To sir, with gloves
A softly spoken high-school teacher inspires his students by being a brilliant boxer. Now he’s fighting Manny Pacquiao.
THE WEEKEND AUSTRALIAN MAGAZINE, JANUARY 28-29, 2017
STORY: TRENT DALTON | PHOTOGRAPHY: KENNY SMITH | VIDEO: ALEXANDRA CAMERON
Here is the House of Dreams and here are the dreamers, a dozen young boxers pounding bags and pads, dreaming in sleeveless shirts and boxing shoes with big socks and strapping around their ankles and fists, the sweat running down tattooed shoulders and biceps that bulge in the way fat pumpkins bulge in the country, where some of these dreamers are from, where some of them will return to, too, when it’s time to snap out of it, to wake up, but until then...
“Hold the dream,” whispers Glenn Rushton, master of the House. If you’re so tired you’d sooner die than fight through round 10, hold the dream. Bang. Bang. If you’re so poor you’re eating Weet-Bix and bananas for breakfast, lunch and dinner, hold the dream. Thump. Thump. When they tell you you’re dumb, when they tell you you’re nuthin’, when they tell you you’re dreaming. “Hold the dream,” he whispers again.
And here is Mr Horn, by the boxing ring, in a quiet corner with a noisy punching bag the size and weight of a Daintree log, a bag pounded so relentlessly one starts to feel sorry for it. Mr Horn is a teacher. He does relief teaching at high schools across south-east Queensland. Bang. Bang. Mr Horn is the guy with the gentle manner and the choirboy face teaching kids how to read and write, where to place the Philippines on a world map, showing them the wonders of the English language and why the “u” will always come after the “q” in the phrase “unbeatable welterweight champion of the world, Manny Pacquiao”. Mr Horn, with the gentle voice from a gentle soul from the gentle river where men like him belong, eyes raised to the sky wondering why there are so many songs about rainbows. Thump. Thump.
“Every round on the bag, hold the dream,” whispers Rushton. “Don’t lose sight of what we set out to do 10 years ago. Hold the dream.
Mr Horn leaves the bag and slips under the ring ropes, sidesteps and shuffles across the canvas in a blur, throwing a series of uppercuts so quick you’d swear he spent his teens in a hardware store shaking paint cans. And he’s lost in the dream. So deep down inside of it you wonder if he’ll ever climb back out again. He is machinery. He is the chain reaction inside a nuclear bomb. He is chaos. Shuffling, stepping, shuddering, shaking, dancing. “He gets in the ring and he’s in a trance,” Rushton says. “Outside the ring, he’s the most mild-mannered guy you’ve ever met. When he gets in the ring he becomes The Hornet.
Nervy journalist Clark Kent transforms into Superman. Nerdy photographer Peter Parker transforms into Spider-Man. Gentle schoolteacher Mr Horn transforms into Jeff “The Hornet” Horn, the World Boxing Organisation’s number-two ranked welterweight, the 28-year-old fighter who has beaten 10 top-15 ranked opponents in a professional boxing career only three years old. The 2012 Olympian who on this day in the House of Dreams is hoping to secure the biggest fight in Australian boxing history. Jeff Horn versus Manny Pacquiao, the 38-year-old Filipino named “Fighter of the Decade” for the 2000s, the only boxer in history to win world titles in eight weight divisions.
The Hornet shakes and shimmies, virtually convulses, as he rushes into an invisible opponent, a muscle-bound and moustachioed Pacquiao weighed down in the ring by his eight world-title belts. The Hornet’s always adjusting his rhythm, never angling in where you think he’s going to angle in, throwing lefts when you think he’s going to throw rights, so busy with his limbs your aching ringside brain can’t fix on a point of study.
“I developed the style many years ago,” says Rushton, 59. “I call it a ‘Broken Rhythm Pressure’ style. It’s built on chaos theory. I’m coming at you but you don’t know what I’m going to throw and you’ll never know what I’m gonna throw.” His hands form fists and his shoulders move and his legs wobble and his head shakes from side to side. “You don’t know when I’m comin’, you don’t know what I’m throwin’. You don’t know which way I’m comin’ in, you won’t know which way I’ll go out.
