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Ozell Nelson: The Bricklayer's 'Son'

Ozell Nelson was a bricklayer training kids in his spare time at a small gas station converted into a gym. Jermain Taylor was a gangly, 14-year-old kid. Nelson figured Taylor would quit as soon as he got hit hard, like so many other kids. But Taylor took his beatings and came back for more. In the process, a very special relationship was born.

It says much about Ozell Nelson that the first thing the bricklayer did for Jermain Taylor was lay a foundation for him to become a man, not just a boxer. It is hard to tell which was harder, making Taylor into a man of the world or a champion of the world.

"When he first came to me, he was just a regular kid, tall and skinny and cocky," Nelson said. "When I asked him questions he would say, 'uh huh,' or nod his head. I taught all the kids I had in the gym to say, 'yes sir,' and 'no sir.' So I told him from now on you are going to say 'yes sir' and 'no sir.'"

From the side of town Taylor came from he probably had no clue why he needed to show respect with anything other than his fists. But he did what Nelson asked, and almost immediately learned there were dividends to gain from being polite, a lesson learned at a McDonalds.

"One day I took him to the McDonalds. He said, 'Do I have to say yes sir to the guy behind the counter?' I told him yes, you go by the rules. He just shrugged his shoulders and went to order for us. When he came back he was all excited. He said, 'The guy gave me and extra burger and fries just for saying sir to him.' From that time on he realized being polite could open doors for him," Nelson said.

It was the first of many life lessons Nelson taught Taylor, and the beginning of a long, father-son type relationship that still flourishes today. To understand how important Nelson has been to Taylor's life, you have to know more than just the often-told story of a teenager whose father abandoned him when he was five.

Not only was Taylor from the wrong side of town, he had never even ventured to the other side. In his very small, insular world, Taylor learned how to feed, clothe and change diapers for his three younger sisters, but he was basically ignorant of everything else about the larger world outside.

Nelson recalls, for example, the day he first told Taylor he could be an Olympian, and how mystified the kid was.

"I told him if you work hard you can be on the Olympic Team. He said, 'Coach, what are the Olympics?' He didn't know what the Olympics were," Nelson said.

Nelson realized then he had a lot more to teach Taylor than just how to throw a jab and be polite.

Under Nelson's training, Taylor won several tournaments in his state, but because Arkansas was not known for producing boxers, he was never invited out of state to other amateur tournaments. That, and his life, changed for ever when he won a junior Olympics tournament and qualified to go to a competition in St. Louis.

"I said to Jermain, 'Now you can go to another state.' He said, 'You mean St. Louis is not in Arkansas?' This kid didn't know anything but Arkansas," Nelson said.

Nelson had been driving Taylor and some of his other kids to local tournaments in the pick-up truck he used as a bricklayer, but for this tournament he stuffed them in his Bonneville, turned on the country music and drove the six and a half hours to St. Louis.

"The kids there were from states better known for boxing," Nelson said. "I told Jermain, 'When they ask you where you are from, you shout out Arkansas! And when you win the tournament, you shout it out some more to rub it in.' Well, he won the tournament and he rubbed it in. I remember he said to me, 'Dang, I went to another state and won!'

"I told him if you work hard you can be on the Olympic Team. He said, 'Coach, what are the Olympics?' He didn't know what the Olympics were," Nelson said.

"That was a turning point in Jermain's life. He had been somewhere where he had never been before. I didn't realize it at the time that one of Jermain's dreams was to travel. So when we traveled to other states he came to understand that boxing was something that could make his dream come true."

Nelson's life in some ways paralleled Taylor's. When Nelson first began training fighters he was as ignorant about boxing as Taylor was about life. Not only did Nelson take the road less traveled, he had no clue where it was going.

"When I was a kid, I wanted to play basketball. But I was short. The coach told me I wasn't big enough to be on the team, so I decided to do something where I didn't need a team -- fight," Nelson said. "I got into fighting just so I could whip every player on that basketball team."

Nelson never had an amateur career, but "just picked things up," he says. The leap from that inauspicious beginning to becoming a world class trainer was due in no small part to luck.

"My nephew Christopher Nelson wanted to box, so I took him to this gym run by Don Lowrie on East Fourth Street. Lowrie told me he wanted me to stay with him and be his assistant. I told him I didn't know nothing about boxing. But he said don't worry, he would teach me. I stayed with him in that old gas station for three years and then Don just retired and gave me the gym," Nelson said.

As part of Taylor's education about life, Nelson felt it was not enough for his boxer just to see other states. He needed to make a shorter trip -to the other side of town.

