“I knew I had to keep going on”
He went from being a bullied schoolboy in Brisbane to a world champion boxer. But as Jeff Horn tells writer Jordan Baker, it’s family that packs the biggest punch
He went from being a bullied schoolboy in Brisbane to a reigning world boxing champion. Now Jeff Horn reveals to Stellar that when the going gets tough in the ring, it is his family he’ll fight for.
The worst hit came a minute into the ninth round – a counterpunch from one of the world’s greatest boxers, straight to Jeff Horn’s head. His brain began buzzing. His legs began wobbling. His eyesight became blurry, maybe from the blood or maybe from the blow.
But the punch left one person in more pain than Horn: his wife, Jo. To her, the man on the other end of Manny Pacquiao’s fist wasn’t a Brisbane underdog on the verge of an international sporting upset. It was Jeffrey, the boy she met at high school, the guy she began dating at schoolies, the father of her unborn child. “I was frozen,” she tells Stellar. “I was terrified. I was thinking, ‘End the fight, I don’t care, end it, stop it, it doesn’t matter, you’ve done so well.’”
She wasn’t the only person who felt that way; even the ref had to be talked into letting Horn continue. But Horn tells Stellar the fight was won when he sat in the corner after that bruising round. “I remember going through everything that fight meant to me, everything it meant to Jo and our lives, and what I was fighting for,” the 29-year-old says. “I knew I had to keep going on. I wasn’t going to sit down in the corner. My head was sore, but I wasn’t going to give up.”
So he didn’t. He went harder. And when the final bell rang, it was Horn’s hand that was raised in victory, stunning the world. The crowd at Suncorp Stadium went crazy. Back in her seat, Jo dissolved into tears of relief. Those 12 rounds had changed their lives, but Jo wasn’t thinking about that. “It was like, ‘Thank goodness that’s over,’” she says. “He was OK, he was still standing. You don’t even really think k about if he wins or loses – the main thing ng is if he is OK at the end of the fight.”
Nine years ago, before he’d ever had a fight, Horn sat down with his coach andd drew up a plan. Olympics in 2012. Tick. World champion. Tick. Next on his to-do o list: become undisputed champion of the welterweight class. He only has six years to achieve that, because the last point on the list is to hang up his gloves at age 35 with his brain intact.
As proud as she is of her husband’s achievements, Jo is looking forward to that particular birthday. “You are stressing that one wrong punch will change our lives – and not for the better,” ,” she says. “That’s always there. At that point I won’t have to worry so much anymore, and I will know he has done what he wants to do.”
IN EARLY APRIL 2006, when he was justt 18, Horn pulled up outside the boxing gym run by trainer Glenn Rushton. Even n as a novice, he knew the space was out of the ordinary. The gym sits in the wing of Rushton’s sprawling mansion in Brisbane, which is dubbed the Dolphin n House because of an enormous fountain with four stone dolphins coming out of it. It’s less a house than a palace, really; there are seven bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a pool and a Star Wars- themed games room.
Rushton is no ordinary trainer, either. He’s a martial arts aficionado, a property developer, and an investment manager. Above everything, though, he is a dreamer. He left home at 14 with $20 in his pocket and dreamed his way to the $10 million mansion. He nicknames his gym The House of Dreams.
Rushton remembers that night vividly. Horn, then a teaching student, “looked like George GeorgemcflyMcfly from Back To The Future, with a KICK ME sign on his back,” he tells Stellar. “He looked like the sort of kid other people would pick on. He was soft, just soft.”
Rushton was right. Brisbane’s Macgregor State High School could make for a tough environment, and Horn, who is a sweet-natured, gentle guy at heart, had been a popular target for the bullies. He would be kneed in the stomach during soccer practice and cop blows to the head that he didn’t see coming. After school one day when he was 15, he and a mate found themselves surrounded by 30 thugs. His friend never went back. Sometimes he would spend his
lunch hour in the library, hiding. In his darkest moments, he thought about suicide. “I remember thinking the situation was crap, and wondering if it was even worth going on,” says Horn, who opens up about those years in his new memoir The Hornet: My Journey From Bullied Schoolboy To World Champion. “I had thoughts about it, but was never going to do something.”
It was self-defence that prompted Horn to try Rushton’s gym, and in the pale-faced, clean-cut and sometimes cheeky young man, Rushton spotted potential. He also saw a competitive spirit, resilience – and a boxer’s calves. But at first, Rushton thought Horn was just there for fun. He was wrong; Horn was at a crossroads. He had always dreamed of being a professional sportsman but wasn’t breaking into the top grades in soccer, so he was thinking about having a crack at rugby league.
Horn asked Rushton for advice, and was surprised by the reply: “I believe that if you put your heart and your mind into boxing, I can get you into the Olympic Games in four years’ time. Then if you follow my plan, within four years after that, you’ll be world champion. And if the plan goes to what I have in mind for you, you’ll retire in your mid-30s a very wealthy man.”