“There is a rhythm to it. You just can’t work it out. You won’t know it because, in fact, I don’t even know it. I’m just programmed to do so many things, programmed to adjust. The art of deception. Completely unpredictable but there’s a pattern there. A drop of water in a lake.
Chaos theory. The branch of mathematics focusing on complex systems whose behaviour is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions, so that small alterations can give rise to great consequences.
A 12-year-old boy in a beat-up bedroom in a broken home in Townsville, north Queensland, 1969. He’s reading a book called Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill. The boy sits up in his bed with a profound realisation. “I’m a rich man,” he says to himself. “I’ve just been born in a poor man’s body.” A small alteration in Glenn Rushton’s boyish thinking.
He leaves home at 14 with $20 in his pocket, picks fruit across the Australian east coast, puts his money into martial-arts training, learns from the great Bob Jones, former bodyguard to the Beatles, Elvis and the Stones. He wins five national martial-arts titles. He builds his own martial-arts and boxing schools and he reads more financial books, hundreds of them. He completes a Graduate Diploma in Applied Finance and Investment. He starts a property development business, authors two business and finance books of his own, moves into investment management, becomes a very rich man in a very rich man’s body.
In 2003, he builds a $10 million baroque-style mansion in Stretton, in Brisbane’s south. The mauve, gold and cream-coloured mansion has seven bedrooms with en suites, nine bathrooms, an indoor squash court, a recording studio, lap pool, swim-up bar, tennis court, a front courtyard fountain with four stone dolphins bursting out of it with joy, and a full-size boxing gymnasium he nicknames The House of Dreams. Because the dream was bigger than his boyhood broken home, bigger than his fists, bigger than his sharp mind, bigger than his fear.
In 2006, he finds a young man pounding a punching bag so relentlessly, he starts to feel sorry for it. He studies the young man for a moment, a quiet bloke, well-mannered, gentle. He has a boxer’s legs, not just quick but efficient. He’s got a boxer’s jaw, stony and full, and a cannon jab. Rushton wants to know just one thing about this young man. “What do you believe?"
The young man shrugs his shoulders, confused, unsure of himself. So Rushton tells him what he believes. “I believe you’ll go to the Olympic Games,” he predicts. The young man laughs.
“I see you fighting at Suncorp Stadium in front of 50,000 people,” Rushton says.
“Mate, I’ll be lucky to get 600 people at the Mansfield Tavern,” the young man says.
“I don’t just see you becoming world champion,” Rushton tells the young Jeff Horn. “I see you becoming a legend.”
January 6, a rainy Friday on the manicured, deep green grounds of Suncorp Stadium. A dozen journalists gather around seasoned Australian sports manager Jim Banaghan, who’s with Horn’s promotions team Duco Events. “It’s very good news,” Banaghan announces. “[Manny Pacquiao’s promoter] Bob Arum has nominated Jeff Horn as a potential fighter for Manny Pacquiao.” It will be the greatest fight in Australian history, Banaghan says, televised in 159 countries, with the Brisbane stadium the preferred venue. This is the hard sell. Get the nation’s media on board, get the nation on board, get Pacquiao on board.
Horn fronts the press. “To land this fight would be amazing,” he says. “A dream come true.”
“Jeff, can you beat Pacquiao?”
“I think so.”
“Any danger it might be coming too soon, Jeff, 16 or 17 fights down? Would you like a few more before you faced an opponent like Pacquiao?”
“Look, you could say that at any point, is it the right time? I think now is the right time.” The cameras roll out, journalists rush back to their offices.
Horn walks closer to the centre of the Suncorp Stadium ground, a place sacred to a once-promising rugby league player who was too small to carry on to the big leagues. He looks out, sees a boxing ring that hasn’t been built yet, he and Pacquiao side-stepping in circles inside it, 50,000 Australians screaming their names. “Imagine it,” he says. “It’s life-changing in every way.”
