Jimmy Williams isn’t like most of us, in quite a few ways. He understands why he’s been invited to the ShoBox party tonight at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, and it is not to be the honoree.
To him, he’s not there to be the pinata for Brandun Lee. One young man, however, enters the ring 21 years old, holding a 19-0 (17 KO) record. The other man is 34 years old, and that’s Jimmy Williams, owning a 16-3-2 (5 KO) record, and bearing scars that are apparent only when you look hard and listen well.
Williams owns a smile he employs often, and is pleasant when you deal with him, so you don’t naturally assume there are dark places his mind visits, or that he’s faced the high hurdles to get to this point in life.
This guy was brought up right, I find myself thinking early on in a phone chat with Williams, who grew up in New Jersey, and now makes his home in Connecticut, with a wife and twin boys.
That assessment didn’t change wholesale when Jimmy told me how those scars formed. But you should know, he was not brought up in a typical atmosphere, with a mom and dad who toed the line. He wasn’t, truth to be told, living with people bought wholly into the American dream and drilled into Jimmy to be that solid citizen, one who works hard, treats others as he himself would like to be treated, and is an asset to whatever community he’s in.
Jimmy made weight Tuesday, he was 143¾, and going into the 144-145 area as he chomped a turkey burger, potatoes, and broccoli after the weigh in. For dinner, he says, he’ll maybe take in another burger, perhaps add some fries on the side. We both chuckle, as I give him a bravo for choosing the fries.
“Might as well reward yourself, making that weight is no joke,” I say.
“Damn right, Mike,” he says. “That salt with the fries, gotta stay hydrated, keep that water in.” He might even get a slice of cake come dinner time, he says. “You work so hard to get to this place. So I will get that weight back on, my goal is 153, 154 on fight night.”
Lee is the favorite, and a win here gets him closer to where his backers think he’ll be in a year and a half: owning a title, making real good money, more people apart from the hardcores knowing that it’s Brandun with a “u,” not “o.”
Williams sees Lee as a rising prospect, but that he represents a step up for young Lee.
“He’s got everything to be successful,” says Jimmy, offering a generous and realistic scouting report. “This is a good fight for me, on ShoBox, where the best fight the best.”
Lee has shown good quickness, Jimmy continues, and has a solid KO ratio.
“He’s got that young energy. I remember being 21 years old, I was 21, and you don’t know probably the downside of life. I was so hungry! At 21, your head is higher than the clouds! He feels this is his show, his time.”
And though 34 isn’t old outside of boxing, it ain’t close to young in the squared circle. I wondered if rust might be a factor for the veteran, getting the joints loose and the timing flowing.
“Absolutely not, rust won’t be a factor for me,” he says. “I’m in the best shape of my life. Since March, I’ve been working hard, committing to a great diet, knowing that call was gonna come. When PBC got the schedule going again, I knew it was a matter of time. I’m established in this game. If you are 2-0, 3-0, maybe you don’t get a fight, but an established guy is gonna get a call.”
Lee, for his part, seems to have a humble head coming in.
“This will be the biggest guy I’ve ever fought,” he said. “He’s a natural 147 and 154-pounder, so he is a much bigger fighter. I’m a 140-pounder. I think he’ll be the best fighter I’ve faced, too. I feel that way because once upon a time he was a top 15 prospect in the rankings and he’s a much bigger, much longer guy than anybody I’ve faced.”
The day before the fight, I’m talking to an upbeat Williams, who doesn’t betray that he is held down by memories of losing to Marquis Taylor, Mark DeLuca, and Abel Ramos, while drawing with Jose Medina in his last outing; in all, he is 2-3-1 in his last six.
“I’m blessed to be able to fight. I continue my mother’s dreams through pursuing my own. I still have the opportunity to chase my dreams,” he said. “That’s a big opportunity. Through boxing, I’ve found a bright light. Through dark times, it’s made me who I am. So during this fight, it should be a tough fight, it allows me to adjust. ‘I’ve been through that, I can get through this.’ I can handle it, I know, because I know what I’ve been through.’
People not built a certain way, mentally, don’t grasp how the ring can be a place to relaxfor many fighters. Regulation worries disappear while gloving up; no thoughts of falling behind on the electric bill, or a faltering marriage, or the family tragedy which has at times settled over the affected and shrouded them in a dark cloud of despair.
“It’s where I forget all the BS,” Jimmy says. “Fighting takes my mind away from it.”
There’s a lot to “it,” actually, it’s not a singular occurrence. But for the purposes of simplifying this exercise, we can refer to “it” as the night cops found Jimmy’s mom, strangled and lifeless, behind an abandoned building, near where Jimmy grew up, in Plainfield, NJ.
“She was a neighborhood mom, everybody knew her,” he said, flashing back to growing up in Plainfield. New Jersey. “At a cookout, she’d make sure neighbors, everybody ate. She was good hearted.”