"I had my own bricklaying business. After work I would go pick up Jermain and take him to the gym because it was on my way. But then his family moved 20 miles from the gym and I had to drive there and take him to the gym and back, which took a lot of time," Nelson said.

Because of the distance, when Nelson came home from tournaments with Taylor he let him stay overnight at his house. It was an enlightening experience for young Taylor.

"He got along real well with my four boys. It helped Jermain to become the person he is today because he got to see a different part of life at my house. His side of town was infected with gangs. I had a three-bedroom home in a country club town," Nelson said.

As a bricklayer, Nelson earned a good living, but at one point he wanted more money in order to get rid of his 1976 vintage truck and buy a new one. That sparked a crisis between Nelson and Taylor that would prove to be turning point in both their lives.

"I told Jermain I was going to close the gym for the summer so I could work more and earn extra money. He said, 'If you do, I'm going to get in trouble.' So what I did was stop training all my other kids and just spent time with Jermain. I planned on working him so hard he would quit and then I could do more bricklaying. But I discovered there was no quit in him. He kept coming back. So I said to Jermain, 'I won't shut the gym for the summer because you are going to be a millionaire someday, and all I can earn is thousands. What is good for you will be good for me in the long run,'" Nelson said.

More important to Taylor at the time than being a millionaire was that he had found a man that could teach him about life.

"When I look back at where I come from, if it was a picture that I could show you, it would almost bring you to tears how poor we were," Taylor said. "If it weren't for him, there's no telling where I would have been.

"I can honestly say that if it was not for Ozell I would not be in the position I am in today," Taylor said. "He was the one that built the engine."

Just as Nelson thought early on that Taylor was special, Taylor felt the same about his coach.

"I bonded very quickly with Ozell. He was a father image to me. He was honest, trustworthy, dependable and most of all he believed in my abilities. Those qualities had an effect on me. He was someone I could always go and talk to about things outside the ring," Taylor said.

Those overnights at Nelson's home were an important respite from the hard life he lived at home.

"When I look back at where I come from, if it was a picture that I could show you, it would almost bring you to tears how poor we were," Taylor said. "If it weren't for him, there's no telling where I would have been. He and his wife took me in. I used to go over their house and eat, sleep, and do everything, just like I was a part of the family - and they had kids of their own. Now that I look back on it, it must have been hard because he wasn't rich.

"But he still tried to bring me in and love me like I was one of his sons. A kid, and especially a young man, needs to have somebody who he can look up to, because if he doesn't, he's going to look to the streets. It's easier to pick up a bad habit than a good habit. Coach taught me how to work. He taught me that your word is the only thing a person can have. And if you mess your word up, you're worth nothing. He taught me that if you put in 100% it will definitely come out 110%. And I believe that."

Taylor made the Olympic team, as Nelson had predicted, the first boxer from Arkansas to ever compete in the Games. He won a bronze medal, and then turned pro. Because Nelson had no experience on the professional level, he brought in trainer Pat Burns, who guided Taylor through a 25-0 record and a middleweight world title, while Nelson played the role of second man in the corner.

Today, neither Burns nor his successor, Emanuel Steward, will be working as lead man for Taylor's rematch with Kelly Pavlik. Taylor is going back to the future with Coach Nelson.

In camp for this fight, Nelson has returned to the basics with Taylor, using old school techniques to build strength and stamina. The positive changes he sees in Taylor began the night he was knocked out by Pavlik in September.

"I was there when Jermain lost to Pavlik and a lot of kids would have taken a few weeks off," Nelson said. "But Jermain wanted to get right back. He showed up at the gym the very next work day. Now I see a lot more drive in him. He is determined to not let this happen again and is working harder than he has ever done."

Win or lose against Pavlik, Nelson has his own dream for the future about Taylor.

"Hopefully when Jermain retires he can come and train some of my kids to help get them off the streets," Nelson said.

Nelson is confident that Taylor will do that because he was "brought up right." And, oh yeah, Nelson was quick to add, "Jermain still says 'yes sir' and 'no sir' to me."

It is nice to know there is more to a success story in boxing than winning titles.

"I was there when Jermain lost to Pavlik and a lot of kids would have taken a few weeks off," Nelson said. "But Jermain wanted to get right back. He showed up at the gym the very next work day. Now I see a lot more drive in him. He is determined to not let this happen again and is working harder than he has ever done."

Kelly Pavlik vs Jermain Taylor

HBO PPV - Feb. 16, 2008

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