Horn discussed it with Jo. She had her reservations about the sport, and “thought [boxers] were idiots, boofheads”. She was a bit sceptical about this Olympics business, too. “I was like, really?!” Still, if it was what he wanted to do…, she reckoned. So Horn went back to Rushton and said he was interested in buying into the dream.
“I remember wondering if it was worth going on”
None of this was on the cards when romance sparked between Horn and Jo Buckley towards the end of Year 12. “At first he was just my mate,” she says. “Then, getting to know his personality and how funny it was, I was like, ‘I think I like this guy.’ He likes to make people laugh, he likes to crack jokes. And unfortunately I laugh at those jokes, which just encourages him.”
The friendship turned into something more at an 18th birthday party, when they pashed in a pool. They flirted over MSN Messenger, but on that ancient socialmedia platform one could never be sure they were talking to the right person. To determine whether the MSN feelings would be reciprocated in real life, they resolved to shake hands when they saw each other at school the next day.
Shake they did, and they married in 2014. Their first baby is due in early January. Jo thought she was marrying a future school teacher and soccer enthusiast, not a fighter. The boxing career crept up on her as Horn’s casual exerciseexerci sessions became more serious, and th the more she understood the sport, the m more she realised there was more to it th than brutality. She also realised that Je Jeffrey, as she calls him, was very good ata it. “Every fight he progressed higherhighe and higher, and it was like, gosh, we’re getting up there.”
She also knows the sport is their ticket to financial security, although that was cold comfort when her husband stepped into the ring earlier this year with the legendary Pacquiao, winner of 11 world titles. “When I was talking to him about [the Pacquiao fight], he was like, this will really change our lives, really help us,” she says. “When we were talking, I was like, ‘This is exciting!’ But when he was in the ring, I couldn’t care less. It doesn’t even enter your mind.”
Since his win, their lives have changed, although Horn still has lunch at the same Brisbane cafe where he is meeting with Stellar. Before July 2, he was just a regular. Now he’s the resident celebrity. “Is that Jeff Horn?” a customer whispers to the waiter as a teenage boy asks for a selfie. As boxers go, his fan base is surprisingly broad; even grandmothers love him. “Jeff has really broken through to women and families,” says his father, Jeff Horn Snr. Maybe it’s his clean-cut look, or the fact he was a casual teacher and after-school carer in the pre-pacquiao days, reading The Cat In The Hat in the morning and dolling out uppercuts at night.
Horn admits he finds fame strange. “I spent my afterparty taking selfies with people I see every day,” he reveals. “I’d say, ‘Why do you want a photo? You’ll see me tomorrow.’” In the weeks after the fight he would stay home a lot because, Jo says, “we’d go out to get a bit of food and it took much longer than it should have”. She insists they don’t mind: “Unless we have to be somewhere, it’s nice.” One day they might end up with their own Dolphin House, but those riches are still a while away; despite her husband’s success, Jo still works at a recruitment firm.
Horn’s immediate future inside the ring is unclear. Next on the to-do list is to “unify the belt”, which means winning the welterweight title in all four of the sport’s governing bodies. In December, he’ll take on England’s Gary Corcoran at the Brisbane Convention Centre.
In the meantime, he’s continuing to reap the fruits of his faith. This month he became the first boxer to win The Don Award at the annual Sport Australia Hall of Fame function, for being the most inspiring athlete of 2017.
Horn says family remains his biggest motivator. He is driven to succeed for Jo, his unborn child, his parents, his three siblings and Rushton, who he describes as a second father. He also intends to keep his promise to hang up the gloves at 35. Horn might be the pin-up boy of Australian boxing, but he is well aware of the sport’s dangers, and even now avoids knocks to the head unless he is in an official fight.
“I’ve been hit a lot of times; a lot of times I’ve been buzzed by shots,” he says. “I don’t want to get to the point where there is something mentally wrong with me because of boxing. It all won’t be worth it to me if that happens.” The Hornet by Jeff Horn and Grantlee Kieza (ABC Books, $39.99) is out tomorrow.
“Jeff has really broken through to women and families”
JEFF Richards WEARS & Richards tie, and pocket shoes (worn square Bresciani socks (worn throughout), all richardsand his own wedding ring
TOP (from OF top THE left) WORLD Boxing champ Jeff Horn celebrates his win against Manny Pacqpacquiaoiao after their WBO welterweight elter eight and wife Jo at the annual Sport Australia Hall of Fame event this month where he won the Don Award for...
JEFF WEARS (right) Isaia coat, jeans, pocket square and belt; Richards & Richards shirt, all richardsandrichards. com.au; (below) Richards & Richards suit and shirt; Isaia tie, all richardsand richards.com.au
GREAT EXPECTATIONS (below) Horn and Jo are delighted to be welcoming their first child in January.