to calculate coolly in difficult circumstances was not his military career, but the philosophy and discipline of his beloved boxing.

“Boxing is not just demanding physically. There is zero room for even the most fleeting mental distraction. Let those financial or relationship worries surface and your opponent will start landing through your guard, guaranteed. Lose your temper and the result is the same”.

He arrived in New Zealand in 1996, and within three years had amassed over 200 job application rejection letters. He was unable to get an interview for a Maritime Safety Authority job advising on accident prevention, an area for which he had been the responsible officer in his part of the Russian fleet. Accepting that his work prospects were bad, it was time to look for gaps, to play to strengths, and to formulate the bold tactics that had served him well in the ring.

Nelson threw himself into the Wellington boxing scene, determined to do what it took to be a coach in New Zealand. He found that that wasn’t nearly as much as it was in Russia, where coaches (and boxers) took degrees and advanced degrees in the sport.  Getting New Zealand accreditation was a simple process, and he began a one-year probationary contract at a local club.

After completing the contract he left to found the Olympic Hopes gym.  Renting suitable space wasn’t easy at first, with most community organisations unwilling to store punching bags and other large equipment. However, help came in the form of city council community co-ordinator and former UK track runner Lesley Lennon. She arranged for Nelson a large, modern building and gave funding advice.  Money for the boxing gear came from the Hutt City Council, central government and the New Zealand Community Trust.

Olympic Hopes now has 92 members (including Lennon), most of whom are there for the self-defence training. Nelson says he has about 15 boxers, but would only encourage four or five to enter the ring in competitions.

At the gym, all fighters, serious and casual, are schooled in the physical and mental skills Nelson honed at his naval academy and inter-service championships. But he first learnt about boxing as a young man growing up in Zheleznogorsk, in the Kursk region, in the late 1960s. Courage was required to live and fighting was a necessary social skill.

“I grew up in one of the most criminal neighbourhoods. Everyone was always fighting against each other in groups. Every night it was ‘oh, they are fighting over there, let’s go’.  You needed to be strong and confident and to have skills,” he says, “otherwise it was very difficult for you.”

The region has iron ore deposits so rich they create an anomaly in the Earth’s magnetic field. Among the various conflicts fought on its soil was the 1943 Battle of Kursk, the largest tank battle in history.  Iron and combat are in the blood of Kursk.

When Nelson was a boy, prisoners indentured to the Zheleznogorsk’s massive ore quarry would sometimes be given town leave. They would fight each other, soldiers, locals, the legions of people forcibly relocated from elsewhere in the Soviet Union, and anyone else.  In the surrounding district, industrialisation had seen whole villages demolished and their inhabitants shunted into single high-rise tower blocks. These blocks would produce small armies of teenage combatants.

Boxing, like soccer or rock and roll elsewhere, offered escape and career for young men with few other prospects. If one showed enough promise on the streets, he might be accepted for a rare place in the Russian boxing system, and have his skills refined into a prestigious sporting career.

“It was extremely hard to be accepted for a club. They took only the best of the best from the street. Those who were really prepared”, says Nelson.

Showing some natural talent, but more markedly a capacity for hard work, Nelson won a sought-after place in the only club in town after an on-the-spot, four-fight audition.   His first few fights set a pattern for many to come over the next seven years. He could usually defeat opponents comfortably – he had early career stats of 24 bouts, 22 wins, with 20 knock outs – but relied too much on big hits and quick wins. A lack of discipline caused him some memorable pummellings.  He says his great discovery of the period was that he was not a naturally talented boxer. He compensated with unceasing training and study.

Increasing regional fame brought confidence and after only two months’ training, Nelson fought his first inter-city competition.  A large crowd had come to see the rising fighter, including his teacher, girlfriend and schoolmates.  His father, a transport manager working grindingly long hours at the quarry, was unable to see his son in action.

The opponent, supposedly also a novice, had actually fought 33 bouts.  Nelson won on points, but broke his nose and jaw in the process.  The next day he fought again, this time against the Russian Boxing Federation’s number two junior.  He lost, with the fight stopped, and left the ring to begin a two-month convalescence, which saw his jaw wired and his diet reduced to not much more than sour cream.  About this time his mother started counselling a more peaceful sport.

“She would feed me meat with garlic, so much food”, says Nelson.  “She was trying to make me miss my weight class.”   At the time he was starving himself for up to week to qualify.

Boxing in Russia was a crowded field.  There were about 3.5 million registered fighters in the mid 1970s. Boxing epitomised strength, courage, determination and the redemptive quality of suffering so highly prized in Soviet political mythology.  The state provided enormous financial and scientific resources. The best fighters might earn the title “Master of Sport of the USSR” and were feted as much as their comrades on another Cold War front, chess.

Nelson was soon noticed by the middleweight Valeri Popenchenko, a gold medallist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.  A photo of Popenchenko with his arm around Nelson was displayed for a year in the window of Zheleznogorsk’s only sports shop.  Nelson went on to twice win the Kursk under-17 championships.

Nelson says that most of the young boxers he had sparred with at the start of his career started to drop away as they left the relative safety of the junior competition for the senior ranks. Most were completely unprepared for the experience.

“Those guys I started with were so talented. They could look once at the coach showing them the combinations and could repeat them perfectly straight away. I would have to practice them 200 to 500 times. They got most of the coach’s attention, but they are all gone. Everything was too easy for them so they were not accustomed to work hard.”

After the junior grades, most serious boxing in Russia was based out of the universities and military academies and institutes. There was no professionalism and boxers had to take degrees. Nelson joined a naval academy at 17.

The young boxer faced glaring technical issue: the king hit didn’t work in the seniors. Mature fighters throwing four punches a second offer little possibility of easy knock outs. After a particularly spectacular loss, his coach retired him from fighting for a gruelling six-month month intensive training session that, Nelson says, finally made a boxer of him. Later, he won the Leningrad district championship for the combined military team.

After five years at the academy, a conversation with his coach convinced him to abandon thoughts of being a fulltime pugilist and concentrate on his naval career. It confirmed his suspicion that Russia wasn’t kind to old boxers.

“My coach said that the people who stay boxers end up alcoholics or otherwise very unhappy.  They may do some training but they weren’t really respected by the boxers. I didn’t want that.”

These days Nelson divides most of his almost fanatical energy between training his fighters and documenting the best in boxing techniques and sports science. He is also researching high performance sports coaching in New Zealand and has attended many SPARC seminars on the subject. His dream is to design and launch a coaching programme on a par with those of Russia, Cuba and Australia. He has already submitted drafts to the New Zealand Boxing Federation, who, as yet, have not been interested in taking it further.

He loves New Zealand and has a strong affection for those he trains, and for the people and organisations that helped him set up his club. But ideals live large in Herbert Nelson, both as a Russian and a fighter, and some aspects of the easygoing New Zealand culture puzzle and perplex him.  He looks stunned as he recounts what he once heard while watching his 11 year-old son’s soccer team play.

“The coach was saying to his team ‘what are we here to do?’, and the kids shouted back, ‘we’re here to have fun.’ And that was the right answer!”

Nelson raises his hands imploringly.

You can lose with dignity, be says, but “only winners have fun. You cannot lose and have fun.”


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