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Relocation and Vindication in Youngstown

By Steve Kim

Jack Loew and Willie Nelson

Photos © Bob Barton


This Saturday night from the MGM Grand at Foxwoods Resort (9:45 p.m., ET), rising junior middleweight Willie Nelson makes his HBO debut versus Luciano Cuello. The first time the boxing public got to see Nelson on a national stage, he was getting sent to the canvas three times by Vincent Arroyo in April of 2011, his only career loss. At that point, Nelson made two important moves: first from welterweight to his current weight class and then from Cleveland to Youngstown, Ohio.

Since then, he has notched four consecutive victories, the last three against a pretty solid list of fighters in Yudel Jhonson, John Jackson (both who were undefeated) and Michael Medina. He now holds the NABF 154-pound title and his poised for a major title shot in a few fights.
“I think the biggest move has been the move from Cleveland to Youngstown, switching trainers from my amateur coach to Jack Loew,” Nelson explained to Maxboxing on Monday afternoon via cell phone. “So I think that’s the biggest change that helped me out.”
That loss to Arroyo, on “ShoBox,” came when the freakishly tall Nelson (a lankly 6’3”) was still competing as a welterweight.
“Actually, it was a catchweight at 145; I believe,” he clarified. “I starved myself to make 145 and then I actually came in at 143.7. I actually came in underweight and I was just completely drained and I just didn’t have nothing.”
In short, he looked hollow and frail.
“That’s pretty much what it was besides the hook that he hit me with the second time he put me to the canvas - that shot would’ve put anyone down, I think. Pretty much the two right hands, they were like flash knockdowns. I just went down. I couldn’t understand why. I’d never been down before. I just didn’t understand why.”
Soon he was packing his bags and heading to the Rust Belt and a city best known for producing the likes of Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini and Kelly Pavlik. He admits the move “was tough but, then again, it wasn’t because Cleveland and Youngstown are only an hour away. So it was kinda tough leaving my family behind and moving out here - but really it wasn’t.”
While LeBron James may not think so, Cleveland is still a major city. But Youngstown gave Nelson a certain amount of privacy and focus he just couldn’t get at home. Also, boxing in this jurisdiction is still a big deal.
Nelson explained, “The biggest difference is like Cleveland has their professional teams established. They have their professional athletes already such as the Browns, the Indians, the Cavaliers, so boxing sometimes gets overlooked - where in Youngstown, they’re either Pittsburgh fans or Cleveland fans. When a professional athlete comes out that city, they can focus on them more and he gets more attention and he won’t be overshadowed by any other sports.”
He adds, “I’m away from my family, the problems that occur like with my family or anything. So if something happens in Cleveland, I’m not there. I don’t have to worry about it but if I’m there, it’s easy for someone to call me or just run around and do stuff. It’s a big difference as far as training because I could focus more.”
Loew knew he had a lot work with when presented the opportunity to train Nelson.
“Absolutely, it helped spending that time with Kelly Pavlik, with Kelly having that height and everything and I just saw Willie fighting like a small fighter. Like you don’t get beat with a right hand fighting somebody 5’8”, 5’9” like he did against Arroyo and I’ve known Willie since the amateur days and he’s had so much success, so much talent.”
And according to the veteran trainer; it wasn’t difficult to convince Nelson to migrate to Youngstown. “It wasn’t hard at all,” said Loew. “I think Willie was so used to success that that loss on ‘ShoBox’ really triggered something and I just think he felt he needed a change and the opportunity was there. It’s only an hour away from his kids in Cleveland and everything. So it wasn’t a hard sell at all. He was really anxious to come.”
Jack Loew and Willie NelsonWith his lanky, long physique, Nelson belongs at 154 and presents a match-up problem for almost everyone in this division. Loew states, “I think with his frame, with the right training, Willie can go anywhere from ‘54 to ‘68, one day.” And Nelson is itching to face the best the junior middleweight class has to offer. “I do want to fight more notable names, fight top guys. I’m pretty much tired of fighting prospects or journeymen or anything like that. I want someone who’s a household name to fight, hopefully to get the win against them so I become a household name. I’m going after the [Erislandy] Laras, the [Miguel] Cottos, [Saul] Alvarezes; them guys I want. Anybody else I see as pointless in me fighting because if I beat them, I’m supposed to.”
Right now, Nelson is still building his case to even be in the discussion with those names. But at the very least, he’s got HBO interested. A strong performance on Saturday night and he could become a regular on the network. A multitude of other boxers either turned down this assignment or were not available. Eventually, the tough trialhorse from Argentina was selected and approved by HBO.
“I don’t know much [about Cuello],” he admitted. “Most of his fights have been in Argentina. I know he fought two world champions. From the fights I’ve seen, I know he’s durable. As the rounds go on, he gets stronger.”
Willie NelsonAt 26, the future seems bright for Nelson, rated third at junior middleweight in the WBC (where Saul Alvarez holds the belt) and has a record of 20-1-1 (12).
For Loew, its proof there is life after “The Ghost.” Regardless of who comes through his gym doors in the future, he will always be best known for being the original trainer of Pavlik, a shooting star that burned out quickly. In many respects, it’s vindication for the trainer.