He’s built a life for himself and his wife, Jo, out of relief-teacher wages supplemented by professional fight purses that, not so long ago, were as low as $2000. “You’d get paid very little for a professional fight,” he says. “Sometimes you’re getting a couple of thousand, maybe, max, for a fight that takes you weeks and weeks to prepare for.” He breathes deep. “I’ll probably be a millionaire after the Pacquiao fight,” he says, softly. “That blows my mind.”
Everything Glenn Rushton saw 10 years ago has so far come true. Horn had his first fight in the Acacia Ridge Hotel in Brisbane’s south, not far from the home he shares with Jo today; he beat a guy in 90 seconds. He’s so polite and respectful he doesn’t brag about knocking men out. “I stopped him,” he says, softly. “Yeah, I stopped him, too,” he says later.
In only his second amateur ring fight, Rushton dropped Horn into the Queensland state titles. He fought twice that night, vomited up a packet of Twisties after his first, became state champion after his second. “I walked in there and they were like, ‘You’ve had one fight, are you sure you want to fight state titles?’ From the very beginning it’s been like this. It’s been taking massive jumps and that’s where I get my calmness from. I’ve been jumping up with every fight throughout my career and I’m used to high-pressure situations. Manny Pacquiao is just another massive jump.
Horn made the 2012 Olympic boxing quarter finals while juggling study for his education degree. He’s been the underdog in every professional fight he’s had since. And he stopped them all. Unbeatable Randall Bailey, stopped in the seventh. Fierce Rico Mueller, TKO in the ninth. South Africa’s Ali Funeka, TKO in the sixth. All Rushton has ever asked of him is to believe the dream. “There’s no great people,” Rushton keeps telling him. “There’s just ordinary people with great dreams.”
The dream is so close now that Horn can see it, too. He sees it all. He’ll be beneath the stadium in a dressing room and Rushton will be with him, strapping his hands. “OK, mate,” he’ll say. “Start raising your awareness.” That means put on your game face, start operating on all senses. “Two hunters,” Rushton says. “This won’t be a cat and mouse game. This is a cat and cat game. No mice in this one. No one runnin’ from no one.”
In the dressing room they’ll go over the fight plan, the ways Rushton knows to beat Pacquiao but won’t reveal. “Adaptation,” Rushton says. “The ability to make rapid changes. Shut that down, negate that, change the range, fight it closer in, fight it further away, adapt.” Pacquiao has the scorpion in him, like Horn has the scorpion in him. “The creature can survive almost anything,” Rushton says. “You find them in oceans, on top of mountains in the freezing cold. The hottest deserts. They find them in books that have been closed for six months. If we get out there with Pacquiao and something’s not working, we will adapt.”
Before Horn walks out to meet his fate, Rushton will look at The Hornet and smile because he loves him like his own son and, win or lose, he knows in 20 years’ time they’ll talk about this moment. You enter and exit this world with nothing, but the something of it all is the ability to turn to a mate and say, “What a ball that bit in the middle was.”
“You’re gonna be a long time retired, Jeff,” Rushton will say. “No stage fright because this is our stage. This is exactly where we want to be.” He’ll tighten the laces on The Hornet’s gloves. “Livin’ the dream,” he’ll say.
And The Hornet will walk to that ring with 50,000 people calling his name. He’ll slip inside the ropes and his hero will meet him in the centre of the canvas. And the bell, like the boxers, will do the only thing it’s meant to do.
Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding. The 3pm bell rings in Jeff Horn’s final year at MacGregor State High School, in Brisbane’s south. All he’s thinking about is the bump, an accidental minor collision his friend had earlier in the day with one of the area’s more renowned toughs. It was the smallest of alterations, with a big reaction: the local boy exploded with a flurry of pushes and threats.
Jeff has been a victim of bullying throughout his school life and he’s never really known why. The same two or three bullies have followed him from primary school, with the same taunts. “You’re gay,” they barked when he was a boy. Why? Because I’m quiet? Because I play board games in the library at lunchtime? Because I read books? Because I’m softly spoken?
