Mental Health Awareness Week: Leon McKenzie on fight back from depression in the ring

17/05/18 6:00am

Leon McKenzie opens up to Sky Sports about his mental health issues

​​​​​​​As part of Mental Health Awareness Week, Leon McKenzie recounts his struggles with depression, and how he fought back as a professional in the boxing ring.

McKenzie retired from football in 2013 after an 18-year career, which began at Crystal Palace in the 1990s and ended with a suicide attempt and severe injury problems.

He subsequently reinvented himself as a successful boxer, and of his 11 pro fights, McKenzie won eight, including a bout against Ivan Stupalo for the International Masters super middleweight title.

The 40-year-old is starring in a documentary Ten Count, published by Redeeming Features Films, which looks at the mental health issues involved in sports stars.

Warning: Explicit content. Some readers may find the content upsetting


There`s no Pinocchio`s nose with depression. There`s no vivid signs from the outside. Explaining that, trying to make people understand that, is the least I can do with the experiences I`ve had.

The more normal depression becomes within society and the more people get used to hearing it, the more people are comfortable with speaking about it. That`s progress.

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If you are affected by these issues or want to talk, please contact the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123, or visit the website here


When I first signed for Crystal Palace from Sunday League, I knew I had talent and ability, but I was still raw and rough around the edges. I definitely had a lot to learn.

It was a bit daunting for me walking into Palace. Nobody ever showed me how to hold up the ball as a striker, how to shield off a defender, and I didn`t know what a first touch was. I saw all the other kids as being ahead of me, more technical and intelligent in a footballing sense. I was on trial for six months, and it felt so long. But what I showed Palace was determination, heart, some ability, and every week I was improving.

They saw the progression every week, and they had no choice but to give me a contract. Steve Coppell was boss, and he really took to me. I worked so hard after training, and Coppell would tell me to work on my touch against a big wall, practise finishing, all of these little things. The next year I was flying.

McKenzie credits Steve Coppell with his emergence in the Palace side in the mid-90s

I remember playing on a Saturday in the youth team. I scored a hat-trick in the first half and got taken off at half-time. I`m thinking: What`s going on here? Coppell came up to me and said: You`re playing in the first team on Tuesday. I said: Is this a joke?

My debut came against Southend in the Coca Cola Cup in October 1995. I played really well, and to top it off I ended up scoring a goal I`d dreamt about for years. I signed a pro contract the next day. That was all down to Steve Coppell. He saw me, and gave me a big chance.

I`m still dreaming at this point, and after a couple years I`m thinking: I`m actually a professional footballer, this is reality. I did have a lot of weight on my shoulders early doors and didn`t score as many goals as I wanted for Palace. I was off the bench a lot, and he was breaking me in. I had the same kind of enthusiasm and impact on games as Ian Wright did. Wrighty was my footballing hero growing up.

I was at Palace for six years. Coppell left, a few people came and left, and managers either fancy you or they don`t. I dropped down a couple of leagues to join Peterborough, and although my time there was disrupted by injury a lot, I had a decent three years. I was scoring one in every two, and that`s where I really found my feet as a striker.

That was a massive part of me becoming Leon McKenzie, a recognised striker. But injuries always followed me in my career.


I never really showed my true potential. My body never allowed me to be fully fit. Who knows what could have been? At Crystal Palace I`d snapped my cartilage in half, a career-threatening injury at 21 years old, and didn`t know if I was going to play again. You try to stay positive, and psychologically I got through it. Coppell, for an entire season, allowed me to train only on a Friday, because of the swelling I would get in my knee. It was just a little five-a-side on a Friday, and I played on a Saturday.

McKenzie began his career with his local club Crystal Palace, making his debut during the 1995/96 season

I think if you asked a lot of my team-mates, I don`t think many of them would say they wouldn`t want me in their team. That`s not to say I was the most gifted player, but they knew that when it was time to roll up my sleeves, get tough, I was there. And they knew I had a goal in me.

From Peterborough I moved onto Norwich. I`m a kid from Thornton Heath, South London. Although I did play a little bit in the Premier League as an 18-year-old at Palace, the odd sub appearance, it was very daunting for me at that age and it was still a huge dream for me to play regularly in the Premier League.

I made an impact at Norwich straight away in the second tier. I scored two on my debut against their rivals Ipswich, and set the mark there. We got promoted under Nigel Worthington into the Premier League, but I didn`t start the first handful of games, until Mathias Svensson got injured.

I stepped in, and didn`t come back out. I played alongside Dean Ashton, who I formed a brilliant partnership with. He`s probably the best striker I played with. He`s intelligent, the worst trainer I`ve seen, but when it came to matchday, he transformed into this intelligent, technical, classy footballer. We complimented each other.

The goal against Manchester United was a moment in time that I`d reached against the odds. I`d had many injury problems even before this point. It was a crazy, beautiful moment.

But I found relegation with Norwich really hard. I felt that as a player I had found myself. If I`d have had one more season in the Premier League, with Dean Ashton, I really think I`d have had a better career. I`d just missed that boat when the big boys and proper, proper money came into football.

