25-year-old junior middleweight Willie Nelson almost lost the hype behind his career just as it was starting. Booked for a ShoBox event in April 2011, the freakish, 6'3" welterweight was matched with Vincent Arroyo, and favored to win. The Cleveland native's team put out a pretty aggressive press push that week, hyping Nelson well as he approached his biggest TV fight to date.
Then, he lost. Arroyo, a gutsy battler, simply out-fought Nelson over eight rounds on ShoBox, making the lanky prospect look clumsy, amateurish at times, and just out of his depth. Though scored a majority decision, Arroyo clearly won the fight, and the feeling on Nelson after was that he was tall, chinny, and overhyped, though he'd barely received much hype at all.
This year, though, Nelson rebounded. He started in January with a win in Florida over Brad Jackson, a club fighter he would have been expected to beat, then moved up to 154 pounds to take on Cuban prospect Yudel Jhonson. Nelson was a short-notice replacement opponent that night, and scored a clear-cut win over the favored Jhonson. It was a risk by Nelson and his team to accept that fight, to move up in weight and face a legit prospect, but they took it. And boy, are they glad they did.
Most recently, Nelson beat John Jackson, the son of Julian Jackson, in a very entertaining ten-round fight, as part of the Chavez Jr vs Martinez card on September 15.
Nelson didn't look like a world-beater with either of those wins, and it's true he hasn't beaten world-class opponents just yet. Good prospects, yes, but not top-tier opponents. His team, though, say they're ready to send him into the lion's den at 154 pounds, and believe that he can inject the division with new life.
Steve Smith of Rumble Time Promotions, who co-promotes Nelson (19-1-1, 11 KO) with Lou DiBella, says the time is now, and that Team Nelson are calling out the top names.
"Willie's willing to fight the top super welterweights in the world," Smith says. "He is done ruining the dreams of top prospects, as he did in his last two fights, and is ready to wake up the boring 154-pound division.
"Willie can deliver to the networks what boxing fans really want to see - excitement and action! He can be a fresh face for the public to enjoy, replacing the same old faces of recycled fighters that fans are tired of watching. This is Willie Nelson's time."
Trainer Jack Loew, who made his name bringing Kelly Pavlik to the top of the middleweight division, made note of the recent Vanes Martirosyan vs Erislandy Lara WBC eliminator, which ended in a boring draw.
"If Canelo (Alvarez) was going to fight the winner of Martirosyan and Lara, hands down, Willie would give him a much better fight than either of those two guys," Loew said. "That fight was disgusting, the most boring title eliminator I've ever seen. Neither kid wanted it. They were fighting for a big payday and world title shot but neither of them wanted to really fight."
Loew says that Nelson is willing to fight anyone with a high ranking with one of the four sanctioning bodies.
"Canelo is the champ and I'll give him his props, but Willie is next in line in the junior middleweight division. I've looked across the board, at all of the top boxing organizations, and there isn't a world champion or top five fighter we wouldn't fight right now.
"If not Alvarez, I'd like to see Willie in against Cotto, who has had his day, and I'd put him in against Trout tonight. Angulo, Kirkland, those are the type of guys we'd like to fight."
Of course, it's a campaign. Though Loew also notes that Canelo was signed to fight Paul Williams, whose size is similar to Nelson's, the reality is that Williams was a much bigger name than Nelson is. Though Nelson has proven he's tough to keep down and can't be deterred by a loss, he hasn't scored that eye-catching win that makes him a fighter in demand. Nobody, besides Team Nelson right now, has been clamoring to see Willie in one of these big fights.
But that doesn't mean it's wrong of them to push and hope. Nelson will need to beat someone in the next tier before he takes on a Canelo, Cotto, or even an Angulo (and Kirkland is out of the picture for now), so the real focus might be on that, while they make a little noise and let the big names know that they're coming for them in due time.
And there are plenty of next-level fighters Nelson could target. Delvin Rodriguez, Roberto Garcia, and Antwone Smith would all be nice steps toward the end goal. After that, you have guys like Gabriel Rosado, or even titleholders like Cornelius "K9" Bundrage or Zaurbek Baysangurov, if Nelson is willing to travel. Martirosyan and Lara could both be options -- it's not like there's any demand for a rematch between those two.
Those aren't the names they're calling out now, but they're surely aware that Nelson won't be waltzing into a fight with Canelo or Cotto on the strength of wins over Yudel Jhonson and John Jackson. What they've done here is let it be known that they're in the game. Now comes the hard part: Getting Nelson to the point where those challenges can't be dismissed.