March 15, 2013

KO Digest Spotlight on Boxing's Up and Comers - Willie Nelson

By Terry Strawson - Junior middleweight prospect Willie "The Great" Nelson is 25 years old and stands an imposing 6 feet 3 inches tall. He is ranked No. 5 by the WBC and is now exactly two weeks removed from an impressive first round stoppage of Michael Medina (26-4-2) on ESPN Friday Night Fights.

Nelson (20-1-1, 12 KOs) is a fighter. His style is no-nonsense and his pressure is continuous if not relentless. He often neglects his jab but he throws punches in bunches. At his best, he is worthy of comparisons to former world champion Paul "The Punisher" Williams.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio on April 20, 1987, Nelson began boxing at the age of 10 when a chance encounter with his mailman delivered an unlikely introduction to the sweet science. "My mailman was a boxing coach and when he came to deliver the mail, my sister told him she had a little brother that wanted to box. One day he decided to pick me up and ever since then I've been in the gym."

Nelson, trained by mailman Renard Safo, enjoyed a successful, though not hugely decorated, time in the amateurs and went on to comprise a record of - give or take a few - 230 wins and 22 losses. Not bad at all. He entered the professional ranks as a 19 year old and began his career with a knockout victory over unheralded Diego Villalba (1-5-1) back in May of 2006. By the end of 2008 Nelson had turned in a further nine victories, taking him to an impressive 10-0-1. The single blemish on the resume was a draw with, at the time, fellow unbeaten Antonio Johnson (7-0).

Nelson down against hard hitting Vincent Arroyo
In 2011, after having his hand raised on another six occasions, Nelson and his cavalier style of fighting ran into Vincent Arroyo. Literally. He was floored three times by the hard-hitting Arroyo on his way to his first career loss. "Going in with Arroyo, I was picked to win because everybody thought I would outbox him, which I did, but the three knockdowns helped him win the fight."

"The two right hands, the first knockdown, and the second knockdown were more like flash knockdowns and I wasn't really hurt. I just went down, got up and couldn't really believe it because I had never been down before."

It was a firefight. Nelson, as customary for him, forced the issue and for the most part was outworking his counterpart. Despite dictating the majority of the action, Nelson had no answer for the power of Arroyo. "He's a big puncher plus I was a bit drained from cutting weight," said Nelson to KO Digest.  "But I wouldn't take anything away from his power because the hook he hit me with, I think would of put anybody down."

The fight, which ended in a majority decision for Arroyo, marked the end of the relationship between Nelson and Safo. As he looked to correct the mistakes he was making Nelson turned to fellow Ohio native Jack Loew, the man who guided Kelly Pavlik to the undisputed middleweight crown not too long ago.

Their alliance so far, in just a year and a half, has spawned a 4-0 record including upsets over the highly touted Yudel Jhonson and John Jackson. Jhonson was a Cuban silver medalist at the 2004 Olympics in Athens while Jackson is the son of power-punching former world champion Julian "The Hawk" Jackson. Both where undefeated.  "I took the Jhonson fight on eleven days notice but I was training prior to that for a fight a week after that and it just so happened that they called with the Jhonson fight and he was one the guys I've wanted to fight since I was 22 years old. I just always thought I could beat him."

Nelson hammers Jhonson with a great right hand
Nelson, again in a fight that saw him on the canvas, dropped Jhonson with a well-timed counter right-hand in the second round and went on to score a unanimous decision, and the upset victory, without much controversy.

Up next was Jackson; the hard-hitting son of a harder hitting three-time world champion. The younger Jackson had racked up a 13-0 record with 12 knockouts. A chip off the old Hawk block it appeared. "I remember everybody saying what a big puncher he is and how they don't see it going past the fourth. They had a lot of negative things to say just because he was a big puncher. If you look at the fight, I clearly walked him down and controlled the ring," Nelson recalled.

Nelson began slowly against Jackson. Despite stalking his opponent incessantly, he at times hand-cuffed himself and missed opportunities as Jackson was simply quicker to pull the trigger. Trainer Jack Loew was fuming. In between rounds, and early enough in the fight to affect the outcome, Loew berated his charge. The response was almost immediate and Nelson opened up. Using almost every punch in his arsenal, Nelson had taken another scalp and collected the NABF junior middleweight title.

His most recent venture into the ring brought about a chance for vindication. The NABF junior middleweight title had been vacated previously by Michael Medina due to inactivity and the Eric Brown trained product of the Wildcard Gym was looking to get it back. "My game-plan going into the Medina fight was to pop my jab more. Try to be faster than I've been in past fights and just let Medina make mistakes, because he makes a lot of mistakes."

From the outset it was clear that Nelson was bigger, stronger and better equipped for the occasion. Medina, a solid fighter with a very respectable record, attempted to get himself inside and certainly was not afraid but found himself overwhelmed early. The fight was over shortly after it had began and Medina was counted out by Arthur Mercante Jr., after two knockdowns had rendered him unable to continue. The second knockdown caused an ankle injury to Medina that threatened to take some of the gloss off what was a solid night of work for Nelson.

"I don't know why they never give me my credit. When I fought Yudel Jhonson he had never been tested. When I beat John Jackson he was too green. Now I beat Michael Medina the fight was stopped due to his ankle. Well, his ankle got busted because I punched him. It never just miraculously broke, it was because I punched him and he fell back on it," vented Nelson.

Trainer Jack Loew, Nelson, and promoter Lou DiBella
One man who certainly does give Nelson credit is his promoter Lou DiBella. After the Medina fight at MGM Grand Foxwoods, addressing a collection of media including KO Digest impresario Jeffrey Freeman, the always entertaining DiBella got a lot off his chest.

"There's not a one hundred and fifty four pounder in the world that he is not likely to knock out," said DiBella of Nelson. "He's a real junior middleweight, so bring up anybody, Canelo Alvarez, never happen but Canelo Alvarez would go out on his ass, and Keith Thurman would go out on his ass. Austin Trout would go out on his ass!"

It's hard to argue with a man who has overseen the rise of Jermain Taylor and Sergio Martinez in recent years and despite the question marks surrounding the chin of Nelson, you are hard pressed to find a fighter in the weight bracket that would not find Nelson more than a handful. DiBella continued that heavy handed Alfredo Angulo and James Kirkland would meet a similar fate and went on to say that, "Nelson is one of the most dangerous guys in the world at his weight. Period!"

There are plenty of fights out there for Nelson but with his penchant for stopping prospects and a towering frame that, with the help of Jack Loew, he is now taking full advantage of, it may be harder for DiBella to get them in the ring than it will be for Nelson to get them out of it.

Strengths: Size, Power, and Aggression 
Weaknesses: Chin and Limited Experience
Overall Rating: B-

Written by Terry Strawson ~ exclusively for KO Digest 

Action shots by Bob Barton ~ Press conference picture by Jeffrey Freeman

Look for a new KO Digest Spotlight on Up & Comers on the 15th of every month!