Wednesday, March 22, 2023  |


Willie Nelson calls Vanes Martirosyan a ‘very beatable’ gateway to title


Willie Nelson (R) fighting Yudel Jhonson in 2012. Photo by Tom Casino – Showtime.

It has been almost 19 months to the day since Willie Nelson first entered the short list of fighters to draw attention to the junior middleweight division. Entering the ring at Foxwoods Resort in March of 2013, Nelson’s 6-foot-3 frame immediately reminded spectators of Paul Williams, but his shallow resume made him a curious mystery.

His opponent was Michael Medina, a limited but durable journeyman whose victory over Grady Brewer two fights prior demonstrated his capabilities.

Two minutes after the bell rang, Nelson’s height looked even more pronounced as he stood next to his fallen opponent after scoring two quick knockdowns on right crosses. He had arrived, and promoter Lou DiBella wanted everyone to take notice.

“There’s not a 154-pounder in the world that he’s not likely to knock out,” the assertive New York-based promoter said of his prospect in the backstage area, invoking top names in the division like Saul “Canelo” Alvarez and James Kirkland.

“Canelo Alvarez? It’d never happen, but Canelo Alvarez would go out on his ass. 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 Kirkland would go out on his ass. You put them in front of us and we’ll take it.”

In the time that has elapsed since that night, none of those fights have come to pass. This Saturday, the Cleveland native will face Vanes Martirosyan, a name that wasn’t on that list but makes for an attractive enough match to outshine the other bouts on the Showtime-televised tripleheader from Foxwoods in Mashantucket, Conn.

A win for Nelson would put him on the doorstep of the world title fight he’s sought since turning professional in 2006; a loss could doom him to the role of dangerous gatekeeper.

“I think this fight right here is one that will really put me on top in the division,” says the 27-year-old Nelson (23-1-1, 13 knockouts). “This fight puts me forward towards my journey of becoming a world champion. [Martirosyan] is a very beatable opponent; there’s nothing very special about him besides being an experienced boxer. This is one of the guys that I’m supposed to beat.”

Nelson says he moved to Youngstown, Ohio, about three years ago to work with Jack Loew, who rose to popularity in the previous decade as the trainer of former middleweight champion Kelly Pavlik. Together they’ve done their homework on Martirosyan (34-1-1, 21 KOs), the 2000 U.S. Olympian whose only two blemishes include a split-decision defeat to Demetrius Andrade and a technical draw with Erislandy Lara.

“I know his style is a little different, he throws at the most one combination, 3-4 punch combinations, a 1-2-3,” says Nelson. “He tends after every combo to bounce around and throws punches with his head in the air. He pretty much has a style of a Mexican but he bounces around more.”

The fight offers Nelson an opportunity to improve his stock after a few uneven recent performances. Aside from a first-round knockout of the overmatched Darryl Cunningham this past June, Nelson has looked vulnerable at times, going the distance with quality journeymen Luciano Cuello and Luis Grajeda.

Against Cuello, Nelson was cut in the third round and frequently found himself against the ropes taking punches before ultimately outslugging the Argentine. In the Grajeda fight in August, Nelson did a better job of maintaining his height behind his jab but still was wobbled in the third and eighth rounds.

His chin has been called into question after suffering several knockdowns in his career, including the three he sustained during his lone career loss to Vincent Arroyo via majority decision. He’s been known to fight back aggressively each time, sometimes to his detriment.

A week after the Grajeda fight, DiBella called him with the Martirosyan fight. True to form, Nelson accepted and went back to the gym.

A better life

As precarious as the sport of boxing has been for Nelson at times, it appears far more stable than the life he knew growing up in Cleveland.

The youngest of eight children, Nelson says he often bounced between his parents’ custody, staying with his mother for a few months, his dad when he could. There were days he and his siblings didn’t have food at home, when the lights and gas would be disconnected “and we just had to deal with it.” His older sister took him and his brother in when she was 17, giving Nelson stability for the first time in a long while.

Boxing came into his life in 1991, when he caught the Evander Holyfield vs. George Foreman heavyweight championship fight on television the day before his fourth birthday. He saw the way Holyfield responded to Foreman’s heavy overhand rights and elected to brawl his way out of danger, perhaps picking up some lifelong habits before he had ever walked into a gym.

He says that from that moment he knew he wanted to be a boxer. He first got the opportunity to pursue that interest at the age of 10, when his sister convinced their mailman, a local boxing trainer, to take him along to the gym.

That journey resulted in a reported 250-fight amateur career, highlighted by golds at the 2004 National Police Athletic League and 2005 U.S. National Under-19 championships.

Along the way he made sacrifices – missing school proms, class trips, spending birthdays out of town – preparing for tournaments. Nelson says he wouldn’t force any of his four children – two girls and two boys aged 4 to 10 – to follow his footsteps into the gym. He wouldn’t forbid them, either.

“I’d rather them do things kids should do; they shouldn’t have to worry about fighting,” says Nelson. It’s that thinking – not wanting his family to know the life he had known growing up, that keeps him getting up each time.

“Pretty much what motivates me is my siblings and my family. I didn’t have the best life growing up. Boxing is my escape from the streets and poverty. It’s my escape and my way to a better life.”