Despite an eighth round scare, Willie Nelson flexed his country muscles.
In his first bout in Northern Nevada, the Cleveland native easily outpaced Luis Grajeda of Chihuahua, Mexico, in a unanimous decision Friday at the annual Fallon Fights.
Although the evening started with a sprinkle of rain, the thunder came in the ring, which was broadcast live on ESPN2’s “Friday Night Fights.”
Nelson, ranked No. 5 by the World Boxing Council (WBC), methodically boxed his way to victory, while Reno’s Oscar Vasquez avenged his brother, Jason Escalera battered his way to victory and Chinese prospect Zhang Zhilei won his pro debut in a sub-par opener.
In a battle for Silver State bragging rights, Vasquez took to the ring against Las Vegas’ Sergio Lopez. Both entered the ring sporting Nevada and UNLV gear, with the crowd decidedly in favor of Vasquez.
The Reno native (7-1) was on a mission to avenge his brother, Santos Vasquez, who lost to Lopez last year in Las Vegas.
Both fighters engaged in a spirited battle with plenty of theatrics, but in the end, Vasquez came out victorious in a unanimous decision. It was his fourth win at the Fallon Fights.
“Fallon is like my hometown,” Vasquez said. “It went like I expected. He actually surprised me coming forward, but I pulled it off.”
Nelson (23-1-1, 13 KOs), not to be confused with the legendary country singer, danced and used his reach to keep the shorter Grajeda at bay, although a near knockdown in the eighth round nearly gave the Mexican boxer an upset win.
Grajeda (17-3-2, KOs) landed a big flurry stunning Nelson, who fell into the ropes but somehow maintained his legs throughout the rest of the round.
“He caught me a few times,” Nelson said.
Nelson, though, battled through a choppy bout as the shorter Grajeda held Nelson in close creating numerous stoppages. When Grajeda ducked, Nelson’s arm would pin against the neck creating a less-than-ideal tempo.
Nevertheless, Nelson’s pin-point jab and body shots allowed him to set up his power punches and combinations.
“It went pretty much as I expected,” Nelson said. “As the later rounds went on, I wore him down.”
In the co-main event, Escalera of Union City, N.J. suffered a first-round setback but rallied in the third with a knockdown en route to handing Hungary’s Norbert Nemesapati his first-career loss.
About midway through the third, Escalera (15-2-1, 12 KOs) landed flurry of lefts to the head and body to send Nemesapati (14-1) to the ground en route to a comfortable unanimous decision.
After being wobbled in the first by Nemesapati, Escalera took control of the bout with his footwork and using his jab to set up the power punches. Escalera’s dominated the center of the ring for much of the bout forcing Nemesapati up against the ropes and landing numerous powerful uppercuts and body shots.
Escalera turned the fight in the third with a trio of lefts — two to the head and one to the body — to send Nemesapati to the floor. From there, Escalera kept Nemesapati at bay using his jab and moving in with his big right overhands when Nemesapati was up against the ropes.
“In the first round, I wanted to see what he had,” Escalera said. “He stunned me but after that, he was tired. If you look at what I was doing, I was trying to study him. I went to the body and chopped it down like a tree.”
The nights’ first bout, however, was less than spectacular.
Chinese heavyweight prospect Zhang Zhilei pushed Curtis Lee Tate into the ropes and knocked him down with a pair of punches. Referee Jay Nady immediately stopped the fight awarding Zhilei his first-career pro win by TKO.
Zhilei, standing 6-foot-6, 259 pounds, connected with his left and finished Tate (7-5) with a right hook to the jaw.
Tate, who has not fought in more than one year, was wobbling after picking himself off the mat, although the ringside doctor examined him for several minutes after the bout.
“It’s my new beginning,” Zhilei said through an interpeter. “I didn’t think it would happen this quick.”
Dynasty Boxing promoter Tommy Lane of Reno, whose company represents Zhilei, said his prospect will return to China for several weeks before returning to the ring.
In the other bouts, Eduardo Alciea scored a second-round TKO over Kirk Huff, while Palm Dale, Calif., native Joel Diaze Jr. (17-0, 13KOs) scored a third-round knockout over Kevin Aguilar (8-2-1, 1 KO) of San Luis Potosi, Mexico.