In 2017 little-known Aussie boxer Jeff Horn shocked the world when he defeated the legendary Manny Pacquiao to claim the World Boxing Organisation’s welterweight title. You could be forgiven if you hadn’t heard of the man known as ‘The Hornet’ before what was billed as the ‘Battle of Brisbane’. But after he after claimed the world title, the former schoolteacher became a household name and was the talk of the boxing world, although he also faced an army of critics and an unseen struggle with his mental health.
The victory in his hometown of Brisbane was the defining moment of Horn’s career. Few had given Horn a chance to be competitive against the Filipino star, even less to beat him. It was the culmination of years of hard work. The reward for putting everything into training to become the best. Bloody, battered and bruised, Horn was unanimously judged the winner in front of a crowd of more than 50,000. That defining moment was tarnished by controversy, with many claiming that the decision to award the win to Horn was questionable and worse, that Horn didn’t deserve to hold the world title.
To an outside observer, being at the top of your sport might seem like you have the world at your feet, but what often remains unseen is the mental health challenges that come with waves of scrutiny. For Horn, the harsh criticism he faced was similar to what he went through in school. You wouldn’t want to mess with him now, but Horn was bullied as a teenager, with schoolyard bullies nearly driving him to the edge. To cope with his troubles, Horn channelled his frustration into the gym, training to eventually become Australia’s best pound-for-pound boxer.
After the controversial victory over the immensely popular Pacquiao, Horn yet again found himself the target of bullying. This time, Horn’s tormentors took to social media to harass the boxer. Horn faced his criticism head on and got back into the ring. He went on to defend his welterweight title and would hold it for just under a year, proving to his doubters and detractors that he deserved to call himself a champion.
It’s been more than two years since the Hornet’s last fight. Now the married father of three is on a mission to raise awareness of mental health issues. Horn is an ambassador for the Mental Awareness Foundation’s Walk for Awareness, which aims to raise awareness of depression and mental illness, while reducing rates of suicide.
Men’s Health: You’ve had your share of critics throughout your boxing career, how did you manage to deal with negative comments and maintain a positive outlook?
Jeff Horn: It was probably no worse than what some kids go through today, that’s for sure, with all the added pressures of social media and Facebook and things like that. But to me it was hard and there were some days that I really struggled. The way that I got better with it was talking and making sure to talk to people that I cared about. Talk to your friends, talk to your family. Because if you keep bottled up too long, that’s when bad things can happen and you can think really, really dark thoughts.
I highly recommend people talk about it and do something for themselves. Do something that they like doing and find something in that area, whatever it may be, they might need to go searching a little bit for it before they find something that they really like, but then use that for a release.
Boxing was one of those for me. I met my trainer Glenn (Rushton) straight after school and that gave me a lot more confidence in myself. I wanted to put myself out there more. I guess that led to my world title victory.
Do you have any tools that you use to manage your mental health, like a wellness ritual or routine?
I’m not overly into rituals and that sort of thing but plenty of sleep is an important one for me. Otherwise I get in a bad mood, or I don’t function very well. So making sure I get at least 8 hours a night, which probably isn’t the easiest thing for everyone to do, but getting a solid 8 hours of sleep really sets me up for the day.
I also like to have a little time to myself throughout the day, which I allocate about half an hour to. It might just be laying down and meditating, going through a breathing routine, or it might just simply be laying down and closing my eyes and just thinking about the day and that’s all it takes to recharge me and make me feel good for the rest of the day.
Why is it important for you to support causes like walk for awareness that aim to improve awareness of mental illness?
It’s very important to me to support organisations like this because if it wasn’t for these kinds of people that care and are willing to talk to people about their problems, we would have a lot less good people in the world that should still be here. I feel like that could have happened to me if I wasn’t able to talk to someone, to go out there and talk to friends and family about certain things I was going through. Some people don’t have that. Some people don’t have friends and family that they feel like they can talk to about things and they need an outside source, which is what these organisations provide and that’s an extremely important thing for me to be a part of.
You’ve spoken out about your own experience with bullying in the past, but what would you say to someone at the moment who’s going through problems with bullying?
If you’re going through troubles with bullying, the best advice is to avoid getting yourself into situations where you can be bullied. Avoid being around that person that’s bullying you. Find some strategies that you can use to avoid them, or you can learn some strategies of how to deal with it, which could be agreeing with them, being nice to them, not fighting back. There are a lot of strategies like that to stop bullies, because if they’re not getting the reaction that they want, they’ll probably stop doing it.
I notice you didn’t bring up self-defence, which is why you got into boxing originally. Why is that?
Yes, that’s correct. The first step is definitely talking through it. This is what a lot of people misunderstand about the program that we run, which is all about how to avoid it first. With self-defence it’s about having the necessary physical skills to stop a conflict very quickly, so that you don’t get hurt and you avoid hurting the other person as much as possible. But if it’s needed, you have the skills there to do it. And when you’re given those skills and you’re taught how to approach the situation, and you’re taught how to physically handle yourself in that situation, the confidence level you get to normally means you’re not a target anymore.
How has fatherhood impacted your perception of mental health? How is it different from say, 10 years ago?
Once you become a father, there’s no one else on this planet. You don’t realise before you have kids that you can love anyone that much. I don’t regret doing anything in my career and I’ve got three kids now and that’s three loves that I never thought I’d have this much love for. It’s an incredible feeling. I just want to support and help them through their lives as much as possible.
It was reported in 2019 that you turned down a $2 million payout for a fight because you wanted to be with your wife and your newborn child. Was that a difficult decision to make?
No, it wasn’t difficult. I guess it was difficult in a sense that the offer was really good and it was a large sum of money to say no to. But the most important thing to me is family. I put a lot of value on those extremely important moments in my life. Missing the birth of my child was not something I was willing to do for any amount of money. I know it’s different for other people, but I guess I had made a bit from the Pacquiao fight and other fights after that, so I wasn’t willing to miss out on that moment just for a payday.
It’s been over two years since your last fight. I’m interested in what you’re doing now and if you’ve got any plans to get back into boxing. What’s next for you?
I haven’t technically retired from boxing. I’ve always said that if there’s a potential fight where the money was right then I would consider getting back in the ring. But the time for that is very quickly evaporating and it’s probably looking unlikely that it’ll ever happen again, but I’ve been keeping myself busy with some programs all across Australia that aim to reduce the impacts of bullying in schools. So I spend a lot of time going and talking at schools and I also do some professional talks for businesses, that’s been keeping me busy, as well as stuff at home with my family and kids.
The Mental Awareness Foundation’s 12th annual Walk For Awareness is this Sunday, October 9th, in Horn’s hometown of Brisbane. On average, one in eight men will experience depression and one in five men will experience anxiety at some stage of their lives. Men also make up an average of seven out of every nine suicides in Australia every single day. Walk For Awareness is encouraging participants across Australia to take a walk in their local area to show support and raise awareness this Sunday.