I can easily recall a time several years ago when I watched a lanky welterweight, easily over six feet tall, outfight Walter Matthysse by launching around a hundred punches each round. Both men were undefeated, but only one seemed to be special. This welterweight, with the wingspan of an NBA center, landed shots from every angle seemingly at will while his opponent simply tried to fling shots in the dark to delay the inevitable. By the end of the end of the tenth round the bout was stopped, and the raving took over.
Paul Williams soon became a highly respected name within the boxing community. Seeing a welterweight that big throwing over one hundred punches each round was something we didn't see every day, and it caused some people to get a bit excited about the potential of "The Punisher".
The physical resemblance caused instant comparisons to Thomas Hearns; something only reserved for the most deadly fighters. Hearns combined his rare size with blinding hand speed and crippling power. Some have declared his right hand to be the single hardest punch in welterweight history. Williams never did possess the Hitman's one-punch power, but he made up for it by being absolutely tireless in the ring.
After Williams defeated Antonio Margarito via close decision in a good fight, it became apparent that he was not a fluke. A few analysts pointed out that he had technical flaws, but when one is so much bigger than their opponents, who cares if he has issues with technique?
Last summer Erislandy Lara looked like the fighter that his amateur background had promised. A product of the much ballyhooed Cuban amateur program, Lara struggled to a gift draw against unheralded Carlos Molina in his previous fight. He was brought in to be televised on HBO as a comeback opponent for a better, more established fighter.
Lara didn't read the script. He moved in and out, forcing his opponent to constantly change direction and never appear comfortable. He landed his overhand left like a percussionist beating his instrument to the rhythm of the night. Nearly every time he landed a headshot it crackled like a fastball hitting the catcher's glove.
The opponent had a clear height and reach advantage, but failed to utilize either. He frequently appeared lost. His facial expression was that of a beaten man, and he looked like he wanted to be the first person out of the arena (or casino). Floyd Patterson admitted that he once wore a disguise to get out of the building after a poor showing. It would come to no shock if the same thing came across Paul Williams's mind after being given a boxing lesson.
Thankfully, for Williams, the judges did read the script, and gave him the victory regardless. Four years removed from being one of the brightest young fighters in the sport, Williams looked like an old fighter that simply couldn't get off. A guy that could see the shots coming, but couldn't get out of the way. Rumors abounded concerning his motivation. Reasons for his perceived lack of desire ranged from his inability to land huge "event" fights with the likes of Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao to his ability to garner large purses despite the fact that he is not much of a draw by any stretch of imagination.
However, the biggest reason for his recent fall from glory is an apparent lack of ability to make any type of adjustments. He seems unable to evolve, if you will. Evolution, whether we like it or not, is a fact of life. No, I'm not talking about evolution of species or anything like that. That's a discussion/debate for a whole other time and place. What I mean here is one's ability to evolve within one's own life and career. The best athletes do it, and not just in boxing. Williams could overwhelm most of his earlier opponents due to his immense size advantage and sheer high volume of punches he would deliver. Now, he is fighting people that are closer to his natural size, and scouting him from every angle. Just being tall and throwing a lot of punches didn't work against Sergio Martinez in the rematch, and it definitely didn't work against Lara. It wouldn't have worked against the 6'3'' Kelly Pavlik either.
After Williams was knocked cold, face-first into the mat by an overhand left from Martinez, one would think that he and his team would work to correct his mistake. Their next matchup was Lara, also a southpaw, and he got hit with the exact same punch. Not once. Not twice. Hundreds of times over the course of 12 rounds he was pounded with the same shot. It got so bad that Roy Jones Jr., yes the same guy that has taken more bad beatings than Evander Holyfield has children, went so far as to suggest that Williams may want to consider immediate retirement because he may suffer long-term brain damage from the amount of punches he was taking. That's when you know times are getting tough.
Some would argue that Williams showed the ability to adjust with his rematch victory over Carlos Quintana. Poppycock. After being counter punched all night by Quintana in their first fight, Williams iced him in under a round in the rematch. The win was a great one for Williams, but it failed to prove he had properly made any adjustments. I'm not knocking him for getting his guy out of their quickly, but it did not provide us with an ample opportunity to see if he had honestly changed anything due to the nature of a quick one-punch knockout.
Williams' trainer, George Peterson, may be the main culprit here. Peterson has publicly stated he feels that his charge is only getting hit with constant overhand lefts from southpaws because it's just pure luck. That last sentence may sound like something written by The Onion, but I promise you, it is not. Frankly, Peterson's belief that no adjustments need to be made is what incompetence sounds like. Either he doesn't know how to fix it, or he simply doesn't want to admit that his fighter has a problem.
It is not too late for Williams to change just a little bit. He doesn't need to overhaul everything, and nobody can expect him to at this stage of his career. But let's be honest. The clock is ticking, and Williams needs to shore up his defense if he expects to remain a serious player in the boxing world.
Williams is in a bit of a tight spot. He is not popular enough to survive many losses like Shane Mosley and still be in demand for big fights like "Sugar" Shane. He must be honest with himself, and realize that he is never getting the Mayweather or Pacquiao fights. The "Most Feared Boxer" shtick is over, and now he is going to have to fight his way back to respect.
Williams will be facing Nobuhiro Ishida this Saturday night on Showtime. Ishida is the perfect type of opponent for him to face at this juncture of his career. Though he owns a victory over James Kirkland, Ishida is a limited foe. He is the kind of opponent that can help us gauge where Williams is heading. If Williams looks good, it can lead to more positive outcomes. If he looks lost again, then it may be time to close the curtain on what once appeared to be a career with tremendous potential.
Williams has shown us that he is a great athlete. Let's if he can still become a great fighter.