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Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Hammering Henry the Hustling Hebrew: A Look at Henry Nissen

“I was always happiest when I was helping people rather than bashing them," Henry Nissen, the former British Empire flyweight champion, once said.

Born Henry Nissenbaum in the shadow of the concentration camp at Bergen Belsen, Germany on January 15, 1948 to Simche and Sonia, Henry was one of five children, including his twin Leon. Simche and Sonia were both Holocaust survivors who met after the war. Simche was a tailor from Poland, and Sonia hailed from a town just north of Odessa, which is currently in Ukraine.

Not much is known about either parent's experiences during the Holocaust. They chose not to reveal the horrors they had witnessed. Sonia, who also spent time in Siberia, suffered greatly from the trauma she endured. Her mental health struggles shaped Henry's childhood.

The family moved to Melbourne, Australia at the suggestion of Simche's uncle when Henry and Leon were babies. The family's name was shortened to Nissen and Simche became Sam. Sam worked long hours as Sonia's emotional issues periodically resurfaced. The children spent time in homes for Jewish kids when their parents were unable to care for them.

The Nissen twins, who were always small for their age, often found themselves the victims of bullies. So they took up boxing under the tutelage of Mick and Peter Read. Henry and Leon worked hard at their new sport and possessed natural talent. They shot up the Australian amateur ranks. Leon became the 1970 Australian amateur flyweight champion, but after a controversial decision loss in Israel, he moved on from the sport. Henry continued boxing and turned professional.

Henry made his pro debut on June 9, 1970. After defeating two opponents with winning records, Nissen fought a fifteen-rounder for the Australian flyweight championship in his third fight. The champ, Harry Hayes, was 18-1 heading into the fight. His lone loss had come in his previous bout against the British Empire (now known as Commonwealth) champion, John McCluskey. Nissen easily outpointed Hayes to capture the belt.

Nissen was a come-forward type of fighter. Though he was tough and relentless, several people who saw him fight said he always fought clean and was a gentleman in the ring. Nissen didn't possess knockout power, but he did own an iron chin, which is a recipe for fights lasting the distance. Over 83% of his fights went to the scorecards.

After three ten-rounders with lesser opponents, Nissen won the rematch against Hayes on the cards in 1971. One fight later, the Hustling Hebrew, who was 8-0 at the time, faced McClusky on August 5, 1971 in Melbourne for the British Empire flyweight title. Nissen pressured the Scot on route to an impressive eighth round stoppage victory, his first professional KO.

After two more wins, including his second career KO, Nissen faced former European flyweight champion, Fernando Atzori. The Italian had not been a paper champion. He held the belt for six years while defending the title often. He had defeated McClusky three times, twice in defense of the European title. Atzori boasted a record of 38-3-1 when he met Nissen on August 14, 1972 in Melbourne.

Nissen won the ten-round affair on points to become one of the top rated flyweights in the world. He was offered a chance to fight for the world flyweight championship.

Contradictory clichés suggest "Fortune favors the bold" and "Good things come to those who wait," but rarely do clichés actually offer useful life advice. The always humble Nissen felt he wasn't yet ready to battle a world champion. As it turned out, Henry made the wrong choice. At least in the short term.

On March 13, 1974, 15-0 Hammering Henry took a tune-up fight against Big Jim West. West, a former Australian flyweight champion, did not sport a sterling record. His 30-10-6 mark represented that of a savvy veteran. Nissen scored a knockdown in the fourth, but he was bleeding badly from a cut that he believes was caused by a headbutt. Henry was hurt bad but felt he had the advantage.

"I'll never forget that moment, the towel flying towards me, the flag of defeat," Henry recalled years later. "I was angry. I wanted to hide. I wanted to make it right. I wanted a rematch. Quick."

It didn't happen. Instead, West lost to Brian Roberts in a bantamweight bout. Two months later, Nissen beat Roberts. On July 18, Nissen got his chance at revenge against West in a non-title bout.

"We gave the crowd ten action-packed rounds," Henry remembered. "We went at each other like maniacs. We gave them their money's worth. They were hungry for blood, and we didn't let them down." A bit ruefully, Nissen added, "I should've boxed him, not just slogged him." West, who came in overweight, won by decision.

This would turn out to be Nissen's last professional fight. He continued to train and traveled to Great Britain and Italy in search of opportunities but none came. He finished 16-2 with 2 KOs as a prizefighter. In 18 fights, he fought 161 rounds or an astonishing average of nine rounds a bout.

In the long run, perhaps it was better for the world that Henry never became champion. He may have chosen a different post-boxing path, and the world would have been poorer for it. Initially, he and his twin Leon set up a clothing store that did well. Then, Henry found his true calling in life.

In many ways, Henry reminds me of my mom. Both became social workers later in life. Both are the children of Holocaust survivors. They both exude positivity, and their presence brings smiles to people's faces. There are some differences though. Nissen is 74 years old; my mother is- at least according to her- much much younger. She's 72. Henry stands just over five feet tall, a giant compared to my mom.

"As long as we're alive, we're going to be learning," Henry philosophizes. As a social worker, Nissen has spent his days in court advocating for those down on their luck, drug addicts and the like. He has been an ear for those in search of a friend. He has absorbed punches intended for an abused wife and punched back when necessary. He has helped countless people who would have otherwise been confined to the streets or prisons of Melbourne. Perhaps, missing that opportunity to fight for the world title and the losses to Big Jim West were for the best.

At first, Nissen was paid to be a social worker. Now, he's does it as a volunteer. He works on Melbourne's docks to earn an income. As always, Henry has a sanguine look at life. He considers himself "a Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist... I claim to be part of everyone. The world is my family." Henry Nissen is a mensch.

Jackson, Russell. "Henry Nissen: from boxing hero to champion of Melbourne's most vulnerable."
The Michael Kuzilny Show. "Success, Happiness and kindness Henry Nissen." May 8, 2020. The Guardian. Dec. 23, 2016.
Zable, Arnold. The Fighter. 2016.

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