`It was a crazy, beautiful moment` - McKenzie scoring against Man Utd in April 2005

From Norwich I went to Coventry for three years, for just over £1m. It`s a really fantastic club, a big club, but I played out in left midfield. All of my time there was adjusting to tracking full-backs and running up and down the line. I wanted to get into little areas to score goals, and this was a time where wingers were wingers, not inside forwards like they are now. Every time I said to managers at Coventry: Please play me up front! They`d say: But you`re playing so well out there!

I had horrendous injuries at Cov; ruptured thigh and ruptured Achilles. I never really came back from that. The ruptured Achilles pretty much finished me. I had too long out, and then signed for Charlton after Coventry left me high and dry.


Charlton is where my mind started deteriorating. I couldn`t get back to the level I wanted to. I was desperate to do well at Charlton, another big club, but my body wouldn`t allow me to.

I started a couple of games, coming off the bench here and there, but I was on the fringes of what I used to be. I think a lot of people knew that, and it was sad for me to carry. On the back of the ruptured Achilles my biomechanics had changed a lot, and all of these little things were going wrong with my body. I`m pulling my hamstring, my thigh, tearing my calf.

It was heart-breaking.

I loved football, I gave 110 per cent, I loved playing with my heart and scoring goals. When I started getting these injuries, that psychologically damaged me in a way that I still struggle to express.

The only way of trying to express it is this: I didn`t want to live anymore.

When I was trying to get fit, in and out of the treatment and rehab, rehab, rehab. It was demoralising. I wasn`t myself, I locked myself away a lot, left the training ground without much of a care.

McKenzie, who has just turned 40, suffered injury problems throughout his career

There was a constant battle with fitness, let alone battling with form, and I was just praying I wouldn`t get injured. I wasn`t saying: Please let me play well today. I was saying: Please don`t let me get hurt today. I was a shell of myself on the pitch. If I sprinted properly for that ball, slid in to tackle for that ball, play explosive like I usually would, there was a likeliness I would break down.

At Cov when I ruptured my Achilles against Birmingham, I broke down in tears. I knew I couldn`t take much more of this. But at Charlton I was constantly breaking down.

I`d come back from a calf strain at Charlton, and in this particular training session I was absolutely on fire again. I was ripping defenders, scoring goals, and then out of nowhere. Bang.

I`d pulled my hamstring. Something happened inside me that day.

It was like something had left my spirit. Something had jumped out of my chest, and I couldn`t take it anymore. I felt embarrassed, I didn`t know who to look at. I put my head down, walked straight off the pitch to the treatment room and burst into tears.

When I look back and think about that day, there were so many people who walked past and didn`t come in and say anything.

I`d pulled my hamstring. Something happened inside me that day. It was like something had left my spirit. Something had jumped out of my chest, and I couldn`t take it anymore. I felt embarrassed, I didn`t know who to look at.

Leon McKenzie on suffering injury at Charlton

I couldn`t cope anymore. The breakdown in my mind was tough. I called my mum that day after training, from the hotel in Bexleyheath. I was crying my eyes out, telling her I needed to retire and that I couldn`t cope anymore. I don`t know what`s wrong with my body! I`d cry.

For a couple of months I had been collecting pills. In the hotel room, I shut my curtains and didn`t come out of my room. I cried for the best part of four hours. I was in such a hole, I was trying to hold on but couldn`t anymore. I was washing pills back with Jack Daniels, crying. It was a massive cry-out for help, but at the same time I had put the pills in my system.

So I called my dad, and told him I`d done something really bad. At that time I`m losing consciousness on the phone, can you imagine how my dad feels? I`m slurring my words and I`m about to pass out. Luckily, my Dad was about 15 minutes away. He could have been far, far away and nobody would have got to me. I may not have got through to my dad that day, but for whatever reason I did.

McKenzie battled depression throughout his career

It was one of the worst times in my life. Everyone has their trigger, and the injury on that day was mine.


I finished my football career in December 2011 and by February 2012 I was sent to prison after being involved in sending bogus letters to the police to avoid a driving ban. I was struggling at that time. I`m not a criminal, I`ve been an athlete all of my life.

But I wasn`t happy within myself, and I believe all good people deserve happiness. I made a lot of bad mistakes, bad choices, and was very naïve. I wasn`t thinking at all. I was giving people my speeding points… Go on, please take them, I can`t really deal with them right now. It was pathetic in many ways. It got blown up into such a big thing. The CPS wanted to make an example of me. What could I say? I`d broken the law, and everything was pointed on me.

They put me in an A-cat prison. I`d never been in trouble in my life. I went in with rapists, murderers and paedophiles, some of the worst people around. I`d been playing Premier League football not long before.

It was a reality check. I broke the law, and I take it on the chin. I put my head down and did my time. I was productive inside prison and, I didn`t feel sorry for myself, got a job straight away as a cleaner, built a relationship with a few of the officers and started writing my book. I wrote and wrote and wrote, asking the officers questions, getting inside their brains.

I came out on a tag after four months, and things got worse. I went through my second divorce, and it was tough. I have five kids, and they are my world. I work hard each day for them.