He once took a random and unprovoked schoolyard coward punch flush in the side of his face. All he remembered was spinning while one of his regular bullies pummelled his face. His mum, Liza Dykstra, the woman who spends her days working in the office of the St Vincent de Paul Society’s emergency relief department, she with the heart the size of Muhammad Ali’s right boxing glove, would find her son in his bedroom crying quietly to himself. “Why?” he would ask his mum, and she had no response beyond her comforting arms.
On this day he inserted himself between the local tough and his friend, broke up the escalating scrap. “I’m gonna get you guys after school,” the tough warned. “No worries,” Jeff said to his friend, confidently. “We’re going home a different way today, anyway.”
But now the 3pm bell has rung he’s not so confident. The tough finds Jeff and his friend on their way home. He’s brought some friends, a gang of about 30 local louts, some from school, many from the neighbourhood who left after Grade 10. The gang circles the two boys. “Get down on your knees,” the tough demands.
In the centre of the circle, Jeff watches his friend reluctantly fall to his knees. Jeff stands, stares into the eyes of the bully. “No,” he says.
The bully repeats his demands: “Get down on your knees and say sorry.”
“No,” Jeff says. “I’m not doing that.”
The local tough is furious, so bereft of ideas that the best he can summon is a hard slap in the face for Jeff and his friend. The gang moves on and Jeff is angry and sick in the stomach and frustrated, and still standing.
Later, in an effort to improve his self-defence skills, he follows his cousin to a boxing gymnasium attached to a sprawling mansion in Stretton. The gym’s owner finds him punching in a quiet corner. The owner only wants to know one thing about him. “What do you believe?”
Mr Horn is building an in-ground swimming pool in the back of his home in Acacia Ridge. The pool company recently had a crane lift the hulking 800kg pool body over his house. The miraculous sight drew neighbours out of their homes. Some remarked on what such a feat would cost a humble high-school relief teacher. “What do you do again?” they asked. He explained that his full-time job was now being the second-best welterweight boxer in the world, ranked just behind the man he’s hoping to fight next, Manny Pacquiao. “Whaaaaaat?” the neighbours howled.
“Everyone from my high school right now must be thinking, ‘How is he a fighter?’” Jeff says, sitting in his lounge room beneath a collection of wall-mounted photographs of the day he married his high-school sweetheart, who sits on his left. Jo has been watching the Golden Globes on telly. Their dog, Lexie, rests at his feet.
Mr Horn’s idea of a thrilling Saturday night is a game of Monopoly where Mayfair is still up for grabs. He likes role-playing games. He likes a board game called Settlers of Catan where players establish a colony on a fictional island. They progress through the game by spending resources of brick, lumber, wool, grain and ore. Manny Pacquiao does not play Settlers of Catan.
Students sometimes Google Mr Horn’s name in class. Kids do that, background check a relief teacher in the hope of finding some salacious scandal they can spread around the class.
“You went to the Olympics!” the students bark. “You beat the ‘KO King’, Randall Bailey!”
“Everybody’s like that,” Jo says. “My parents were always like that. Everybody was like, ‘Awww, there’s Jeffrey, that’s the nice young man my daughter likes. He’s the boy we play 500 with.’ Then they see him beat up someone in the ring and they’re like, ‘Oh. My. God!’”
Mr Horn believes in learning. Rushton calls it his greatest weapon: his devotion to education, his ability to listen and learn about a fighter. “One of the things I like about Jeff is he comes from good stock,” he says. “He doesn’t have a lot of the mental baggage that a lot of the guys I get in have, myself included. Jeff came to me like a clean slate that I could program from the get-go. The best guys have never thrown a punch before. We program a plan and he executes it.
The students searching for Jeff “The Hornet” Horn on YouTube find a dizzying montage of the relief teacher’s sickening right hooks, a series of floppy heads dropping to the canvas. They learn something in this moment about defying expectation, about believing anything is possible.
“That’s amazing to me,” Jeff says. That moment is as much a driver in the ring as the faces of those bullies from his boyhood; as much as the countless people who tell him he’s only a far outside chance to beat Pacquiao. A pawn in Pac Man’s grand plans.
“Fuel,” he says. “That’s all fuel to me.” He has a refusal deep within him. “No, I’m not doing that,” he said to that bully in his senior school year.
