Steven Nelson poses after a victory during the World Series of Boxing on March 9, 2015.
Steven Nelson has already fought for the United States in the most literal sense of the word, serving as a communications specialist in the Army and deploying to Afghanistan in 2008.
Now Nelson hopes to fight for the United States in a different way, by representing his country in boxing at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
In the Army, it was all about the Army,” said Nelson, 27. “Now it would be Steven Nelson is representing the USA. My name would be in the title and people would know who I am.”
Nelson hopes to make that goal a reality at the AIBA World Boxing Championships beginning this week in Doha, Qatar. There, the light heavyweight will go up against the best the world has to offer. If he finishes in the top two, he will book a direct spot to Rio.
It’s an impressive situation for any boxer to find his or herself in, but what’s even more remarkable about Nelson is that he didn’t start boxing until 2010.
Describing himself as a big chubby kid growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, Nelson got in shape at basic training at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, but when he returned home after his deployment he noticed the indulgences of being back stateside were adding up. It was on leave for Christmas of 2009 when he decided he needed to do make a change.
“I went back to Fort Bragg and went to a local boxing gym,” he said. “I’d always wanted to box. I thought I was too old for it now, maybe I couldn’t do it, but within a week the coach was like, ‘Wow, you’re talented. You need to stick to it.’”
Within a month Nelson had his first fight as a super heavyweight, standing at 5-10 and weighing in at 236 pounds, and won.
His rise from there was steep. Nelson joined the All-Army Boxing Team and in January 2011, now down to 201 pounds, he placed second in the All-Army Boxing Championships. A year later, he was down to 178 pounds and fighting as a light heavyweight at his coach’s insistence. In 2012, he won a silver medal at the USA Boxing National Championships and was named an Olympic alternate and training partner. He went to London and was part of the Olympic experience in every way except actually getting to enter the ring.
“That’s when I was like, ‘This is where bread and butter is going to be,’” he said. “This is where I can use this to do the things I want.”
Nelson’s second-place finish qualified him for the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, where his job turned from being a soldier to being an elite athlete representing the Army. He went on to win five different national tournaments, including the 2013 national championships and Golden Gloves, and in 2014 was named to the U.S. national team.
Natural talent aside, Nelson believes he’s gotten as far as he has as fast as he has because of his analytical skills. If something sparks his interest, Nelson said, he breaks it down and finds a way to make it simple.
“I’m an artist, I picked that up pretty fast,” he said. “I do tattoos, cut hair; I cut everyone’s hair on the national team. I love working on cars. Anything I’m interested in, I feel like I can do it myself. I just have to stay focused.”
Matt Johnson, the high performance director for USA Boxing, said it is unusual to see someone pick up boxing later in life as Nelson did and rise so quickly, but it also speaks to his dedication and hard work. He’s also benefitted from excellent coaching and his ability to be a sponge, soaking up everything he’s told and all the direction he’s given.
Despite Nelson not having much international experience prior to this past year, Johnson said the boxer continues to make great progress.
“He’ll go up against guys who are a little taller, so I think his strength is one of his best attributes,” Johnson said. “He’s just kind of relentless when he gets in the ring. He’s always coming forward, putting the pressure on his opponent and not really giving them a breath of fresh air.”
If Nelson does not finish in the top two in Qatar, he’ll still have a chance to qualify for the Games by winning the U.S. Olympic Team Trials being held Dec. 7-12 in Reno, Nevada. He would then also have to qualify internationally by placing high at a continental qualifier, a World Series of Boxing/AIBA Pro Boxing qualifier or a last chance qualifier.
Nelson thinks back to that Christmas in 2009 when he looked at his life and felt like all he’d ever done of note was join the Army. He hadn’t done anything to stand out, and that was something he’d wanted his whole life.
Nelson’s upbringing in Omaha wasn’t easy. He never knew his father, and his mother had medical problems that led to difficulty raising him, so he was passed around between different family members growing up. He knew he was smart, but he got into a lot of trouble, and joining the military gave him a chance to learn discipline and start to make something of himself.
Now he hopes boxing will allow him to make a name for himself and offer him the ability to give back by opening community centers in Omaha and setting an example for more kids like him.
“It’s a big responsibility,” he said. “Sometimes you want to be like, ‘Nah, I just want to fend for myself and I don’t care what people think about me,’ but in reality people are watching and encouraged by your story. I might lose a fight, but I’m right back doing what I’m doing and I don’t quit. That’s what life is about. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”