In his attempt to retain two versions of the super-welterweight title in front of a home crowd inside the Liacouras Center, Julian “J-Rock” Williams is hoping to further stamp his footprint in the history books of famous Philadelphia fighters.
“It’s a special group,” Williams said before embarking on the first defence of his world titles this Saturday night. “I hate to say it, but a lot of Philadelphia fighters were good but they never got over the hump.”
Philadelphia is a city widely acknowledged to have produced some of the most hardened, determined, charismatic and gutsy fighters spanning generations; however, the 29-year-old is under no illusions that his work is done in adding his name to an illustrious group of pugilists.
I returned from a trip across the Atlantic just yesterday, a trip that included a whistle-stop tour of Philadelphia for two nights – unfortunately not coinciding with Williams vs Rosario – where I was able to meander the famed streets, zig-zagging across the city in search of the boxing relics that, to the everyday tourist, would go unnoticed.
On what felt like a balmy spring evening, I ambled down North Broad Street in search of my first location – the Blue Horizon. Passing fast food outlets, gas stations and supermarkets, the journey was forgetful yet enjoyable – there was unmistakable energy to the streets which I had longed for having spent considerable time away from London over the festive period.
I approached what had previously been voted the number-one boxing venue in the world only to see the shell-like remains and derelict insides of a building that had proved to be the beating heart of Philadelphia boxing for over six decades.
Closed for almost 10 years, the building – named after the song “Beyond Blue Horizon” from the film Monte Carlo – resembled a sorry tale of boxing wilting from the public eye, as other, more lucrative sports continue to gobble up fans and participants alike. If it weren’t for the mural depicting Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes and George Foreman on the side of the property, passers-by wouldn’t think twice to peer through the graffiti-tagged doors of the former 1,364-seat venue.
As a regular visitor to London’s iconic York Hall, obvious parallels could be made between the intimate buildings and their ability to harness such unforgettable nights of combat. Standing on the balcony, mere feet away from the fighters with sweat dripping down the cracked walls behind you, York Hall provides a unique experience for boxing fans in the UK; it no doubt holds a torch for The Blue Horizon as one of the linchpins to boxing’s ageing soul.
Williams turned pro a month before the doors shut for a final time.
“I see a lot of fighters from Philadelphia turn pro, go 18-0, 19-0, and not everybody can make it,” Williams continued as he furthered his dissection of Philadelphia’s fighting history. “I’m not pointing fingers or talking crap about anybody, but some guys just get to a certain point and get stagnant and after you know, they lose one or two fights and they become just another folk tale.”
This term “folk tale” fighters that Williams alludes to may well undermine the success stories of champions that have heralded from Philly, but in a brazen attempt to plot his future with loftier ambitions, “J-Rock” doesn’t want to be remembered simply as Philly’s 32nd world champion.
“I’m one of three – in recent years – that can say they were the unified champion,” the IBF and WBA titlist concluded. “The other two are Danny Garcia and Bernard Hopkins. Recently, there have only been two Ring titles in the city – Danny Garcia and Bernard Hopkins. I’m chasing that. That’s my next goal.”
Despite Williams’ desires to climb boxing’s slippery ladder of success, he still swims against the tide of modernity to become renowned in the city he adores. From “Philadelphia” Jack O’Brien – the city’s first world champion at light heavyweight in 1905 – to Smokin’ Joe Frazier – the undisputed heavyweight champion in the early 70s and Olympic gold medalist – Philly’s fight history is dripping in names that became synonymous with its surroundings; “J-Rock’s” relative rise from obscurity and a career fighting across the States has stifled his pursuit of stardom.
“Winning the title brought me a little more notoriety, that’s all,” Williams added. “To be honest with you, I stopped thinking about it.”
Traveling south of the city to the Italian district, alighting the metro at Snyder station, around the corner lies one of Philly’s most infamous sons: Joey Giardello. The bronzed, piercing eyes of the former middleweight champion give a small taste of the intensity of character that (real name) Carmine Orlando Tilelli possessed. Winning the world middleweight crown against Dick Tiger in 1963 followed an upset of Sugar Ray Robinson just six months prior, with Giardello claiming impetuously “I’m a natural, I just fight.”
With love for gambling, disputes and loathing of training, Giardello cemented himself as one of the most controversial yet loved fighters throughout the city – his gutsy, gritty style of intense energy and a willingness to prove his whiskers epitomized what the city expected of their fighters inside the ring.
This isn’t to say that guts and knockouts were the only ingredients needed for a Philly fight fan to approve. Tommy Loughran – light heavyweight world champion during the late 20s – finished his career with 90 wins and only 14 stoppages and has been considered one of the city’s most-loved fighters. An elusive style with a revolutionary defensive technique, Loughran’s style was most suited to the lower weight classes but was respected and celebrated with the “Philly Phantom” also dipping into heavyweight waters.
“I just think it’s just the grind of Philadelphia in general,” Williams said in response to why he thinks Philly fighters are so special. “Seeing the things I seen, it made me hungry. It made me want to get out and make a better life for myself,” he continued, with comparisons to the cliche “Rocky” story impossible to ignore.
The 72 stone steps leading up to the entrance of the Philadelphia Museum of Art are hard to resist as a first-timer in the city. On a gentle jog from my hotel, I panted through two miles, slaloming the flags of nations that decorated Benjamin Franklin Parkway on the road up to what is now known as the “Rocky Steps.” It was dawn on a crisp morning, with the sun permeating through the clouds that hovered above the city. Swallowing any pride I claim to possess, I clambered up the steps, climaxing in an arms-up leap at the pinnacle as a Sylvester Stallone lookalike looked on, awaiting the chance to cash in on a day of photo opportunities.
A Hollywood movie that has time after time transcended fiction and penetrated sport, with countless tales of plucky underdogs rising from obscurity to stardom – Williams is hoping for a career as champion with similar longevity to the eight films that have been carved out by the franchise.
“I’m not just satisfied with being the best junior middleweight in the world. I’m just not satisfied with being the unified champion of the world,” the champion added as he demonstrated his ambition. “Sometimes when guys make it – and I can say that now because I think I’ve made it – I think guys get a little bit complacent and lose their hunger.”
This hunger underpins the credentials of a Philly fighter, with Williams undeterred by previous setbacks in his career. A fifth-round stoppage loss to Jermall Charlo in his previous attempt to grab a world title could have easily lead Williams to settle for a career of mediocrity, instead, three years later and he is regarded the man to beat in the division.
From Joe Frazier to Gypsy Joe Harris – a 60s welterweight contender who fought 25 times concealing a blindness in one eye – via the lightning hands of Midget Wolgast, there is no one style fits all to define a Philly fighter, but in his determination to be the very best, Williams hopes he is on the right path to being included amongst the city’s best.
“I pride myself on being down to earth,” Saturday’s defending champion disclosed as the hour’s tick down to his homecoming. “Nobody is better than nobody. White, black, Puerto Rican, smart, degreed, no degree. Nobody better than nobody.”
With no airs and graces, a struggle through adversity and a commitment to his craft, Williams exudes the spirit of fighting Philly. Saturday night, he returns home to start the next chapter in his story.