Luis Nery truly earned his way back onto the title stage.

The former WBC bantamweight and junior featherweight champion fought through fatigue and a determined effort by Azat ‘Crazy A’ Hovhannisyan to earn an eleventh-round knockout in an instant classic. Nery floored Hovhannisyan late in round ten and had the Armenian contender out on his feet before referee Ray Corona stopped the contest at 1:51 of round eleven in their DAZN-aired WBC junior featherweight title eliminator Saturday evening at Fox Theater in Pomona, California.

The win positioned Nery as the WBC mandatory challenger to unified WBC/WBO junior featherweight champion Stephen Fulton (21-0, 8KOs).

“We knew it was going to be a hard fight,” Nery confessed to Golden Boy’s Beto Duran during his DAZN in-ring post-fight interview. “We were well prepared for a war. We expected and knew it was going to be a knockout and wanted to deliver for the fans.”

Nery avoided a knockdown call in the first minute of the fight. The 28-year-old Mexican southpaw champ lost his balance after throwing a left and a right, which caused him to fall to the canvas. Referee Ray Corona was on top of the matter and accurately ruled it a slip. Nery followed with a wide-armed flurry of punches, while Hovhannisyan—a 34-year-old Armenian contender who lives in Glendale, California—kept his attack down the middle and was effective early with his straight right hand.

Hovhannisyan took the lead in round two, as he looked to walk down Nery. The former title challenger and streaking junior featherweight contender threw his right hand upstairs and to the body. Nery struggled to defend against the weapon, often forced to fight in reverse and outside of his comfort zone. Hovhannisyan stalked Nery late in the round but left himself open for a counter left hand by Nery, which initiated a fun two-way exchange in the closing seconds.

The action carried over into the third, which saw Hovhannisyan take the lead and connect with a left hook along the ropes. Nery shook off the blow and quickly seized control, landing enough left hands to draw blood under the right eye of Hovhannisyan.

Both fighters had their say in a spirited round four. Hovhannisyan hurt Nery with body shots, consistently driving the former champion to the ropes. Nery rallied late in the round courtesy of an uppercut and let his hands go down the stretch. Hovhannisyan stood his ground and responded, much to the delight of the capacity crowd.

Nery rocked Hovhannisyan with a volley of punches in round five. Hovhannisyan was forced to contend with a second cut, this one in the right eyelid and also ruled to have been caused by a punch. The damage drew concern from Hovhannisyan’s corner, who cautioned their charge to not get caught up in exchanges that would leave him open to Nery’s power shots.

The advice didn’t quite take, as Hovhannisyan preferred to bite down and fight. Nery continued to target his foe’s right eye but was also forced to contend with the heavy hands of Hovhannisyan, who was mixing in left hooks upstairs.

Nery punched in combination in round seven but couldn’t truly enjoy a sustained attack. Hovhannisyan’s face was showing significant wear and tear but he was able to respond nearly every time Nery threatened to take the lead. Nery briefly lost his balance after a left hook by Hovhannisyan, though quickly recovered to connect with a looping left hand.

Hovhannisyan charged forward in round eight and found success with lead right, left hook combinations. Nery was more disciplined at close quarters, taking a step back as Hovhannisyan plowed ahead but not as effective with his power shots due to the increased punch output coming from his determined opponent.

Blood streamed down the right side of Hovhannisyan, which didn’t at all slow down his attack in round nine. Nery seemed bothered by the Armenian’s aggression while fending off fatigue. Hovhannisyan landed a right hand that pushed Nery to the ropes with fifteen seconds to go in the round. Nery responded with a left uppercut to set up a volley of punches before the bell.

Time was called at the start of round ten as the ringside physician examined the multiple battle scars sported by Hovhannisyan. Action quickly resumed, with Hovhannisyan jumping on a slowed Nery. It proved to be a false sense of security for Hovhannisyan, who dearly paid the price in the closing seconds of the round.

Nery turned the tide in a big way, landing a left hand that caused Hovhannisyan to grin as he tried to mask how badly he was hurt. Nery jumped on Hovhannisyan, with a final left hand sending him to the canvas. Hovhannisyan beat the count and barely made it to the bell, with the referee dangerously close to stopping the fight.

Hovhannisyan wasn’t afforded that luxury in the decisive eleventh round. He dug deep with what he had left in the tank but Nery withstood the late surge and responded with tight combinations upstairs. Hovhannisyan was flat footed and battered as Nery unloaded a final series of power punches before Corona intervened to end the bout.

Hovhannisyan (21-4, 17KOs) suffered his first defeat in nearly five years, which came in a twelve-round, unanimous decision to then-unbeaten WBC 122-pound titlist Rey Vargas.

“We’re obviously disappointed that the fight turned out that way,” admitted Hovhannisyan, who landed 210-of-688 total punches (30.5%), including 180-of-509 power shots (35.4%) according to Compubox. “But it’s boxing. I’ve always thought Luis Nery was a very good fighter. Tonight, he proved that he’s a great fighter and I congratulate him.”

Nery threw and landed fewer punches but connected at a higher percentage. He was credited with landing 195-of-596 total punches (32.7%), including 150-of-377 power shots (39.8%). With the win, he is now the number one contender for that very title which he briefly held prior to suffering his first career defeat in a May 2021 knockout loss to Brandon Figueroa.

Three wins have followed for Nery, who advanced to 34-1 (26KOs). He will now await the outcome of Fulton’s forthcoming unified title defense versus unbeaten three-division champ Naoya Inoue (24-0, 21KOs), with hopes of challenging the winner.

“It’s simple. I want Inoue. I want Fulton,” vowed Nery. “I feel ready to challenge for the championship, whether it’s Fulton or Inoue.”

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox