Horn an unlikely co-star as Pacquiao roadshow hits Australia

Former schoolteacher faces one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of all time

In a country blessed with a wealth of sporting options to choose from, boxing features very low on the totem pole in Australia.

Manny Pacquiao will defend his WBO welterweight belt in Brisbane on Sunday against the lightly-regarded Australian challenger Jeff Horn, but it has flown largely under the radar of the sports media Down Under, until now, days before the fight.

Although Pacquiao is ageing, and not the force he was, his name still has the ability to draw a spotlight to one of boxing’s relative outposts for the “Battle of Brisbane”.

After losing to Floyd Mayweather, Pacquiao restored customary order to his illustrious fighting resume with two unanimous decisions in his latest bouts. There were murmurs he would finally hang up his boxing gloves to concentrate on winning political points as a senator in the Philippines.


But a conveniently large payday loomed in the beautifully appointed Suncorp Stadium in Brisbane, and he willingly flew to Australia to take on the likeable Horn.

Horn is not a man who strikes you as a professional fighter. Blessed with good looks and impeccable manners, it comes as little surprise that he is a former school teacher. The Brisbane native known as the Hornet is a competent and industrious fighter who has never competed outside Oceania in the professional ranks.

When the fighters met in Brisbane for the customary face off, Horn and Pacquiao smiled at each other warmly and shook hands. This fight cannot be sold on boxing’s stock attractions of malice, ill-feeling, or conventional competitiveness, instead it is being left to the whims of fantasy. Can the unheralded Aussie Horn shock the world and beat the great Pacquiao?

Horn's trainer Glenn Rushton is optimistic that his young fighter can draw Pacquiao into "a torrid war" that will end up in a late stoppage for the young Australian.

Horn’s fighting career has been brief, with 16 fights and a solid conversion rate of 11 knockouts, but his opponents have been largely unknown to all by the most forensic of boxing aficionados.

Horn’s penultimate bout in his hometown of Brisbane was far removed from the expected 50,000 crowd at the Suncorp on Sunday; instead, he fought at a converted badminton and netball arena that holds barely 2,000.

Horn is strong, brave and willing, but he appears to have been miscast as a co-star in a full-blown Hollywood production after barely fulfilling a career in regional repertory theatre.

Major star

Veteran promoter Bob Arum is a man fascinated by fighters and their stories even at 85. Originally a lawyer with little to no interest in boxing, he promoted Muhammad Ali against George Chuvalo in 1966 and has been making fights since.

Arum evidently likes the former Australian schoolteacher on a personal basis, and speaks warmly of his audition under the bright lights with a mainstream fight.

“Win or lose, if Jeff Horn performs well, and I believe he will give an outstanding account of himself, he will end up as a major star in the US because so many eyeballs will have seen him.’’

A promoter as shrewd as Arum understands that in a technical match-up, Horn stands little chance if any against the almost peerless Pacquiao. However, Horn is durable and well-conditioned, regularly sparring up to 30 rounds in his training camps prior to this week in Brisbane.

Arum is selling this fight as a once in a lifetime opportunity for an Aussie battler who has been given a pugilistic lottery ticket. Australian sports fans are notoriously competitive, and are rarely if ever hoodwinked into believing in unlikely sporting miracles.

However, Horn’s appreciable everyman qualities and the rare chance to see a genuine international sporting superstar, albeit a faded one, will keep the turnstiles clicking in Brisbane on Sunday.

Pacquiao arrived in town and has already managed to cause minor offence before a punch was thrown, arriving 45 minutes late, keeping the assembled Queensland dignitaries and Horn sitting idly at their press conference.

The Philippine fighter caused further diplomatic strife when he fiddled on his phone while Horn and his team were speaking. Pacquiao claimed that he was writing his own speech in note form on his phone; Horn quipped that he had put his former students in detention for less.

Freddie Roach has been valued friend and trainer to Pacquiao for many years, with the two sharing a warm and at times telepathic relationship. Roach has been in the fight game for too many years to believe in improbable Rocky Balboa fairytales that reward an ordinary fighter against a decorated champion.

He believes emphatically like the majority of the boxing world that this fight will be “short and sweet”.

Pugilistic permutation

The trainer often competes with many other voices for Pacquiao’s attention, whether it is his Philippine political aspirations or his wider circle of associates that follow the fighter at home or abroad.

However, the fighter and the trainer are happiest when they are in training camp together, hitting pads with the snap of a snare drum. Roach is a man utterly obsessed with boxing, and will have worked out every possible pugilistic permutation that Horn can conjure up on Sunday afternoon in Brisbane.

Neither Roach or Pacquiao will take the Australian lightly, regardless of the form book.

Horn v Pacquiao will be the biggest boxing event in Australia since Jack Johnson fought Tommy Burns at Rushcutter Bay in Sydney in 1908. The fight is taking place on Sunday lunchtime Australian time to accommodate the millions expected to watch on ESPN in the United States without the usual pay-per-view parameters.

Australian sports journalists have had little time, energy or inclination to cover boxing since the 1980s heyday of the former three-weight world champion Jeff Fenech who frequently fought in front of rapturous crowds in Sydney. The arrival of Pacquiao has brought a long overdue modicum of interest in boxing Down Under, but unfortunately it is not expected to last long.

After the ring has been dismantled from the centrefield of Suncorp Stadium on Sunday afternoon, Australian sporting attention will turn once again incessantly to rugby league, and the deciding game three in the State of Origin competition at the same ground.

The battling Horn has a rare opportunity to write himself into Australian immortality against Pacquiao and create a lasting legacy for boxing in his country. Like many fighters before him, he possesses a puncher’s chance, but unfortunately, that is unlikely to carry much weight against a fighter as superior as the effervescent Pacquiao.