Jeff Horn woke on Monday unable to see a thing from his swollen, bruised right eye, but having vanquished Manny Pacquiao in one of Australian sport’s greatest underdog victories, boxing’s unlikeliest world champion will now watch his life’s fortunes transform dramatically. The former Brisbane schoolteacher, who had only twice boxed for prize purses of five-figure proportions, is now the millionaire poster boy for a sport craving a wholesome hero.
Horn has quickly and predictably been dubbed the Australian Rocky. Though his actual nickname, The Hornet, alludes glancingly to the world of superhero fiction, his famous victory in front of an Australian record boxing crowd at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday surprised even his most ardent admirers – the people who knew of the thousands of hours of punishing training sessions, and the years of relentless physical and financial toil required just to get Horn into the ring for his one big shot.
That nothing at all pointed to a victory for the humble, hard-working Australian will only add to its lustre in years to come, but in truth, the classic warning signs of a boilover were there from the start too: a brilliant champion taking his diligent challenger too lightly; the exuberance of youth overcoming the battle-weary old stager; an underdog lifted to new and unprecedented heights by a parochial home crowd.
Like all great overnight sensations of boxing, Horn’s success has resulted from years of hard graft – first to fight for his country in the 2012 Olympics, and since turning pro, the 17-fight undefeated run that put him in the frame for his first great pay day against Pacquiao. Perhaps Horn will not remain a household name around the world for very long, but his sheer Queenslanderness (training sessions in an investment-guru-turned-boxing-trainer’s salmon-pink mansion in suburban Stretton, you say?) has made this moment particularly sweet in his home state.
Horn is now a cane toad sporting hero to rank with Allan Border, Greg Norman, Wally Lewis and Johnathan Thurston, or at the very least jockeying with battlers like Steven Bradbury for the cult classic slot. Before the Pacquiao bout, the Euphoric Queensland Memes page ran a headline that summed up the contender’s down-to-earth charm: “Jeff Horn begins pre-fight ritual by drinking large glass of Brisbane River water.” In that city at least, he’s unlikely to have to buy himself a beer for the rest of his life.
It has not come without bitterness. There are those who feel the Australian, regardless of his pluck and spirit, might have been fortunate with the judges who scored his points win. Fox Sports boxing commentator Paul Upham is not among them. “People say Manny Pacquiao did enough to win. I don’t want to hear that,” Upham tells Guardian Australia. “Tell me in rounds. Round by round, how many did you score for Pacquiao and how many for Horn?
“Show me yesterday where Manny Pacquiao won seven rounds. He didn’t win seven rounds. He could have won the fight in the ninth round, but there is no way he won seven rounds. People say the scoring was controversial. It wasn’t.”
This is also a victory over stereotypes. For so long Australian fighters have begged for major bouts like this one and been overawed when their moment finally arrived. Not so Horn, who had one of the greatest pound-for-pound fighters in the world flustered and bleeding from the early rounds. A common theme of the reaction to the result is that Pacquaio didn’t respect his opponent enough, but what telling disrespect of reputation it took from the Australian too, refusing to allow himself a single moment’s hesitation.
What is certain is that when the rematch does occur (and that will be at Pacquiao’s whim, because the boxing great will need to fit it in with his senatorial commitments in the Philippines), Pacquiao will be far better prepared, perhaps having relieved himself of the hangers-on who treated this first fight like it would be a walk in the park.
Yet Horn retains a serious chance to repeat his remarkable feat and move his career into new realms. One of the major question marks heading into this first fight was whether the underdog could step up from beating B-grade fighters to matching it with A-grade ones, albeit of the veteran class. Having done it once, it is not inconceivable he could do it again.
Regardless of the outcome of the rematch, Horn’s life is transformed. He’ll pocket $1m for this first win – possibly paying off his $300,000 mortgage in the process – then net $2m or more for the rematch; small change next to the eight-figure windfalls of his opponent but an entirely different life compared to his bare bones existence as an amateur. If he beats Pacquiao again, unification bouts await. Only when he holds all three belts will he be considered an undisputed champion of the world.
“It’s changed his life forever,” says Paul Upham. “It’ll never be the same again, but I don’t think he’s a guy we’ll see with fast cars and lots of toys. Jeff will be just fine. He’s very humble. But regardless of what he does for the rest of his career, he’ll always have this. To see those scenes at the end of the fight. Wow. It’s just a once in a lifetime dream, isn’t it?”
Whether this transforms boxing’s image in Australia also remains to be seen, but it now has the respectable star it has been crying out for, plus rare real estate on the front and back pages of newspapers and the lead slot on TV news bulletins. Horn, on the other hand, is faced with the boxer’s perennial dilemma: it is one thing to become world champion, quite another to stay on top.