Solo dad and Kiwi middleweight boxer Marcus Heywood is familiar with challenges, and he has one on his hands on Sunday - a bout against undefeated American Lorenzo Simpson at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena which will be viewed around the world.
Heywood is confident he can pull off what will be a huge upset against Simpson on the undercard of a main event which will see Devin Haney of the United States fight Australian George Kambosos Jr for the undisputed world lightweight title.
Several New Zealanders are on the undercard – including David Nyika and Hemi Ahio - but few have a story quite like Heywood, a man who goes by the ring name “The Headache” for his exploits as a troublesome teenager and the damage he now inflicts in the ring.
Former kickboxer Heywood, who lives in Whangaparāoa with five-year-old daughter and No.1 supporter Aalycia, took up boxing only three years ago and has done it the hard way since.
Two weeks after his first boxing bout, Heywood, now aged 28, was offered a fight against seasoned professional Gunnar Jackson, a man with more than 40 pro fights behind him, and Heywood didn’t hesitate to agree.
He had only two weeks to prepare for it.
“Like most things in my life I like to jump head-first into the deep end,” Heywood told 1News. “It’s the easiest way for me, unfortunately. It was a great learning experience for me and I fell in love with boxing from that fight on.”
Heywood, who began working under trainer Chris Martin for the Jackson fight, which he lost on points, continued to accept fights against big Kiwi names which accounts for his 6-4-1 record.
The biggest name on Heywood’s resume is Andrei Mikhailovich, a rising star now ranked 12th by world governing bodies the WBO and IBF.
Heywood lost the bout by unanimous decision over eight rounds in Auckland two years ago but wasn’t outclassed, and perhaps his most notable performance was his next fight – a split decision defeat by former Commonwealth Games boxer Bowyn Morgan in Morgan’s home town of Christchurch.
Heywood and coach Martin – and other observers - believe Heywood was hard done by in terms of two of the judges' decisions but it didn’t dim his passion for the sport.
In August, Heywood beat Shay Brock by technical knockout to win the vacant NZ Professional Boxing Commission middleweight title which helped set up what may be the opportunity of a lifetime: a fight against Simpson on the world stage. In New Zealand, the entire card will be broadcast live on TV1.
“No doubt it’s going to be a hard fight,” Heywood said. “He’s undefeated and is fighting under the best people in the world. He’s in Devin Haney’s camp and has all the money and support behind him.
“But all the pressure is on him - I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s going to be a good fight. I think it might go the distance, but I think I’m going to win on points – pressure him and make it hard for him.”
Coach Martin also senses an upset in the making.
“Lorenzo Simpson has a big amateur pedigree,” Martin said. “I think he’s had about 232 fights with four losses. He’s been USA youth champion three times. But we’ve seen his pro fights and he hasn’t really been tested yet.
“Sometimes with a fighter they can have the skill but the will hasn’t been tested. Lorenzo is used to dictating terms and the tempo - we’re going to try to change that a little and put it on him and see how he holds up.”
Someone who is firmly in Heywood’s corner is Aalycia, who, when not in school, travels everywhere with him and has become used to making hidey holes (and watching YouTube videos) in the gyms where he trains.
Heywood, a part-time builder when time allows, said Aalycia was a huge part of his motivation to improve in the ring in order to find bigger-money fights to provide for the pair.
“She motivates me a lot,” he said. “I think it’s great for me to set an example for her – that if you work hard you can achieve great things.”
In referring to Heywood's challenge, Martin touched on the story of American boxer James J Braddock, known as the “Cinderella Man” for his journey from being an apparently washed-up fighter to world heavyweight champion during the 1930s Depression era, and a win for Heywood on Sunday would have a similar romantic quality.
“He’s got a good ring IQ and he picks up things quickly,” Martin said. “He’s at a level now where he’s won a New Zealand middleweight title and he’s a guy some of the others are avoiding because he is a headache.”
Heywood: “I’ve got to in and perform to my best and show the world I belong here.”
Fight coverage starts at 11am on TV1
Full card with Kiwi boxers in bold:
Fight 1 – Lorenzo Simpson (USA) vs Marcus Heywood (NZ), middleweights
Fight 2 – Amari Jones (USA) vs Tej Pratap Singh (AUS), super welterweights
Fight 3 – David Nyika (NZ) vs Titi Motusaga (NZ), cruiserweights
Fight 4 – Hemi Ahio (NZ) vs Faiga Opelu (AUS), heavyweights
Fight 5 – Cherneka Johnson vs Susie Ramadan (AUS), for IBF super-bantamweight world title
Fight 6 - Andrew Moloney (AUS) vs Norbelto Jimenez (DOM REP), WBO international super-featherweight title
Fight 7 – Jason Moloney (AUS vs Nawaphon Kaikanha (THAI), WBC bantamweight title eliminator
Main Event – Devin Haney (USA) vs George Kambosos Jr (AUS), for the WBA (Super), WBC, IBF, WBO, and The Ring lightweight titles