The longest reigning cruiserweight world champion of all time, Johnny Nelson, chats to us about cars, confidence and why prostate cancer is a cause close to his heart before his appearance at the Celebrity Challenge Trophy race at this weekend’s Silverstone Classic.

28 Jul 2017

Good to meet you, Johnny. Have you been to Silverstone before?
I’ve been to Silverstone several times. It has an amazing feel about it, even when it’s not a race day. It’s regal. I’ve never actually envisaged being the entertainment, racing on the track. So before my test [to race A35s on the Silverstone circuit], perhaps I’d taken for granted what the racers have to do. I’m so used to driving on the road, and here the rules are completely different. When you’ve got the track to yourself, you think: "Oh my god, now what?". 

You’ve got to be a bit crazy to do this, and you’ve got to have some amazing bottle and a need for speed

A couple of the guys like [former World Super-Middleweight boxing champion] Carl Froch are absolutely buzzing for this weekend; the chance of driving an iconic circuit beyond the speed limit. I just don’t think I’m a speed freak like that. But to watch it as a spectacle, now I understand how hard it is for those guys on race day.

The A35s are incredible classic cars, aren't they? How do they compare to what you drive day-to-day?
Well, they're very compact. So with my size 13 feet, I’m like Lurch folding myself in! It's very claustrophobic. I drive a Range Rover, so it’s one extreme to the other.

I like space and a smooth ride. But with the A35s, you feel at one with the road. You can feel every little nick and bump and I can’t get it round my head that it’s not going to flip over. I like to be in control. I’m used to putting some gloves on, putting my boxing boots and shorts on, gumshield in, and getting stuck in – fight's done. I’m in control. But in a ride like this, I just feel as though the car’s in control of me.

You have to know these amazing cars inside out to drive them well, so I've a lot of respect for the drivers. It’s not a mug’s game, this is a skill.

Sadly, you didn’t pass the ARDS practical exam [needed to be able to participate in Saturday’s race]. But even though you won’t be driving this weekend, you’re still coming down to Silverstone Classic – are you looking forward to it?
One-hundred percent. I spoke to Carl to say: “Look, I’ve failed the practical test and can’t race”, and he was laughing his head off. But I don’t care! I get to enjoy the Classic now. I’ll come down and appreciate the entertainment.

The Celebrity race will be a great, great event. But let’s not forget there’s an important message behind it and that’s one-in-eight men will be affected by prostate cancer and one-in-four black men will be affected by prostate cancer.

Johnny Nelson and Orla Chennaoui

So, you were aware of the statistics, has it affected you at all?
Yes, prostate cancer has had a devastating impact on my family. My dad is a Dominican; he came here to England in the late '50s. He worked in the steel factories in Sheffield – that’s what Sheffield’s famous for. He wasn’t a heavy drinker but he smoked – that’s what he did. He wasn’t a mad fitness fanatic, even though he’s a good runner. I remember him having races with us when we were younger and always winning. His lifestyle wasn’t the gym; he was just a regular guy.

But his attitude was old school and for ages he tried to ignore his prostate cancer. He was in denial and it’s something that could have been stopped had he dealt with it earlier, before it got too far. My brother is also battling cancer that could have been caught much sooner.

I think we men are idiots because we don’t talk about our health enough. We don’t want to address certain things that we may find a little bit embarrassing. We all need to take responsibility, stand up and say: "Well actually this is the score – let’s deal with it”.

We don’t need to be frightened, we just need to use common sense, know our risks, and understand that we can discuss our health with a GP. It’s that simple

Don’t have this thing looming over you because if you do you won’t sleep good. You won’t be able to settle. You’ll have that stress and that worry at the back of your mind all the time.

Boxers are confident guys, and you’re good at explaining why men should look after their health. What advice would you give to a man that perhaps wasn’t as confident in their health as a sportsperson like yourself?
There’s various reasons why guys are embarrassed or feel uncomfortable about addressing their health. Sometimes it could be that they’re body conscious. Or it could be they think they’re less of a man because they’re having to discuss their 'down below' parts.

This is complete and utter – excuse my French – bull****. Guys need to fix up and think smart. If a woman’s got an issue she goes and gets it dealt with. Guys, what is the difference? This is about your life, and if you cherish your life and your loved ones, you’ve got do as much as you possibly can to take care of yourself. Because if you don’t, the consequences are going to be more worrying to all those around you.

If you don’t want to discuss it with a friend or family, then go to your GP. Just go to your GP and have a conversation – that’s what they’re there for. The talk you’ll have will be very matter-of-fact. But if we make it a bigger deal than what it should be then it becomes an issue and a potential life-threatener.

And how do you keep your health in check and still keep fit as you get older?
I’m 50 years old now and I don’t feel 50. I still think I’m probably in my 20s. But there’s a reality that kicks in as you start to look around and notice all the injuries, all the aches and pains, all the wear and tear on your body that you had coming through life.

If you don’t take care of yourself now, it’s going to be harder to take care of yourself later. You don’t have to run a marathon, you don’t have to box for a world title – just do a little something, a little 20 or 25 minutes a day. Give yourself that time. Go for a power walk, you know, get the cardiovascular system going. Get your body in motion, move like an animal. Just feel relaxed and don’t stiffen up. Keep moving, keep yourself young.

Silverstone Classic takes place from 28-30 July. All those racing will be helping to raise funds and awareness for the Classic’s official charity partner Prostate Cancer UK.

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