Paul Williams' boxing career came to a tragic end this weekend, as the 30-year-old former welterweight and junior middleweight titlist was involved in a motorcycle accident that has left him paralyzed from the waist down. It is a rare thing for me (I'm 30 myself) at this stage of my life and my time writing about boxing and discussing the sport with you all that I have seen, live as it happens, what amounts to an entire career unfold.
But I got to see all of Paul Williams' career. And while a cold review of that career may reveal some level of "disappointment," I'm not in the mood for cold. Sure, maybe he didn't quite become the southpaw Tommy Hearns we were told he could be, with his 6'1" (or better) frame standing out at 147 pounds like a sore thumb next to contemporaries such as Floyd Mayweather (5'8"), Miguel Cotto (5'7"), Zab Judah (5'7"), Shane Mosley (5'9"), and others. Hell, even Antonio Margarito, a giant welterweight at 5'10" with a thick frame for the weight, looked little when in the ring with "The Punisher."
Any disappointment, though, was probably going to be forgotten as time went on, anyway. Paul Williams was more than a contender, more even than another titleholder, more than a dangerous foe. He was a lot of fun to watch. Here was a guy who could have stood outside and established a jab and dominated fights that way. It would have been damn hard for even the most determined, iron-chinned fighters to get past a dominant jab on a welterweight with a freakish 79-inch reach.
Instead, Williams came to fight, throwing tons of punches, making opponents wonder what angle he was coming from next. He was, at his best, an awful challenge from a defensive standpoint. What do you do with a guy that tall, who can stand outside and pick and peck his way to victory, but also loves to get inside and brawl away?
He turned pro on July 21, 2000, six days before his 19th birthday. His opponent that night at the Coliseum Complex Events Center in Greensboro, N.C., was a fighter named Jeremy Mickelson, who himself had fought just one time, two months prior in Augusta, Georgia. Williams won a four-round decision that night, weighing in at 156 pounds.
For his first 17 fights, he was largely staying near home in the southeast, building up his skills against club opponents, as most all fighters do in their early days. He did take a trip to California in December 2001, fighting on a show at the Fantasy Springs headlined by former bantamweight titlist John Michael Johnson's first round KO of Augie Sanchez. A month later, he was in the house at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, as Diosbelys Hurtado beat Ricky Quiles in the main event, one fight before Hurtado (who had once challenged Pernell Whitaker) beat Randall Bailey for a vacant belt at 140. And he also fought in Buffalo twice, on cards where Joe Mesi brought in the fans.
Williams' level of opposition incrased by steps until 2005, when he faced and virtually shut out 1996 Olympic bronze medalist Terrance Cauthen in Santa Ynez, California. That night, Williams won on scores of 100-89, 100-89, and 98-91. Soon enough, he'd be getting himself in line for title shots, and making his name as an interesting prospect to watch.
In 2006, he knocked out Sergio Rios in the second round, winning a minor WBC title. A month and a half later, he put a beating on unbeaten Argentine Walter Matthysse, stopping him in the 10th round at the Home Depot Center. Now firmly with California-based Goossen Tutor Promotions, his career had headed west, and he never really looked back. He demolished Sharmba Mitchell in August 2006, followed by a win in November over Santos Pakau (below).
With the win over Pakau, Williams made it known that he felt he was avoided fighter, a dangerous foe that nobody at welterweight was willing to face. Now 32-0 and staying active to make his name stick, Williams found a dance partner in another big, avoided welterweight, when Antonio Margarito brought his WBO title to Carson, Calif., for an HBO main event on July 14, 2007 -- just a week shy of the seven-year anniversary of Williams' pro debut back in North Carolina.
Williams started the fight hot, winning the opening five rounds on my scorecard before things got a little tougher. As Margarito kicked it into second gear, Williams found himself in the fire for the first time as a pro, really, against a top opponent who was too tough to go down from his blizzard of punches.
Though Margarito clawed his way back into it, Williams also found a second wind late in the fight, and having thrown over 1,000 punches in the bout, won on scores of 115-113, 115-113, and 116-112. Bad Left Hook scored that one 116-112 for Williams, way back before anyone ever came to this site at all. That was also the night Arturo Gatti retired, having been battered in Atlantic City by Alfonso Gomez.
