WORLD welterweight boxing champion Jeff Horn won the highest honour in Australian sport — The Don award — to complete an astonishing journey that began with a bruised ego and a battered old Volvo.
The mild-mannered former Brisbane schoolteacher, who pushed himself to the absolute limits of physical and mental exhaustion to outpoint all-time boxing great Manny Pacquiao at Suncorp Stadium on July 2, now joins such Australian heroes as Don Bradman, Dawn Fraser, Cadel Evans and Ian Thorpe in the Australian Sporting Hall of Fame.
“This is a dream come true,’’ said Horn, 29 after being presented with the award at Crown Palladium.
“The year I’ve had has been the most incredible time you could imagine. My wife, Jo, and I still shake our heads. When she met me I was a school nerd getting picked on by bullies. Now I’m a world boxing champion, about to become a dad and the winner of this incredible The Don award. Thanks everyone for supporting me.’’
Horn, who picked up more than $1 million by beating Pacquiao, will receive another $1 million for his first defence of the World Boxing Organisation title set for December 15 in Brisbane against tough Englishman Gary Corcoran.
“Eleven years ago I drove my old Volvo down to Glenn Rushton’s home gym in Stretton,” Horn said. “I didn’t follow boxing at all then and I certainly had no plans on becoming a fighter. I’d been picked on a lot at school and I just wanted to learn some self-defence and gain a bit of confidence. I had just started going out with Jo and I wanted to be able to get us out of trouble if someone picked on me.
“Glenn not only taught me self-defence but he taught me to believe in myself. Eleven years later he taught me how to beat Manny Pacquiao, one of the greatest fighters of all time.’’
It was a Thursday night on April 20, 2006 when Horn steered his old Volvo towards the biggest house he’d ever seen in the grandest boulevard he’d ever driven along. The old car, which seemed ready to pass out from fatigue at any time, looked ill at ease among a row of massive homes that remind some visitors of Canberra’s embassy precinct.
Horn nervously approached a high mauve-and-cream concrete fence surrounding a mansion in the southern Brisbane suburb of Stretton.
The palace before him had seven bedrooms with ensuites, nine bathrooms, an indoor squash court, a tennis court, recording studio, indoor cinema, lap pool and swim-up bar.
It also contained a massive indoor gymnasium where the homeowner Glenn Rushton, a self-made multi-millionaire and martial arts expert, conducted public self-defence classes.
Without realising it, Horn had started a long, arduous journey in the Volvo that would become the ride of his life. He admits his sporting success was beyond his wildest imagination. No wonder Rushton calls his gym “The House of Dreams’’.
“I was a shy teenager and at the time did not even know how to throw a punch properly,’’ Horn says, “but Glenn gave me amazing powers of strength and confidence.’’
Horn trained with Rushton only one night a week, learning how to fend off an attacker with a palm heel to the nose or a kick to the thigh. Then, Rushton, who had learned boxing as a boy in Townsville, taught Horn how to throw a punch. He was stunned by the way Horn moved and the way he picked up so quickly all that he was being taught.
When he watched Horn spar in the gym he was amazed by Horn’s physical toughness and courage and the way he remained cool under pressure.
In 2008, before Horn had even had a proper boxing fight, Rushton told him he could become an Olympian in four years. Horn was 20 at the time and sceptical of his own potential but Rushton made him a believer.
Horn became the best performed Australian Olympic boxer in 20 years, making the quarter-finals at London 2012.
Five years later Rushton told Horn that he could grind down Manny Pacquiao in a slugfest that would break all attendance records in Australia.
Once again Rushton was right, though Horn had to survive some rocky moments to emerge triumphant before more than 51,000 fans at Suncorp and more than 500 million watching the telecast worldwide.
The night before the Pacquiao fight Horn went to bed in his modest suburban home at 10 o’clock and was asleep by 10.30.
“Jo reckons I was snoring by 10.33,’’ Horn says. “Loudly. She normally elbows me in the ribs to shut me up but because she knew I’d need all my strength against Pacquiao she let me have as much shut-eye as possible.
“Jo’s pregnancy has been a life-changing event for both of us and I wanted to give Jo and the daughter we’ll have in January a performance to remember. I wanted it to be a victory that all of Australia could celebrate.
“In the ninth round Manny hurt me badly with a series of big left hands and the referee threatened to stop the fight. I was starting to look like the Elephant Man with my face horribly disfigured, but I refused to lose.’’
The world title shot was a dream opportunity for Horn but as he faced the greatest crisis of his life in that tumultuous Round 9, it presented the schoolteacher with the opportunity to deliver a lesson in perseverance.
“Glenn and I refused to give up on my dream,’’ Horn said. “Because I fought back, when it looked like every last chip was down, my life changed dramatically over the next few minutes.
“I tell people everywhere I go that they can change their life too if they refuse to quit.
“You might be hurting, you might be downhearted, you might have everything going against you. But hang in there. Don’t quit. I have a big, shiny red-and-gold belt that says ‘WORLD CHAMPION’ on it to prove what can happen when you keep going against the odds.’’