Willie Nelson (right) lands a jab to the face of Yudel Jhonson en route to a decision victory over the Cuban Olympian last May.
Willie Nelson cuts an imposing figure whenever he walks into a room.
Nelson, who nearly stands 6-foot-4, is a giant junior middleweight. But he’s got more than just height and reach going for him. The 26-year-old Cleveland, Ohio native has become a 154 pounder to watch.
Nelson (20-1-1, 12 knockouts) is set to make his HBO Boxing After Dark debut this Saturday when he faces Luciano Cuello (32-2, 16 KOs), of Argentina, at MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resort in Mashantucket, Conn.
The 10-round bout, which opens up the telecast headlined by the Gennady Golovkin-Matthew Macklin WBA middleweight title bout, will be the first time many boxing fans will get to see Nelson in action. His long, wirey frame immediately begs comparisons to Thomas Hearns, but his aggressive, come-forward approach is more reminiscent of Paul Williams.
Nelson’s rare physical attributes have been a gift and a curse, however.
“I’ve been too good for my own good,” says Nelson. “I always think that my size and height alone give people problems because, who would want to fight who is 6-foot-3 and a half boxer who can actually fight? That’s why I think I don’t get the opportunities that I deserve.”
Following Nelson’s most recent bout – a first round knockout of fringe contender Michael Medina in March – Nelson’s promoter Lou DiBella lashed out on the politics that have so far hindered his ability to move his fighter into meaningful fights.
“The best don’t fight the best; leverage determines who fights who,” said DiBella, in one of his classic tirades. “But this guy is one of the most dangerous guys in the world at his weight. [Saul] ‘Canelo’ Alvarez, it’d never happen, but Canelo would go out on his ass. And Keith Thurman would go out on his ass. And Austin Trout would go out on his ass. [Alfredo] Angulo would go out on his ass, and [James] Kirkland would go out on his ass. You put it in front of us and we’ll take it, but it’s not an even playing field so probably WIllie Nelson won’t get the shot.”
And though he doesn’t know much about Cuello outside of the fact that he has lost to Alvarez and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., Nelson is already speaking of luring one of the aforementioned names into the ring.
Nelson’s love affair with boxing began at a young age, when he watched Evander Holyfield defend the heavyweight title against George Foreman on television the day before his fourth birthday in April of 1991. The young man often spoke of his desire to compete like the gladiators that he saw on TV, but didn’t get his chance until he was 10 years old.
The neighborhood mailman, Renard Safo, was a former amateur champion who trained fighters at the Martin Luther King Civic Center in East Cleveland.
Nelson’s older sister would constantly inform Safo that her younger brother wanted to become a fighter. This went on for months until Safo gave in and decided to train the young boy.
“He just knocked on the door and asked for me, he picked me up and the next thing you know I was hooked,” remembers Nelson.
Like many other inner city youths, Nelson looked to boxing for a refuge from the elements that cannibalized neighborhoods around him.
“Cleveland is an urban city where there’s a lot of violence, gangs, shootings and killing going on,” explains Nelson. “It’s easy for kids to get distracted and caught up in the street life because there’s not a lot of things to do besides going to school. Around 13-14 is when a lot of kids get into the streets and start selling drugs and picking up guns. That’s one of the things I had to deal with and boxing actually saved me from that because it kept me out of the streets and out of jail. All of my friends ended up going to jail or getting killed.”
Nelson had his first fight at age 10, and went on to compete in a reported 250 amateur fights, highlighted by winning the 2004 National Police Athletic Championships and the 2005 U.S. National Under-19 Championships.
He turned pro in 2006 and remained unbeaten until 2011, when he got off the canvas three times but lost a majority decision to Vincent Arroyo. Afterwards, Nelson decided that Safo had taken him as far as he could, and made the 65-mile trek southeast from Cleveland to Youngstown, Ohio to train with Jack Loew.
Loew, who guided another tall aggressor, Kelly Pavlik, to the middleweight title, has worked with Nelson for the last four bouts, which includes victories over previously unbeaten Cuban Olympian Yudel Johnson and John Jackson, the son of former two-division champion Julian Jackson.
“I believe Jack has shown me a lot in these last two years working with him, things that like my other coach didn’t show me, like patience,” said Nelson. “Jack has been there before so he knows what it takes to get there. I just feel that he has shown me the things that I missed with my other coach, and has tightened up my defense.”
Loew says Nelson is on the cusp of a major professional breakthrough with Saturday’s fight.
“I’ve been to the top of the mountain with Kelly [Pavlik] and know how this works,” said Loew. “This fight, for Willie, is like the [Jose Luis] Zertuche fight for Kelly. It got Kelly a high-profile fight on HBO against [Edison] Miranda and that fight got him his world title fight [against Jermain Taylor].
“With what’s been happening lately in boxing, HBO is looking for fresh faces. All Willie has to do is follow the game plan like he did in his last fight against Medina. Because of his freakish style, interesting storyline and likeable personality, Willie can be the new face on HBO.”
Nelson wants to be a world champion (“Who doesn’t want to win a world championship?” he says) but another goal he keeps is to be a solid role model for his four children and stepson.
“I want to be a successful world champion, I don’t want to win a title and lose it the next defense,” he said. “Besides that, I want to be a role model kids can look up to because the area I grew up in is kind of rough. It’s hard growing up in Cleveland. On top of that, after boxing I want to be a promoter or manager, something to do with boxing but not having to taking punches.”
If Nelson doesn’t take too many punches on Saturday night, he just might find himself promoted up the 154-pound ratings.
Photos / Tom Casino-SHOWTIME
Ryan Songalia is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) and contributes to The Ring magazine and GMA News. He can be reached at [email protected]. An archive of his work can be found at www.ryansongalia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @RyanSongalia.