The Margarito fight would wind up being Williams' only bout of the year, though, and when he came back in February 2008, he was a little rusty, and it wound up costing him big time. Though a very heavy favorite against talented Puerto Rican Carlos Quintana, Williams just could not put it together for any extended amount of time on the night, and with Quintana's southpaw left hand coming in at will, we saw Williams "exposed" for the first time. His deficiencies came to light in a big way, and he lost the WBO welterweight title in his very first defense, one of the biggest upsets of 2008. Quintana clearly won the fight, and no longer was Paul Williams an unbeaten fighter.
Maybe it was for the best. Four months later, this time on Showtime instead of HBO, Quintana and Williams met in a rematch. Two minutes and 15 seconds after the opening bell, it was over, with Williams avenging his defeat in emphatic fashion.
Feeling that the best welterweights and biggest names at 147 would continue to ignore him, and with a desire to not take another seven-month break as he had between Margarito and Quintana, Williams decided to move up in weight and keep himself busy.
In September, he took a fight at middleweight with Minnesota club fighter Andy Kolle, a decent fighter for his own level, but as it turned out, no challenge for someone like Paul Williams, even with Williams moving up two weight classes. Kolle was out in 1:37.
His next fight out, Williams found a willing opponent in Verno Phillips, who celebrated his 39th birthday on the night of their bout. Phillips would have little else to celebrate that evening in Ontario, Calif., getting rather manhandled by Williams, who looked sharp, strong, and quick at 154 pounds. Verno had won the IBF title via controversial split decision his previous fight with Cory Spinks, but that belt wasn't on the line when the Belize native faced Williams. Stopped in eighth rounds, and having lost the entire fight, Phillips would never fight again.
Six months later, it was back up to middleweight for Williams. He was matched with veteran southpaw and defensive wizard Winky Wright, who hadn't fought in almost two years. Wright wanted to prove he was still relevant by coming back and beating a good, young fighter. Instead, he wound up with the short end of the stick, as Williams outworked and outfought him over 12 rounds, winning on scores of 120-108, 119-109, and 119-109.
I actually thought it was somewhat closer than that, as I gave Wright four rounds, but there was no doubt that Williams was the clearly superior man in the ring that evening, and though Wright hadn't fought in a while, it was confirmation, it seemed, that Williams could fight at 160, as well as 147 and 154.
Williams would spend the rest of his career saying loud and clear that he could still move back to 147 pounds for the right fight, but that fight never did come along, and he never returned to the welterweight division. After his win over Winky, Paul was scheduled to face Kelly Pavlik, in what became a key turning point in his career, largely thanks to what didn't happen.
Pavlik, who held the middleweight championship at the time, was to face Williams on October 3, 2009. Instead, a staph infection (some said he was just out of shape) forced Pavlik to cancel that date, which then was moved to December 5.
Pavlik canceled again, though he did fight Miguel Espino (remember that one?) on December 19. Williams simply didn't want to go through the "will he or won't he?" cycle with Pavlik again, so he chose to keep his December 5 date on HBO.
Sergiy Dzizniruk was a rumored opponent, as was Joshua Clottey. Instead, Sergio Martinez got the call, and we were left with what was on paper not that appealing a fight. Two southpaws, Martinez the dreaded "crafty" southpaw, and little chance of fireworks.
Boy, was the paper wrong. In an instant classic, Williams gutted out a majority decision win over Martinez in Atlantic City, with both fighters tasting canvas in the opening round before the remainder of the fight turned into a war of attrition. Both had their runs of sustained momentum, with Williams fighting on instinct for a majority of the brawl. Literally nobody thought the fight would go the way it did, other than Williams getting the win. What was supposed to be "just a fight" became a Fight of the Year contender.
In May 2010, Williams faced Kermit Cintron in California, and I don't have the energy to try and describe it again, so here's what I said then:
In the fourth round of a fairly slow fight, just as the action was threatening to pick up, Williams fell to the canvas as the fighters tangled, and Cintron was hurled out of the ring and all the way to the ringside floor.
Williams got to his feet fine, but Cintron stayed on the ground outside. The official word for now is that doctors refused to let Cintron continue despite his own protests, but Cintron was clutching his knee and grabbing his back and lying motionless. It would seem that a "Seriously, guys, check it out, I can get up" might have helped his cause if he wanted to fight on, but who knows?
