Born: December 26, 1936
What others see first and respect most about Denny Nelson is the unaffected humility, his ability to wear pride as an undergarment as opposed to a loud dinner jacket. Unless he speaks, you might not know he is in the same room.
Therein lays one of his greatest strengths as a referee of international note _ the ability to disappear during a prizefight unless needed, the ability to become the invisible third man in the ring, a quality not shared by all of his countless colleagues in this ancient sport he serves so well.
He is as comfortable in the ring as he is his own living room, and that quality has not gone unnoticed by the men who oversee boxing bodies.
“He worked many years to hone his craft,” said IBF president Daryl Peoples. “He looks like he belongs in the ring; he’s comfortable. Very rarely I have seen him out of position in the ring. He’s worked on the big stage for a long time and has done an excellent job. Fighters respect him. There are guys who like to be on top of the action, but Denny never injects himself into a fight unless he has to.”
That ability serves him well as a referee but enables him to study the action also, to study the men he is overseeing, and to observe their strengths and weaknesses. Consequently, he can offer this observation on what separates the good from the great:
“If you can punch hard and box, too, you might make the top 10 (in a given weight division),” Nelson said. “If you’re going to make the top five, you have to box, punch hard and be able to take it, too. You have to be able to come back after getting hurt. There is a difference, too, among the elite between simply throwing a hard punch and punching like you mean it.”
Nelson’s wife, Marlys, had to stop for a moment as she tried to number the years they have been married. “I can’t count that far any longer,” she offered before settling on 57. Her mind was put at ease when reminded that the only requirement applied to her husband during much of that time was the ability to count as high as ten.
She, too, has seen a humble quality in her partner of nearly six decades; a man so entirely devoted to family members _ especially his children: Gary, Denny, Jackie, Mark and Curt _ and their needs that they seldom hear him speak of his many accomplishments in the sport of boxing.
Yet, behind that reticence, there have been many.
Nelson was a natural selection to the Minnesota Boxing Hall of Fame based on a history that spans several areas of the sport. Drawn to the game itself as a youngster, by an older brother who did not himself box, Nelson quickly exhibited a love and skill for the sport. As a young man he won boxing titles in three Upper Midwest Golden Gloves tournaments and represented this area of the nation twice in national tournaments that followed.
Then, during a brief professional career, he was undefeated in seven fights, something he rarely conveys to a listener unless pressed for the facts and even then hesitantly.
Make no mistake, however, it is self-pride he eschews not pride in craftsmanship or the effort he extends to a project.
His accomplishments as one of two participants in a prizefight are overshadowed by what he has done as an overseer of that contest, as a referee who has handled hundreds of amateur bouts and nearly as many on a professional level, including a significant number for world titles.
Nelson’s contributions to boxing are at all levels. He was director of the St. Paul Golden Gloves program from 1979 through 1980 and a deputy boxing commissioner from 1980 through 1990. He also worked as a trainer from 1961 through 1965. He began judging and officiating amateur and professional fights in 1967. It is that aspect of his career that has produced some of his grandest moments in the ring.
He is the first international referee from Minnesota and has traveled to countries around the globe judging and refereeing world title fights, 80 in all from the United States, to Canada, Europe, South America, South Africa and Asia.
That extensive list took root in his hometown of St. Paul where he was the third man in the ring for the Ken Norton-Jose Garcia televised heavyweight elimination bout in 1975. Five years later he was a judge for the WBC title bout between Saoul Mamby and Esteban DeJesus at the Met Sports Center in Bloomington.
His career took flight in 1985 when he was selected to referee the Soon Chung Kwon versus Chang Kwan Jung IBF title fight in Korea. Thereafter he became a globe trotter for the WBA, IBF AND WBO.
His toughest fight?
“Oh, the toughest one physically was Raul Garcia and Rodney Bobick,” Nelson said. “Those guys weighed 250 pounds apiece and after a few rounds I was tired from constantly pulling them apart.”
“Oh, Johnny Tapia,” he said. “He always came to fight. The (Gary) Holmgren-(Brian) Brunette fight was exciting, too. So close that I had it a draw.”
The biggest surprise Nelson recalls referring was the James Toney-Michael Nunn match in 1991. Nunn dominated Toney for 10 rounds but Toney stopped him in the 11th in perhaps boxing’s biggest upset that year.
Nelson was the referee for a George Foreman fight in the Twin Cities before Foreman was champion. “And I was a judge for a Larry Holmes fight after he was champion,” he recalled. He has either refereed or judged title fights involving Felix Trinidad, Buster Mathis, Joe Calzaghe and Miguel Cotto among so very many others.
He and his son, Mark, also an international referee and judge, were and/or are the only active father-son team in the sport.
Anyone familiar with boxing has heard the claim at one time or another that someone’s fighter got a bad decision. Nelson has a story of a different nature. The incident occurred in 1991 when he was in Cape Town, South Africa, for the Manning Galloway-Nika Kamalo fight. He deposited his wedding ring and passport in the hotel desk safe for safe keeping. Both were taken in a robbery.
That might be a first, a judge, not a fighter, was the one robbed.