By Joe Scalzo
Just over a week before the biggest fight of his life, Willie Nelson was standing outside the ring ropes at the Southside Boxing Club in Youngstown, where his trainer, Jack Loew, had just told a reporter that he’s not even sure his fighter knows what the (slightly) more famous Willie Nelson looks like.
“I bet if you held up two photos, he wouldn’t be able to tell you which one was him,” Loew said.
“I know who he is,” Nelson insisted. “I’ve heard about him all my life.”
Yeah? How many songs of his can you name?
“The only one I know is ‘On The Road Again’ and ... that’s it,” he said, cracking up. “That’s what always comes up, because I’m always on the road.”
Do they play that when you come into the ring?
“Nah,” he said, laughing.
In 1973, 14 years before Nelson (the boxer) was born in Cleveland, Nelson (the singer) warned mothers not to let their babies grow up to be cowboys, since they’ll never stay home and they’re always alone.
So, Nelson grew up to be a boxer instead. But he didn’t stay home (he lives in Boardman now) and he’s always alone (typically playing video games) and, like he said, he’s always on the road. Of his 22 professional fights, only three have been in Ohio.
His 23rd follows the same trend. On June 29 in Mashantucket, Conn., Nelson (20-1-1, 12 KOs) will fight Luciano Leonel Cuello (32-2, 16 KOs) on the undercard of his first HBO card, which is sort of like playing an opening act at the Grand Ole Opry or getting a small part in a Scorsese movie.
“If he puts this kid to sleep on HBO,” said Southside trainer John Hutter, “he’s a star.”
‘He’s a workaholic’
Less than two years ago, soon after suffering his first professional loss, Nelson left Cleveland (and his longtime trainer) to train with Loew, who had just split with Kelly Pavlik.
In Nelson, Loew saw a lot of Pavlik-like qualities (tall frame, long arms, good power) and felt his best boxing was ahead of him. Nelson had a long amateur career — 250 fights — and he came to Loew with a good attitude and a willingness to work.
“Most fighters are [screwed] up in some way,” Loew said. “Each fighter usually has some stupid vice. His [Nelson’s] is playing video games.
“I guess I shouldn’t complain. It could be worse.”
Like most fighters, the 26-year-old Nelson isn’t an angel — he does have four kids — but he’s always been responsible when it comes to his boxing career, spending extra time in the gym and the film room.
“Ever since he was a kid, he’s worked hard,” said his best friend P.J. Brewer, who has trained with Nelson since they were teenagers. “He’s always ready. When he fought Yudel Jhonson [in May, 2012] on three weeks’ notice, it wasn’t three weeks to him because he’s always in the gym. He’s a gym rat.”
Nelson won that fight by unanimous decision, his second since joining Loew. He’s since won two more, including a first-round TKO of Michael Medina. It was his first successful NABF light middleweight title defense and he was back in the gym a week later.
“I told him, ‘Go home. Go enjoy yourself,’” Loew recalled. “He said, ‘This is what I enjoy.’
“The other day, he was just wore out from some real tough training. So I said, ‘Go home today. Just relax.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, I can’t do that.’ So I said, ‘Why not?’ and he’s like, ‘Well, I’ll just go in the back and work out a little bit, instead of hitting the bag. I said, ‘OK, whatever.’ I go back there and he’s busting his a--. That’s just how he is. He’s a workaholic.”
At 6-31/2, Nelson is an inch taller than Pavlik, yet fights at 154 pounds — six below Pavlik’s former middleweight limit.
Both fighters work primarily off their left jab, preferring to stay in the middle of the ring and come forward. Nelson doesn’t have Pavlik’s power (few do) or Pavlik’s chin (Nelson has been dropped in three different fights, including three times in his only loss) but they both have freakish size for their weight classes.
That’s attractive to a network like HBO, which is always looking for the next big thing, especially after Golden Boy Promotions took their top fighters to rival Showtime. Several HBO representatives sat ringside for the Medina fight and before the fight, Nelson’s promoter, Steve Smith of Rumble Time, told him, “You take care of business and I’m going to get you on HBO.”
“When Willie made a big splash and knocked him out in the first round, the HBO guy almost beat Steve Smith into the ring,” Loew said. “I think Willie has everything that everybody is looking for, everything that HBO is looking for, everything that the public is looking for.
“It’s up to him to come up big on the 29th.”
Cuello, a talented-but-not-quite-elite fighter from Argentina, has lost to two of the bigger names in boxing: Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. (via 10-round unanimous decision in March of 2009 in Mexico) and Saul Alvarez (by sixth-round TKO in July of 2010, also in Mexico). For perspective’s sake, Alvarez, the WBC light middleweight champion, will fight Floyd Mayweather in his next bout.
The 29-year-old Cuello has won six straight since the Alvarez loss but will be fighting in the United States for the first time. Loew compares this bout to Pavlik’s win over Jose Luis Zertuche in January of 2007, which led to bigger HBO bouts against Edison Miranda and Jermain Taylor later in the year.
“Those are the steps you take in boxing,” Loew said. “I told Willie, ‘You’ve got the perfect kid. He’s gonna be in front of you. You don’t have to chase him. But you’ve got to be patient.’
“He’s [Cuello] not a big puncher but he can punch a little bit. He’s been in with two of the best guys out there. He one of those in-shape fighters that gets stronger as the fight goes on, so you don’t want to slap him around and get a boring decision. I want him to knock this guy out. I want Willie to be aggressive but he has to be carefully aggressive. He’s got to fight like a pro.”
Nelson understands. He’s said all the right things, vowing not to look for the early knockout or get careless.
But he also knows he’s got to be impressive.
“This fight here is the fight that will really show whether I’m a contender or championship material,” Nelson said. “If I just go in there and manage to get by, I’m just a regular contender and not ready for the big boys. If I go in there and destroy the guy, that shows I belong there at the top of the division.”
If Nelson wins, he could land a multi-fight deal with HBO. If he loses, well, he could end up being little more than the fighter with the funny name.
Just before the Medina fight, ESPN2 analyst Teddy Atlas wondered aloud, “I wonder if Willie Nelson can sing. We’ll find out if he can fight.”
With a two-minute TKO, Nelson gave Atlas his answer that night.
Question is, was that one show, or the beginning of a world tour?