Williams got the bizarre win, which didn't much help him in his preparation for his next fight, which wound up coming in November 2010. Sergio Martinez had, since losing to Williams, knocked off Pavlik to become the world middleweight champion, and the two went back to Boardwalk Hall for one of the most hotly-anticipated rematches in recent memory. Both guys were in their prime, both highly-regarded, and this time, we knew to expect action.
We didn't get a Fight of the Year. Instead, we got the Knockout of the Year.
The brutal knockout loss was without question the nadir of Williams' fortunes in the ring, and again exposed his weaknesses against fellow southpaws. Quintana, the first time around, had landed good left hands repeatedly. Martinez did the same in their first fight. This time, a perfect shot caught Williams, and it was lights out.
There was speculation that Williams would never be the same fighter. Trainer and manager George Peterson was criticized for constantly saying that nothing needed to change, that it was a "lucky punch." Williams returned in July 2011 against Erislandy Lara, another southpaw, who was coming off of a mediocre performance against Carlos Molina.
And Lara took Williams to the woodshed. Once again, a southpaw opponent found more than enough openings to blast Paul Williams, who to his credit did put forth an effort. By the end of the 12 rounds, it was clear that the Cuban had scored his "arrival" win, putting the 154-pound division on notice. Yes, when Lara was "on," he was a true contender.
But then the scores were read: 116-114, 115-114, and 114-114. A majority decision win for Paul Williams, and a true robbery. The scores were met with such outrage that the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board investigated, and wound up suspending all three judges.
At that point, Paul Williams had hit as close to rock bottom as someone with a 40-2 record at the age of 30 could hit. He was knocked out savagely by Martinez, had been outboxed and beaten up by Lara, and appeared as though he'd just come down the other side of the hill prematurely.
There was also a lot of that outrage directed at Williams himself, which really wasn't deserved. The fighter didn't score the fight -- he hung in there and did the best he could do. It wasn't really good enough to get the win he was gifted, but all any fighter can be asked to do is give their best effort. I never felt Williams did less than that, not against Lara or anyone else. Some nights, even good fighters' "best effort" isn't good enough, for any number of reasons.
After a long break, Williams returned to the ring on February 18 of this year, defeating Nobuhiro Ishida in Corpus Christi, a one-sided decision that got him back in the win column, shook some rust, and set him up for something bigger. Here's what I said in February:
Paul Williams is still a pretty good fighter, which in reality was probably all he ever was. It's not a knock, but "great" is thrown around too often, and guys get dreams cast onto them that they probably never did have the ability to live up to, and Williams seems like one of those guys. He's a respectable, fun fighter, with enormous flaws. He's an action guy who doesn't come up with boring fights because it's just not in him.
... He's still quality. He was expected, by many, to be great. He isn't. There's no shame in that.
My point then was simple: Even if Williams wasn't the pound-for-pound king some thought he could blossom into at one time, he was certainly not a bad fighter, and certainly not someone who didn't deserve some praise. Time after time, Williams provided entertaining nights of action. He took risks. He looked for big fights.
And that "something bigger" was coming. He signed to face Canelo Alvarez on September 15, just a week ago. Had Williams beaten the 21-year-old Mexican superstar -- and despite his recent performances not being great, many felt he had a good shot -- he would have been a top fighter again. He would have been in demand. He would have been the guy who exposed Canelo, the phenom.
Now here we are. Doctors say Williams will never walk again, let alone fight. Reports say he's trying to stay upbeat and positive. Peterson says Williams is not suffering, isn't in any pain. There's that, at least.
It's an unthinkable end to what had been a career I'd bet good money would have aged well -- still will. I think folks will look back on Paul Williams' boxing career fondly. Yes, he was flawed. He was far, far from perfect, and sometimes he fought in such a way that you wondered, "Does this guy know how tall he is?" He was called a stupid fighter on more than one occasion, but I like to think that was generally said with an acknowledgment, stated or not, that while Paul might not have had the best ring IQ in the world, that was part of what made him so damn appealing as a fighter.
He was never scared of a fight. He never avoided anyone. Paul Williams' career has not ended on his terms, or on the terms anyone would have wanted. He should have gone out his way. That has been taken from him.
We send our best wishes to "The Punisher," his family, and his loved ones. We'll never get to see that big, awkward guy in the ring again, doing things that defy logic, good and bad. The legacy he leaves is one he can be proud of the rest of his days.