WESTWOOD Travis Hanshaw reflexively groaned as he climbed the four concrete stairs leading out of the boxing training facility in the basement of the Westwood Boys & Girls Club on Saturday afternoon.

If the week’s worth of sparring with former North American Boxing Federation titleholder Willie Nelson that has made Hanshaw sore helps him bring Aaron Quattrocchi pain in a World Boxing Federation Super Middleweight world championship bout on June 29, “The Rattlesnake” will consider it well worth it.

“I’ve taken a lot of soreness because I’ve had to spar at such a high level every day,” Hanshaw said. “I’m getting older; I’m getting more focused. That’s the thing about sparring Willie, he’s an animal. You have to stay focused the whole time. I’ve had almost 200 fights, so I break concentration sometimes, and sparring Willie, you can’t break concentration. You have to stay focused the whole time.”

Hanshaw traveled to Youngstown, Ohio, last week to spar for a couple of days with Nelson, a 32-year-old fighter from Cleveland who sports a 26-3-1 record.

It was part of co-trainers Corky Salyer and Tom Hanshaw’s checklist to prepare Hanshaw for the title fight — finding a sparring opponent who was “gonna beat him like he’s never been beat before,” Tom said.

Nelson may not be as well-known to the general public as the outlaw country musician with whom he shares a name, but “everybody that follows boxing, when you mention that name, they know exactly who you’re talking about,” said Tom Hanshaw.

So the Hanshaw camp was overjoyed when, after last week’s sessions, Nelson decided to come to Westwood for a week’s more work with Travis Hanshaw.

And more so when Hanshaw began to hold his own.

“I need for Travis not to be able to be the aggressor all the time. And when he first started sparring Willie, Willie pushed him backwards,” Salyer said. “As of (Friday) night, you could see it turn around. Travis was able to push him backwards.”

Nelson competes at 154 pounds in the Junior Middleweight class, while Hanshaw is fighting at 168 pounds as a Super Middleweight. But Nelson’s speed, height and ranginess are similar to those of Quattrocchi, Hanshaw said.

Hanshaw also has sought out-of-town sparring partners he isn’t familiar with in search of regaining a killer instinct he has found difficult to display against local fighters he knows.

“Even as an amateur, I was always known as a knockout puncher, and it kinda just faded away there for a little bit,” Hanshaw said, “and we determined after watching our training tapes and seeing me not going hard in sparring is what caused it. You practice like you fight, so we’ve been bringing in people that’s gonna take my head off.”

Hanshaw found that in Nelson.

“Him coming down to Youngstown, I wanted to prove a point that this is my gym. Ain’t nobody comes into my gym and beats me,” Nelson said. “Same thing coming here. He’s gotta prove a point, like, this is my gym, ain’t nobody comes to my gym and beats me. I have to prove that I’m that good, I’m gonna walk in your gym and beat you. So we’ve just been going at it, going to war, trading shots, going blow for blow, and pushing each other to our limits.”

That may sound acrimonious, but Hanshaw’s connections speak glowingly of Nelson. That’s in large part because Nelson has gone out of his way to tutor Hanshaw in how to patch the holes in his approach.

“The thing everybody questions, is Travis going to the next level?” Nelson said. “He’s ready for it, he’s just gotta tighten up some things. I’m just happy to help him out.”

The sparring was beneficial for Nelson, too. He has a fight scheduled with Ramses Agaton on June 21 in Elkins, West Virginia.

“Most champions won’t give you time or they won’t help anybody on their way up,” Salyer said, “but (Nelson) was looking for somebody that would stay in the ring with him and not turn and run away after the second round. Travis gave him that type of adversarial combatant mentality, so he stayed in there and dished out as much as he got. It’s been a really evened-up sparring session.”

Hanshaw proclaimed himself in “great shape.” Three fights ago, he weighed 225 pounds. He is down to 168, dropping from the Light Heavyweight class in the interest of getting a shot at a world title more quickly at Super Middleweight.

“Six months ago, I was training for Germany,” Hanshaw said of a potential Light Heavyweight world title fight there before his opponent vacated his belt. “I had that in my mind, and then when he vacated, it killed me. I was like, ‘What do I need to do to fight for the world title? I did everything you all have asked.’

