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Leon McKenzie: A fighter who won't let his guard down

TRIO: Leon McKenzie (left) with father Clinton and Leon Mann (right)

LEON MCKENZIE chose football as a young man, outpacing Premier League defences with Crystal Palace and Norwich City, and today he is an undefeated professional boxer on the verge of a first title.

As I watch Leon thumping the bags in his father’s gym, opposite the changing rooms in the bowels of Dulwich Hamlet Football Club, it is clear why the South Londoner made the grade in two ultra competitive fields. His dad, Clinton McKenzie, a former British and European light-welterweight champion, confirms my observations: “Leon’s greatest strength is his heart.” He then pauses and smiles, "And he whacks! I wouldn’t like to fight him”.

On the March 14 at York Hall, the 36 year-old will need to use his heart and head to take home his first title. Tickets are almost sold out and the venue will be packed with former teammates from his playing days. He is, and has always been, a popular man.

Sat opposite the former footballer nicknamed ‘Big McK’, about to start our interview for PFA TV – the Professional Footballers Association online platform - I am nervous. I am not here just to talk boxing and football. Leon’s biggest battle has been with depression, a taboo topic in society, particularly for men.

I soon find out the nerves are only in my corner. Leon talks with confidence and calmness. He puts me at such ease and I begin to question why I was so nervous.

Leon is a realist. He tells me he hasn’t necessarily beaten depression, instead it is about learning how to manage it. He wants to use his experience of the illness to encourage others to come forward to get help.

Five years after a suicide attempt, he aims to use the positivity that came from that situation, to reach out to people who may be struggling.

Michael Bennett, Head of Wellbeing at the PFA, says Leon is a great example to someone struggling that there is hope when you decide to seek help.

The PFA TV episode will share his story with footballers across the country and regardless of how things go at York Hall, we know he will keep fighting and not to let his guard down.

* Leon Mann is a journalist and filmmaker

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