“They told him to kneel to the ground but he didn’t,” says his mum. “I was very upset but I was proud of him for standing up for himself. He always said to me, ‘I’m happy that I didn’t get on my knees’.”
Jeff’s dad, also named Jeff, is a builder. Neither he nor Liza wanted their son to box.
“He’s a pure gentleman,” Liza says. “He’s quiet. You have to drag things out of him. He’s never been a problem to me. Never, ever, ever in his life. Just a beautiful, beautiful nature. I tried very hard to talk him out of boxing. I used to speak to him with the voice boxers get after they’ve had too many fights. I’d put on a voice and he’d tell me to be quiet. I really did try everything to get him to stop. But he sat down with me one day and he said, ‘You know, Mum, it doesn’t matter what you say, I am going to do it’. I knew then that I’d support him all the way because he wasn’t going to stop.”
In his living room, Jeff dwells for a moment on that confrontation after school. “I can remember the names of the kids that did it,” he says. “But I also understand them now. I’m a teacher. I see it all the time. I know those bullies can be good kids as well so I don’t think anything bad of these guys now. I know there’s so much layered in that for it to happen. And it’s not just parents. It’s everything. It’s who they’re hanging out with and what they’re watching on TV and all these things that might add up to someone taking it out on me. In a way, I guess I have to thank those guys.”
January 11, a sweltering Wednesday in the second-floor function room of Brisbane’s grand riverside pub, the Regatta Hotel. Some 30 journalists and photographers and camera operators are facing a table occupied by The Hornet, his fearless coach Glenn Rushton and their tireless promotions point man Jim Banaghan seated in the centre. “We’ve got some wonderfully exciting news to announce,” Banaghan says into a microphone. “Today, we have confirmed that Australia’s welterweight sensation and WBO number two, Jeff Horn, has become the number-one contender to fight welterweight champion Manny Pacquiao in either Australia, the Middle East or the USA, in April.”
The dream is here. The fight venue is yet to be decided, but the fight of Jeff Horn’s life is most assuredly on. The Hornet beams at the attending media. Jo’s in the crowd, seated beside Liza, a daffodil clip in her hair. Behind his mum are his grandparents, Jack and Marie. Jack’s wiping tears from his eyes.
Liza’s thoughts go to Dionisia Dapidran-Pacquiao. Liza finds these big fights unbearable. Every punch her beloved son receives she feels at the centre of her charitable heart. Every punch he lands makes her think of the recipient’s mother. She wonders if Manny Pacquiao’s mum is as nervous about the fight as she is. “He’s got a family, too,” she says.
Journalists and photographers swamp Horn for comment. Outside the function room, two young men watch the event unfold through a small window in the door. When the media scrum disperses, Horn slips out into a space by the stairs. He approaches the pair. “Brisbane State High,” he says. The boys smile proudly, nodding their heads. Their names are Louis Haverty and Paul Falso, both 18. Two years ago, Mr Horn was a relief teacher for their Year 11 class.
“He didn’t come across as a boxer,” Louis says. “He just came across as an ordinary bloke. We looked him up on YouTube… We watched some of his brutal ends to fights and we thought, ‘Shit, this guy’s gonna do some real amazing things’. We’ve been fans ever since. Now he’s climbed up the ranks and rightfully so. But he’s never stopped being respectful in a sport that’s all about intimidation and fear. He’s been a good role model for me.
Mr Horn is visibly touched that the boys took time to see their old teacher. He wants to know about their lives. They tell him about their jobs. Paul’s an electrician and Louis is starting up a small business with a school mate. The boys have big plans for the future, big dreams. Mr Horn has convinced them anything is possible. He has taught them to believe.
Banaghan opens the function-room door. Horn is wanted urgently for photos. “Yep, just a second,” he says, shuffling past Banaghan back to the media scrum to find Jo. She follows him back out the door to take an iPhone photo of him flanked by his former students. He wants to capture this moment.
The Hornet might be an outside chance against the great Manny Pacquiao. But Mr Horn has already won.