“And WBF has kept their promise. They said, ‘If you can drop to 168, we’ll do it now.’ Which, I’ve been weighing in at 170, so I’m like, why not? That’s two pounds.”

So Salyer took on the task of helping Hanshaw simultaneously lose weight and gain muscle.

“We’ve been hitting that iron,” Hanshaw said, adding with a grin, “I’m finally on the big-boy weights.”

Added Salyer: “He was still carrying what I call young boy body material. He was carrying too much body fat and not enough muscle mass.”

Hanshaw has also had to focus on endurance, in case the scheduled 12-round bout with Quattrocchi goes the distance. It helps that he carries a resting heart rate of 40 to 48 beats per minute, according to his mother and manager, Mindy Hanshaw. That was discovered after the critical snake bite he sustained at the age of 4 that gave him his nickname.

Tom Hanshaw said they originally thought that rate meant Travis had a heart condition and nearly derailed his boxing career before it got started. Instead, it’s proven to be a conditioning asset.

To further aid his transformation, Hanshaw has given up bread and pop for a diet heavy on fruit, vegetables and meat. He sends Salyer pictures of everything he eats, he said, to stay on task.

“I’m already on weight. I’m ready to go,” Hanshaw said. “Everything went straight to plan. We just gotta make sure we stay that way until the fight.”

Hanshaw is chomping at the bit to get going.

“I work 12 hours a day. I only get like three hours of sleep right now,” Hanshaw said. “I don’t get to eat what I want, I don’t get to sleep when I want, and I can’t be with my wife that long.”

Not to mention, there is no love lost between Hanshaw and Quattrocchi (11-2-1).

“I know he’s been cocky. He’s got that northern kind of accent,” Hanshaw said of the fighter who lives in Follansbee, West Virginia, near the Mountain State’s northernmost tip. “Anything you show me, it ain’t gonna be nothing new to me. I’ve seen it all. So you don’t have to be all cocky.”

Hanshaw is happy to fight Quattrocchi on his own turf, at the Boyd County Community Center, but eagerly anticipates the opportunity to fight in Germany with greater exposure if he wins this one. That bout would likely take place the first week of November, said Mindy Hanshaw.

“This is supposed to be on HBO or Showtime or somewhere overseas,” Hanshaw said of the fight at hand. “We’re lucky enough for people to actually come watch me to be able to do it here.”

Hanshaw-Quattrocchi is one of five fights on the June 29 card in Catlettsburg with northeastern Kentucky connections.

Tom Hanshaw Jr. meets Jermaine King, of New York, with a state title on the line.

“We’ve got people coming from all around the world. It ain’t just a Kentucky thing or a United States thing,” said “T-Bob” Hanshaw. WBF president Howard Goldberg is expected to make the trip from South Africa to take in the evening. “I think it’s the biggest stage that’s ever been done in the state of Kentucky.”

Dustin Ryan, a Boyd County native, will make his professional debut at the age of 41 against Verceil Webster. Ryan has raised seven children and battled injury after winning the 2013 Toughman. He is eager to prove his age means nothing in the ring.

“I went to (Golden Gloves) nationals last year and everybody said, ‘Man, you’re crazy for doing this,’” Ryan said. “I’m just trying to show people that age don’t matter, it’s what you want to do with your life that matters. There’s a lot of people that get hurt or people that get older that think they can’t do things, and that’s just a mind thing stopping you.

“Whoever they put in the ring with me, they better pack their lunch, because I don’t know what’s left in this old tank, but I know what they’re gonna get when I get there. They’re gonna get it all.”

Melvin Russell, a Lloyd native nicknamed “The Romantic Redneck,” meets Portland Pringle. Russell is aiming for a shot at a national belt and carries a corresponding sense of urgency into this fight and one scheduled for two weeks after it.

“I just came off fighting for the National Boxing Association Light Heavyweight championship,” Russell said. “They promised me if I got a couple wins, that they would give me another opportunity at a national title, so that’s the plan. I’m very driven. This has to be a win for me. I have to destroy this guy.

“I’m fighting two weeks right after that, for another one, so I can get those two wins and then I can fight for that national title.”

Grayson’s Bill Yates opposes Larry Knight.

“Bill Yates is our Mike Tyson,” Tom Hanshaw said. “He’s a short cruiserweight and he hits like a brick.”

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zklemme@dailyindependent.com