“Yes it is. It’s been of great gratitude working with Willie. Getting back to this level, y’ know, getting to talk to my buddy, Steve Kim,” he said, jokingly. “But seriously, when stuff like that happens, you know you’re there again and believe me; I’ll be the first to admit it: I loved being on top of the world with Kelly. I loved the big events. I thrive on stuff like that.”
It wasn’t all that long ago that Pavlik was the middleweight champion of the world and thought of as one of the game’s biggest stars. He was the face of Youngstown and a legitimate draw in Atlantic City (where casino bars ran out of beer on the weekends he performed as his rabid fans left the kegs dry) and just like was over. The big paydays, the spotlight, being involved in the sport’s biggest promotions were a not-so-distant memory.
From being on HBO to working corners back on the club circuit. For a stretch, this guy, who, for years subsidized his training career by laying concrete, was in the big leagues.
“Absolutely,” he said, “and I missed the hell out of it and Willie’s a fight or two away from that for himself. I’m going to push his ass as hard as I can because I want to get back there.”
The end of Pavlik’s career came with him training on the West Coast with Robert Garcia. As his life spiraled out of control and his performances in the ring declined, it was the original cornerman who was scapegoated. Loew admits, “It was tough and I didn’t have the luxury of guys like Freddie Roach and Robert Garcia, that have five, six, seven HBO fighters. I had one guy that I was making a helluva living off of and I took all the heat for everything he did outside the ring. It was extremely frustrating. I couldn’t let people see all the work I’ve done with all my other fighters because I had Kelly. That was it. So everything he did wrong outside of the ring, I took a bashing for it and it killed me and it killed my family.
“But it’s just something I went through.”
There was a lot of enabling going on from everyone involved. Nobody is blameless here. The bottom line is Pavlik was an earner and as one incident came upon another, excuses and alibis were crafted on his behalf. Plus, too many trips to Betty Ford wouldn’t be conducive for his career; there was always a sense that Pavlik never made the full commitment to his own rehabilitation.
It’s puzzling; why couldn’t Pavlik - who meant so much to his region and the business - handle prosperity?
“This is the time right here. We should’ve been fighting the Andre Wards, the [Carl] Frochs, the [Arthur] Abrahams,” says Loew, the frustration in his voice palpable. “This is the time when he should’ve been one of the biggest things out there right now.”
He makes it clear; the mere pressure of being champion or the grind of being a professional prizefighter and being the most recognizable face in his home city didn’t bring about his problems.
“I don’t think it happened overnight, obviously,” said Loew, who began training Pavlik from his very first days in the amateurs. “It was his outside activities that has cost his career. It had nothing to do with Kelly losing his greatness, how good he was but it’s everything he did outside of boxing that came crashing down on him. And I warned certain people in our camp that it’s going to catch up to us. Like I said, it didn’t happen when he was 27, 28, 29 years old. Our problems started way earlier and like I said, I warned or tried to ask certain individuals, ‘Hey, we gotta put a halt to this now,’ and it didn’t happen. I think it had nothing to do with Kelly’s desire to box. It had nothing to do with his losing his ability to box.
“Everything that happened to Kelly up to this point has to do with everything outside of boxing.”
Now with Nelson, Loew is determined to not let the same mistakes be made again.
“We all tried [with Kelly]; I don’t think anything I could’ve done or anything I could’ve said or didn’t say or do would’ve worked. It was gonna happen. It happened but I did learn a lot from that,” said Loew, who points out, “Willie Nelson is a totally different type of a person. Listen, Kelly, made me a lot of money. I still care very deeply about the kid but he has his problem and I took a bad beating over those problems outside of the ring and I shouldn’t have.
“But like I just said, Willie Nelson is a whole different type of kid outside the ring. I couldn’t have asked more of Kelly inside of the ring and inside of the gym. Willie, like I said, is one of those kids that does everything the right way. He loves being in the gym; he’s a gym rat. If I work one day and I can’t make it to the park when he runs, I don’t question that. I know he did. Every kid is different. All fighters have flaws. All fighters have vices outside the ring - it wasn’t just Kelly. A lot of these guys have a lot of those problems outside of boxing. This is probably the easiest kid I’ve worked with.”
Loew jokes that Nelson has a love of video games that borders on obsession. For now, Nelson is disciplined and studious…but that’s for now. What happens when the money rolls in?
“That’s true,” Loew admits but also points out that with Pavlik, money wasn’t necessarily the root of all evil. “Before the money rolled in, it was all there. It was all there written in stone and nothing was done about it. I think that the money just enhanced everything to that next level.”
Nelson, he believes, is cut from a different cloth, one built for the long haul and one built to go all the way and stay there for awhile.
“He’s just one of those kids like, ‘Wow, could it be this easy?’ But you’re right; it does scare me sometimes. I was so used to that phone call in the middle of the night, all the trouble we had. Now, all of a sudden, I’m relaxed. It’s great training this kid. Like I said, I just hope everything continues well.
“This is one kid that really, really deserves to make it.”

