Spc. Steven Nelson entered the ring in Salt Lake City last month with a chance to make history.
The Omaha native knew Nebraska had produced only seven National Golden Gloves champions since the boxing tournament began in 1928. He was also aware that Lamont Kirkland was the last to win the coveted amateur title in 1980.
“I had so much to fight for in this,” Nelson said. “I went into the tournament completely focused. And when I won it, it was so overwhelming. I didn't know what emotion to have.”
Yes, Omaha has a national champion again. And it's a fighter with whom the city may not be familiar.
Unlike the previous Gloves champs, Nelson didn't start boxing in Omaha. He said those who knew him in his youth would recall him as the “fat kid” who caused trouble in the streets.
They should see him now.
A need for discipline
In the Army, Nelson says, he found discipline and direction. Three years after walking into a gym at 236 pounds, he's the top 178-pound amateur boxer in America and a true Olympic hopeful.
Growing up, Nelson bounced from home to home in neighborhoods on Omaha's north side.
He never knew his father. His mother struggled with diabetes and the loss of a leg.
From age 5 until he joined the military, Nelson relied on his extended family. Siblings, his grandmother, an aunt and cousins all provided a home for a boy struggling to find his way.
It was always temporary.
“As soon as I would get in trouble or kicked out of school, I would get kicked out of the house,” he said. “I was basically like a foster kid for the family. I was passed around.”
Nelson looked outside of his various homes for acceptance and stability.
“Because I felt like I didn't get that love from my family that I wanted, I tried to get it from my friends,” he said. “I'd start hanging around in the streets with the guys in the neighborhood. And I started getting into more trouble.”
Nelson, who attended Omaha Central, knew he was heading down the wrong path.
He had always been a bright guy. Some in his family have even used the term genius in describing him because he picked up things so quickly — everything from cutting hair to working on cars to drawing tattoos to carpentry. As a youngster, he routinely took things apart to use the pieces to build something else.
Realizing he was wasting his potential, Nelson went to Omaha Bryan, where he graduated a semester early in 2006. In May 2007, he joined the Army.
“I knew I was smarter than the things I was doing in the streets, so I had to find something to discipline me and get me out of Omaha,” he said. “If I'd have stayed, I'd have hit a dead end.”
It didn't take long for Nelson to gain perspective through the military. He was deployed for more than a year in Afghanistan, working in communications with the Army's 7th Special Forces Group.
“Being over there helped me mature a lot. You start to appreciate a lot of things in life,” he said. “I learned a lot about myself.”
Nelson returned in 2009 and came home from Fort Bragg, N.C., for Christmas. While he was in Omaha, some relatives remarked about the return of the weight he had lost during training.
“All my family was talking about how I was starting to get fat again,” he said. “When I came back to North Carolina, I thought, 'I've got to start doing something to stay in shape that would be fun.'”
Nelson went to a local gym to learn how to box. He had never boxed before, other than sparring in Omaha when a kid named Terence Crawford brought gloves to the park.
Nelson's coach, an ex-Army fighter, told him he had natural ability. A month later, in February 2010, Nelson made his amateur boxing debut at super heavyweight weighing 236 pounds.
The Omahan won the bout. His coach then told him about the All-Army boxing program. In January 2011, Nelson entered the All-Army Championships, even though he'd fought only five times previously. Fighting at 201 pounds, he advanced to the finals and finished second.
By that time Nelson was hooked on the sport. A year later, he was back at the All-Army event. This time, however, he cut his weight to 178 pounds, per his coach's request. At light heavyweight, he began to dominate, winning both the All-Army and Armed Forces titles in early 2012.
Later in the year, he fought for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. Nelson lost to veteran Marcus Browne, but he went to the London Games as an alternate and training partner.
“That was the greatest experience I've had in my life so far, going over there and seeing all the different countries unite,” he said. “Even when I started boxing, I never thought I would be at the top elite level where I would ever go to the Olympics.”
By finishing second at the U.S. National Championships in 2012, Nelson qualified for the Army's World Class Athlete Program. Now he's stationed in Fort Carson, Colo., and his military duty is to train to make the U.S. team for the next Olympics in 2016.
Eye on the Olympics
Browne turned pro following the 2012 Olympics, vacating the No. 1 178-pound spot in the U.S.
Nelson ascended to the top of the rankings in January, exactly three years after he had started boxing. And he's solidified his status as the top amateur light heavyweight in the country with a perfect 2013 so far.
He defended his All-Army title and won the U.S. National Championships in Spokane, Wash., before capturing the National Golden Gloves crown. In October, he'll attempt to finish the amateur boxing triple crown at the National Police Athletic League tournament in California.
No boxer has won the U.S. Championships, Golden Gloves and PAL in the same year since 2010.
“He's not going to try to do it. He's going to do it,” said Crawford, a former PAL champion and Golden Gloves runner-up. “There's no doubt about it. That's how much confidence I've got in him.”
Crawford, a world-ranked professional lightweight, was also a top-rated amateur. He fought the best in the nation before turning pro in 2008. And he likes the progress Nelson has made in his short career.
“Sparring with him, he's right there,” Crawford said. “He's worked hard to get where he's at.”
The two fighters are roughly the same age, but their level of experience is different. Crawford, 25, has been boxing since he was 7 years old. Nelson, 24, was already 21 when he walked into that gym in North Carolina. Still, he's built an impressive 33-3 record as an amateur fighter.
Nelson currently has no desire to join Crawford in the pro ranks, although he foresees a day where they could fight under the same professional banner. His focus, right now, is preparing to make a run at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. A pro career would follow.
“I'd be 28, and people have said that's kind of old to go pro,” Nelson said. “You're only old if you make yourself old. I feel younger now than I did when I was 16 or 17 years old.
“I have my plan in place. Winning these tournaments were just the steps going forward to meet that goal.”
Omaha hasn't been a hotbed for boxing, but 2013 may be the year that changes.
Nelson's triumphs at the two most prestigious national amateur tournaments in the U.S. this year coincided with Crawford's move to the forefront of the professional boxing ranks.
Suddenly, the city has two elite boxers.
Nelson hopes Omaha is taking notice. And he wants the youth in the city, especially the neighborhoods in which he and Crawford grew up, to realize that opportunities are out there.
“Our background is almost identical. I'd hang out with Terence growing up. I have seen him grow up to be a pro after the stuff he's been through, the troubled life he had being young and being attracted to the streets,” he said. “Where we lived at, that's all you see around you. A lot of youth around there think that since everybody's doing it, they have to do it.”
Nelson said that he and Crawford would like to change that perception for Omaha. He wants to be the example and become a representative to the youth in his hometown.
“People see where I came from. People knew me as the little bad, fat kid Steven. That's what I was known for before I joined the military and started fighting,” he said. “Just because you were born in that environment, that doesn't mean you have to stay there and do the same things that people around you are doing. You can go out and be something. You can do something. You can get out of that situation and do something positive with yourself.”
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