McKenzie fought Jahmaine Smyle at York Hall for the English super-middleweight title, but lost for the first time in his career in 2016

Not waking up with my children every day - through my own bad choices and some things out of my hands - is a guilt I carry, and something I`ve always found hard.


I`d retired from football, but went and played non-league for a bit. That was me enjoying football, with no pressure, and it was quite fun.

But financially things were hard. I was hit with a massive tax bill from my Coventry days, involving my agent and the club. It landed on me. I didn`t understand it, I`d paid 40, 50 per cent tax all of my life, why was I getting hit with this? I was close to going bankrupt, and it feels never-ending, but you hold on and hold on. I financially lost everything, but also I lost my identity.

I`d come to this very dark place again, I had to move back in with my little sister in Woolwich, I had no car, no nothing. I`d lost everything.

People say: Well, serves you right. But when you have a skill, like football, and all of a sudden you are essentially made redundant because of injury and you have to make a transition into something else, it`s hard to take.

I had a routine, my way of life. I was now in my sister`s room, in isolation, looking at the walls and crying, trying to fight. I said to myself: I need to fight back.

Then boxing came in.

I`m a trier; I`ll always, always try. I believe that when you try, you win.

I went to my dad and said: I want to jump in the ring. He looked at me and just smiled. That smile was an indication of confidence, he didn`t need to speak. He could just see in my eyes where I was at. For me it was a click. I started training and sparring during a very tough time for me. I was catching two buses and a train to get to Crystal Palace, at my Uncle Duke`s gym. I was doing the graft.

Leon`s uncle is former pro boxer Duke McKenzie MBE

It was like Rocky V. When it got to film five, Rocky had pretty much lost everything, and that`s where I was at, but I didn`t have my Adrian, it was just me. I was fighting back to hold on in life at the age of 35. I didn`t want to go back to where I had been mentally.

Most people didn`t know I had boxed all of my life, before football too. I was watching my dad and Duke throughout my life, so I knew the fundamentals around it. You can`t jump into a pro boxing ring and do it well at 35 without that experience.

So on June 29, 2013 I made my professional debut. Eleven fights on, I`d won an International Masters Title, I fought for an English title and was a few points away from being champion of England at 38 years old. I can`t complain with the way things went.

Boxing was such a buzz, very single-minded and all about you. All eyes are on you. In football, you can mask a few things, but there is nowhere to hide in boxing, which I found out in my third fight, a draw against Darren McKenna, a tough journeyman. He came to win, and it made me realise this was no easy ride.

I was progressing fast, and that`s the thing with me, I learn very, very quickly. I fought for domestic titles, and that`s some doing. Some people fight their whole life and don`t get near to where I was, so to do that as my second career, at 38 years old. I rest my case.


Depression will always be a part of my life, because it HAS been a part of my life. I hope you understand what I mean by that. But I choose to fight it. Although it may be impacting me one day, at some point in that day I`m going to change how it impacts me. I fight it. That`s my motto.

You can`t just wait for it to pass, keep productive, keep active, keep as positive as you can be. There are some days I don`t want to get out of bed, but something will make me get out, something within myself will help me get out of bed.

But I strongly believe in counselling. When you get the right counsellor, it`s a healing process. When you speak, it is therapeutic, and it comes from within. This is why I speak about my issues so much. Not only does it heal me in myself, I get great pleasure in seeing others listen to me speak and share my experiences. When they say: Thank you, it is more rewarding to me than winning any fight or scoring any goal.

McKenzie made his boxing debut in June 2013

The amount of messages I`ve had, the amount of strangers who have reached out to me and said: You inspire me and saved my life. I can`t even explain to you what that does for me.

So I`m going to continue that until everyone gets it. That`s my calling now. How I played football, and how I fought in the ring, I`m taking that same tenacity into this fight.

I could easily sit back and go through the motions in life, but for me there`s nothing inspiring about that. I want to leave my legacy, I want my children to look at my life and think: Wow.


If you`re really in that dark, dark place, go and speak to someone. Whether counselling or a family member, make sure you find it within yourself to reach out. That is the first step to progression.

Don`t feel a burden, particularly males, who have this pride and ego within themselves not to talk, to shut down and not show how weak you are. It`s b******t.

McKenzie on battling depression

You may not see it at that time, but that first admittance is the first step to you fighting back. When you do that, you`re winning.

Don`t feel a burden, particularly males, who have this pride and ego within themselves not to talk, to shut down and not show how weak you are. It`s b******t.

As soon as you step forward and say: I need help, to me you`re a winner and a champion.


Ten Count, launched by Redeeming Features films, is a documentary about Leon`s journey, and the football to boxing transition.

It goes through the 10 rounds of my last fight, an epic battle, from round one, right to the end where I collapsed with exhaustion. It recounts my journey, including my depression and suicide attempts, and my battles. We`ve used other sportspeople who have suffered depression and raised the question: why are sportspeople so susceptible to mental health issues?

We want to raise awareness of this very, very important question. There are still so many people who just don`t understand it.


Leon McKenzie spoke with Sky Sports` Gerard Brand

If you are affected by these issues or want to talk, please contact the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123, or visit the website.

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