(Next week’s edition will have a very special guest in Larry Merchant, who will answer your questions via Twitter.)


On Tuesday afternoon, Showtime sent out the following press release:
NEW YORK (June 26, 2013) – Last Saturday night’s hotly contested Paulie Malignaggi vs. Adrien Broner Welterweight World Championship fight attracted an audience of 1.3 million viewers, the second-largest viewing audience for a bout on SHOWTIME since the network began tracking individual fights in 2009.
The average viewership for the SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING televised tripleheader—promoted by Golden Boy Promotions from Brooklyn’s Barclays Center—was also the second highest average since Nielsen began separating SHOWTIME from the networks’ multiplex channels in 2004.
In the nearly 10 years since 2004, three of the top-four most watched SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING live telecasts have aired in the last seven months—[Miguel] Cotto vs. [Austin] Trout, Dec. 2012; Malignaggi vs. Broner, June 2013; [Saul] Canelo [Alvarez] vs. Trout, April 2013—marking an upward trend. The fourth was Bernard Hopkins vs. Jean Pascal in 2010.
Further, the top-four largest audiences for an individual bout on SHOWTIME have come in the last 10 months—the aforementioned three plus Canelo vs. [Josesito] Lopez in Sept. 2012.
The surge in average viewership over the past two years represents an increase of over 50% since 2011 with two consecutive years of double-digit percentage gains. From 2011 through 2012, SHOWTIME CHAMPIONSHIP BOXING ratings were up more than 30 percent and from 2012 to present, including last Saturday’s telecast, they are up 16 percent.
The numbers are impressive - especially by Showtime standards - and it’s clear that this network is certainly on an upswing. To put this into perspective, when Broner fought Gavin Rees back in February on HBO, he did so in front of 1.4 million viewers. HBO still has a larger subscription base than Showtime and usually, their boxing broadcasts play to larger audiences. But in this instance, Broner was able to stay in the same Nielsen neighborhood.
Could this paradigm between Showtime and HBO be shifting?
Or is this the ceiling in terms of what Showtime does, ratings-wise?
And how will Showtime/Golden Boy Promotions fare in the future with boxers not initially developed on HBO?
By the time you’re reading this, I might already be on the plane headed to the East Coast and eventually to Foxwoods for this weekend’s card, which has a main event featuring Gennady “Goodboy” Golovkin vs. Matthew Macklin...By the way, does the Foxwoods have a fitness center? And do they charge for its use?...According to the state of New York, the Adrien Broner-Paulie Malignaggi event at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn sold 8,902 tickets among 9,827 total tickets for a gate of $854,820...Remember all the uproar over Rob Gronkowski caused by drinking too much beer in public? With what’s happened to the other then-Patriot tight end, that seems kinda trivial; doesn’t it?...So the Lakers have billboards begging Dwight Howard to stay? That just looks desperate. Then again, maybe they are...It’s been a pretty good June on the recruiting front for Al Golden and the Miami Hurricanes...

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