By Cliff Rold
Trading knockdowns early, 25-year old Jr. Middleweight Willie Nelson (18-1-1, 11 KO) of Cleveland, Ohio, settled into a groove in the second half on Friday night at the Texas Station Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada and scored a ten-round unanimous decision over 30-year old undefeated 2004 Cuban Olympic Silver Medalist Yudel Jhonson (12-1, 8 KO) of Miami, Florida.
Both men came in equally under the 154 lb. division limit at 151 ½. The referee was Robert Byrd.
An intense opening frame began with a busy Jhonson using his southpaw lead right to get close and land some hard straight lefts. Nelson, five inches taller at 6’3, began to fire his jab as the round progressed. Soon the long right hand was coming behind it and Jhonson was found the gap tougher to close.
The same dynamic ruled in the second. Jhonson found success when he could get close, catching Nelson with stiff counters and wobbling the taller man. Nelson responded, collecting himself and landing a big right at mid-ring to score a knockdown. Jhonson beat the count, a little unsteady but able to collect his senses and survive. By round’s end, it was Nelson again rocked back on his heels but Nelson weathered and kept his feet.
Round three was another frame where both men clipped and rocked each other but neither went down. Nelson used more movement as Jhonson improved the timing of his right hand counter. That right hand finally found the mark with full forced late in round four. Catching Nelson with a hanging right hand lead, Jhonson came over the top and dropped Nelson hard near the ropes. On wobbly legs, Nelson rose and Jhonson moved in for the kill. The lanky Nelson held and was thrown the mat for his trouble but survive to get to the corner.
Jhonson stayed in pursuit as the fifth round developed, Nelson moving and firmly finding his legs about a minute in. Trapped against the ropes, Nelson fired back with force. A left hook started a salvo, Jhonson trying to slip shots but staggered with a right hand as Nelson came forward with confidence.
A relatively uneventful sixth saw both battlers looking for single bombs, the tension high and punch output low. Nelson, with some rights and a quick left in the last minute, may have just shaded the frame.
The fireworks display of the early rounds was off in the ensuing three rounds. Jhonson stayed on the front foot but it was Nelson doing more to move his hands. When exchanges took place, the taller man was able to finish and kept pace when they were in close quarters. With three minutes to go, Nelson appeared in firm control and solidly ahead.
Jhonson, needing a big effort, instead waited for perfect shots and got nailed for his troubles. A short left from Nelson was followed with a snapping right at the midway point of the round and Jhonson looked hurt. Nelson didn’t press too hard, choosing the safe and smart path and returning to his jab before Jhonson could seize an opportunity. In the waning moments, a Nelson uppercut punctuated a strong second half to close the show.
It was enough. Nelson was awarded the fight on all three judge’s scorecards, a bit too close at 95-94 and twice at 97-92. Nelson continues his rebound from a narrow defeat two fights ago, dropped three times and still only held off on a majority decision. This time, he showed he’s learned how to stay off the floor too often. It’s the same sort learning Jhonson will now have to do as he deals with defeat for the first time.
The televised opener featured as awkward a clash of undefeated, high knockout percentage punchers as one could ever see.
At the end of eight rounds, the younger Super Middleweight got the nod but it wasn’t by much. Sweden’s 28-year old Badou Jack (11-0, 8 KO), 167, managed a split decision over 35-year old Alexander Brand (17-1, 15 KO), 166 ½, of Bogota, Colombia. The referee was Tony Weeks.
Jack, the far more orthodox of the two, worked behind the jab as they built steam over the course of rounds. Brand, leaping in with uppercuts and frustrating Jack with slippery shoulders and head movement, managed to win his share of rounds. The style clash led to clinches and some rough stuff around them, both men warned for shoving in the fourth as Brand nearly shoved Jack out of the ring only to be pushed back hard and across the ring.
In the eighth and final round, his corner imploring him to move his hands, Jack let loose in search of a knockout. Brand took some big shots well and Weeks came close to taking a point from Jack for a hard hook after a called break. Brand’s efforts were enough to give him an edge at 77-75 on one card, overruled for Jack at 77-75 twice on the other two.
The card was televised in the U.S. on Showtime as part of its “ShoBox” series, promoted by Warriors Boxing and Sampson Promotions.
Cliff Rold is a member of the Ring Magazine Ratings Advisory Panel, the Yahoo Pound for Pound voting panel, and the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]