Jim McDonnell, an Unsung Hero

Now I must confess that when researching the topic for this week’s article that I’d only really heard about the protagonist in his capacity as a trainer to former World Champion James ‘Chunky’ DeGale. I knew that he had been a fighter and beaten the great Barry McGuigan, but that was the extent of my knowledge on the boxing career of Jim McDonnell. 

It was with great intrigue then, that I found a fight between McDonnell and the enigmatic African Hall of Famer Azumah Nelson for the WBC super-featherweight world title when sifting through the Sky TV archives this afternoon. 

Before viewing, I assumed that Nelson won the fight and foolishly predicted that it must have been a walkover…four rounds in and I was suitably humbled by what is a criminally unrecognised contest. 

A Backyard Brawl for Jim McDonnell

The fight took place at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the backyard of McDonnell who hails from nearby Camden Town and a far cry from Nelson’s home country of Ghana. It was Azumah Nelson’s fourth defence of the WBC world title and the second weight division in which he had claimed the world championship. 

The Ghanaian was fast becoming a legend in the ring, with only one defeat on his 31 fight record against Mexican great Salvador Sanchez, Nelson was regarded by many as the best champion in the division and a brutal knockout artist. 

By contrast, Jim McDonnell, a very solid pro, was seen as a technical boxer with a very good engine and traditional European style. He had only stopped 12 opponents in his 26 wins and despite previously capturing the European title at featherweight, few gave him a chance against Nelson. 

Critics pointed to a sub-par showing against WBA champion Brian Mitchell as evidence that McDonnell wasn’t quite at the top level.

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A Concentrated Effort

McDonnell entered the ring first to rapturous applause from his home fans, he wore black shorts and the concentration was etched on his face. Nelson followed as champion in his 13th world title appearance, decked in leopard print. 

The atmosphere promised something special and the combatants didn’t disappoint. Nelson came out swinging in the first but the Londoner was able to shake off the attack and box to orders, making Nelson miss. 

Gaining some confidence from the opener, McDonnell knocked back the head of the champion with ramrod jabs at the start of the second and showed he was willing to mix it up as the pair traded body shots at centre ring. 

To the surprise of everyone watching on, Jim McDonnell began to boss the contest and left Nelson chasing shadows in the third round as well. A fierce left hook from the champion found its mark in the final minute of the round but it was met with a combination returned in kind. 

The sound of vuvuzela’s reverberated around the arena as the contest moved into the fourth round. The pace became frantic in the fourth with both men taking it in turns to throw leather, Nelson stalked his man as McDonnell backpedalled away from danger. 

Perhaps tellingly, at almost all times Azumah Nelson wore a sly grin. 

His confidence was backed up in the fifth when an unsuspecting left hook shocked the challenger and put him down for the first time in his career. McDonnell raised himself from the canvas to the count of eight and battled back to survive the round. Nelson’s lack of composure cost him the stoppage win in round number five. The writing looked to be on the wall as the bell for the sixth chimed, but Jim McDonnell wasn’t done yet. 

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A Roaring Return from Jim McDonnell

Returning to a box and move strategy, McDonnell left Nelson once again chasing shadows. Nelson stalked with intent, but it was the home fighter who was scoring points. The seventh-round followed a similar narrative but this time Nelson, who had switched to a cross arm defence, was able to back his man up and unleash hooks on the ropes before McDonnell once again took to his bike. 

The ebb and flow continued in the eighth, the challenger landing at will but his punches seemed to have little effect and when the champion unleashed hooks, the move that evened the score. 

At this point in the fight, the commentators had Nelson ahead by a point, my scorecard had things even with potentially four rounds to go. 

The Ghanaian Champion dropped his smiling visage in the ninth and came out with intent. He was met with a mirror image as the pair collided like gladiators in the best round of the fight so far. 

There was a sense though that Jim McDonnell was giving everything and Nelson still had gears to go through. The tenth round was nothing short of breathtaking, a valiant display of grit and courage saw the confused champion pinned in the neutral corner for what felt like a lifetime as McDonnell gave everything in a wild west shootout that could have been fought in a matchbox. 

The Battle Intensifies

As the eleventh round wore on, the battle intensified and McDonnell’s right eye was now swollen shut, Nelson started to assert himself as the Londoner’s body began to betray him. 

The acceleration came in round eleven when an increasingly ragged but supremely brave McDonnell began to get picked apart by Azumah Nelson who, like the master predator, had waited for his foe to show weakness before pouncing. 

Now half-blind, McDonnell was tagged by devasting right hands which pushed him through the ropes and onto the canvas for the second time in the fight. Bloodied and battered, he made it to his feet for the count of nine. Referee Joe Cortez waved them together and one final barrage of punches from Nelson sent Jim reeling to the floor once again. 

Showing mercy, Cortez knelt by McDonnell and halted the contest. The battle belonged to Nelson but the night belonged to Jim McDonnell.