Trainer Billy Nelson (left) watches lightweight standout Ricky Burns train at The Fighting Scots gym, ahead of the current WBO titleholder’s fight with Michael Katsidis in November of 2011 in Glasgow, Scotland. Photo / Jeff J Mitchell-Getty Images)
The Fighting Scots Gym is pristine in its appearance.
Gleaming yellow walls, state of the art training equipment, perfectly preserved fight posters and a huge television screen are all features of its modern confines. In summer, when Scotland has one, the heat can be oppressive and in the winter the former bowling club morphs into an oversized icebox.
Acclaimed trainer, Billy Nelson, enters the building at 11:00 a.m. and only professionals will be allowed to train for the next three hours. An undefeated middleweight, David Brophy, puts the final touches on his own preparation while WBO lightweight champion, Ricky Burns, sits quietly on the ring apron, wrapping his own hands with a surgeon’s care.
Nelson is preparing Burns for a May 11 mandatory title defense against unbeaten Puerto Rican, Jose “Chelo” Gonzalez, and victory could lead to a unification bout at 135 pounds. Like Burns, Nelson has emerged from the shadows to establish himself as one of the best in his field and, once again, hard work has prevailed.
The 45 year old, who still functions as a residential care worker, has been involved with the best fighters to come out of Scotland in the modern era. He was assistant trainer for former world champions, Scott Harrison and Alex Arthur, before securing his own reputation as Scotland’s most successful, and sought after, boxing coach.
RingTV.com spoke to Nelson about Burns, the danger presented by Jose Gonzalez and other key players at 135 pounds.
Ring TV: Could you give me a brief run down on how you became involved in boxing?
Billy Nelson: I had some knowledge of the sport and a friend of mine was spending time at the Glasgow Transport Gym, which was run by promoter, Tommy Gilmour. Peter Harrison was in charge of training both amateurs and professionals there and I learned from Peter for many years. One day he said his son, Scott, was looking to turn professional and asked me if I would like to be an assistant trainer. I thought it was a great opportunity because I knew Scott had plenty of potential and the rest is history. I received a great education from Peter Harrison and really enjoyed those ten years.
RTV: How did you first become associated with Ricky Burns?
BN: Scott encountered problems in his life and it was clear he would be out of boxing long term. As a result Peter took a job with the Scottish amateurs and there were rules in place which prevented him from working with professionals at the same time. Anyway, I turned up at the gym one day and Peter said that I would now be training all the professionals as head trainer. Around that time Ricky had lost to Carl Johanneson (his last defeat in 2007) and his manager, Alex Morrison, asked if I would be interested in training him. He came to the gym and the first time I took him on the pads I couldn’t believe the speed of his hands and despite some technical flaws there was just something about him. Still, I must be honest I didn’t think he had a world title in him at that time.
RTV: Scott Harrison and Ricky Burns are the two most successful fighters to have come out of Scotland in the modern era. What are the main differences between them as fighters and athletes?
BN: Scott was a featherweight but he would come down from 154 to make 126 powers. Entering the ring he would rehydrate all the way back up to 150 and that meant he had a massive advantage over his opponents. Still, to be fair to Scott, he was a solid fighter and his main strengths were his ring awareness and footwork. He could trouble opponents without punching, apply real pressure and his balance was superb. Ricky was initially all about speed and movement but I got him to sit down on his shots and now his power is way above average for the lightweight division. It’s also the volume of punches that he throws and I have never worked with a fitter, cleaner or more committed fighter in my career. He just loves boxing.
RTV: Burns’ victory over Roman Martinez in September 2010 is shrouded in local legend in Scotland. It introduced Ricky as a world class fighter but what did that win mean to Billy Nelson as a trainer?
BN: Even though I had been involved in ten world title fights with Scott there was still a real sense of achievement because I was the main trainer. Myself and John McGuiness (strength and conditioning coach), who has since tragically passed away, worked hard to get Ricky in the best shape possible and I was responsible for all the tactics. We took Ricky back to basics, brought him through a learning curve with some tough fights, then secured a world title shot. I always knew Ricky had the beating of Martinez because he’s too quick and slick for that type of opponent. Roman was a ferocious puncher but there were serious technical flaws which Ricky exploited to the maximum.
RTV: Burns has gone from strength to strength since he won his first title. In what areas do you feel he has improved most and what have you focused on as his trainer?
BN: We’ve not focused on one department because Ricky has simply improved in every department. His hand speed and body shots are fantastic and he has the best defensive qualities of any fighter in Britain in my opinion. He has just become a complete fight and an all-round top quality professional.
RTV: Jose Gonzalez is up next on May 11. Tell me a bit about him?
BN: Gonzalez is a very capable challenger and he has earned his mandatory position on merit. Technically he’s very good although he can be a little crude at times. Still, regardless of what he has I cannot see anything other than a stoppage for Ricky Burns because tactically we have the perfect game plan.
RTV: Does Ricky have what it takes to cope with a direct hit from the challenger and how do you rate Ricky’s chin and endurance overall?
BN: Ricky has a superb chin and in my opinion Gonzalez doesn’t hit as hard as Martinez. To this day Roman is the hardest puncher Ricky has faced, by a long way, but he still couldn’t get the job done. Katsidis was another hard puncher but it takes more than power to win a fight.
RTV: You select the sparring partners. Who have you had in the gym and what tests are you looking for Ricky to pass in camp?
BN: There are things I know Gonzalez will try. We need a speedy individual who is prepared to throw lots of punches and place real focus on the right hand. We’ve brought in Martin Ward (unbeaten lightweight) who gave Ricky a great spar and Adil Anwar, who is due to fight for the British title imminently. There are some other fighters due to appear and they all have similar qualities.
RTV: Ricky has been in hard training for two contests that failed to materialize. Any concerns about him being over trained or the involuntary lay off which has transpired?
BN: None whatsoever because, like Carl Froch, and a few other top fighters in Britain, Ricky is a consummate professional.
RTV: Adrien Broner vs. Ricky Burns is regarded as the best fight available at lightweight but Broner is heading up to 147 pounds. Do you foresee that fight ever taking place and what are the American’s strengths and weaknesses?
BN: I’d love that fight. Broner is excellent but so is Ricky Burns and there are a lot of fans and media who don’t give him the credit he deserves. The American public will sit up and take notice in 2013 and hopefully the Broner fight gets made. It could even take place at 140 pounds because I believe Ricky will win another world title at that weight class.
RTV: The bout with Miguel Vazquez would have been your first unification fight as a trainer. Were you confident that Ricky would have won that fight and do you still dream of getting to Vazquez?
BN: Vazquez is a very tricky customer and a good fighter but he excels in two areas – he has a terrific jab and sound boxing ability but Ricky can match him there. The major difference is Ricky brings power and strength to the equation and that would have been the deciding factor.
RTV: What do you see in the future for Ricky Burns and for Billy Nelson? What are your goals and aspirations and are you still hungry to achieve in boxing?
BN: I would like Ricky to unify at lightweight, either Vazquez or Abril would be ideal, and then I would like him to move up to 140 pounds. He would be the first Scotsman to win titles in three weight classes so that would be a tremendous achievement. Myself, I still have goals within the sport of boxing and there are exciting times ahead, which may include some work overseas.
Tickets for Ricky Burns vs. Jose Gonzalez can be purchased from www.matchroomboxing.comor by calling 01277 359 900. British fight fans can tune into BoxNation via Sky Channel 437 or Virgin Channel 546. Visit www.boxnation.comto subscribe.
Tom Gray is a member of the British Boxing Writers’ Association and contributes to various publications. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Gray_Boxing