Her name was Belinda Williams. “She was beautiful, Mike. She had a loving heart. She’d give the shirt off her back.”
As for his dad, it turns out he had much to recommend him to this world, but didn’t walk around wearing angel’s wings. When Jimmy was in second grade, dad Renaldo got popped for cocaine trafficking. He got sentenced to 5-7 years for the crime.
“I was very shocked,” Jimmy told me. “He was the number one provider. But he never hid the lifestyle. I kinda already knew. I’d be in the house, random people would be coming in, going upstairs. Something was going on. He was like my best friend. And that’s why he exposed me to the streets, so I wouldn’t do it. In prison, I visited him every week for a whole five years. I didn’t miss a visit.
“But I learned so much when he wasn’t there. Yes, he wasn’t there for things, for birthdays and stuff, he didn’t see the pain I experienced. But it made me a better man, and I saw that prison isn’t for anybody!”
He then gives insight into how one path taken, and one misstep, can send a ripple effect out, and leave wounds on whole families.
“I think it broke my mom. She fell more into drugs, into the streets, and I think that destroyed my mom. There was no turning back for her. I watched her. She didn’t eat. She got strung out more, and dad wasn’t there to protect her.”
And so his sister, three years older, and his brother, nine years older, stepped up. When mom got nabbed for shoplifting, she got locked up, at the same time dad was doing his stint. “For two months. And nobody knew. We held it together.”
No sense in engaging in false myth-making, Jimmy tells me that big bro hustled and did what he had to do to keep them afloat, keep enough food on the table, and a roof over head. “He picked up some of my father’s habits. He did what he had to do, for us to survive.”
Sis had a little rebellious stage, but she came to comprehend where some paths that look alluring eventually end up. “She didn’t want to be like mom in that way.”
Outside looking in, it’s easy to judge, isn’t it? You hear those people, maybe sometimes you are one of those people. Judging, from a thousand miles away, having benefited from a stable home, where your belly was always full, and not because a little dope deal got made to raise money to buy bologna. America is the place where everyone can make something of themselves; maybe you say that during a lecture which serves to feed your ego, about how you did it the right way, yanked yourself up by your boot-straps when you left college, and had that internship, and your dad only sent you $250 bucks a month for expenses.
But again, let’s not offer a portrayal that tips too hard toward the sun. Dad wasn’t the Santa Claus of dealing.
“He was quiet, but he was a master. He carried a pistol. I remember, we had a rocking chair in the house. I came back from somewhere, and he was in the rocking chair, the pistol on his hip.”
Little Jimmy would hear his dad, making it clear when he felt he had to protect turf, or fend off an impending attack from a rising rival.
“He’d say, ‘I’m not gonna fight ya, I’ll shoot ya.’ He wasn’t no joke. He had guns.”
Mom was no joke, either. The couple paired up well. Jimmy got told a story, after his mom died, about how she had her badass side, and how sometimes it came out, in the form of a show of loyalty.
“In a club, there was an argument my dad had with a guy, and the guy grabbed a gun. My dad didn’t see it, but my mom did. So she slipped dad a gun. She was no joke.”
I looked for a Hallmark-level anecdote, how Bonnie met Clyde in school, perhaps, and they slow danced at a school mixer as teens and knew then they’d be linked forever.
“Nah, they met sort of on the streets,” Jimmy says.
A film writer would perhaps play up that show of toughness and loyalty, and glamorize it a bit more. But no, it all was de-stabilizing. Because stats show that Jimmy should not have learned what not to do by seeing dad get swept up and locked up, and mom slide into a mental place where she was a restless ghost of a soul. Belinda was 44 at her passing.
“It was confusing. Because I liked it, every pair of Jordans I got,” Jimmy says. “But the downsides — my dad got arrested, my mom...”
Memories got seared in, and they will be there until Jimmy’s story arc is over. When his dad was going to get popped, and had that feeling, he collected all the guns and hustled them out of the house. Jimmy stayed home from school that day, he was eight or nine.
When Jimmy was in eighth grade, in 1998, his dad got released from lockup.
“And he didn’t go back! He did a 360, worked two jobs.” In 2014, Renaldo died from lung cancer, but the boxer tells me they re-connected, and were able to make up somewhat for the lost time.
“Looking back I realize it’s made me who I am now. Yes, I was exposed to so much, but as years go by, I get how we survived, and our way of living, and seeing all the drugs, gangs, the violence, it made me who I am. And jail definitely saved my dad’s life. He was gonna end up dead or on the streets if he didn’t go to prison.”
Jimmy tears up a couple times, his voice hitches, emotion bubbles up, when he’s telling me about mom. But there is a certain level of acceptance he has come to, in a good way, which signals that he has a solid handle on his past. He hasn’t re-fashioned his early years to fit an agenda which works to make his parents into saints who inadvertently stepped onto the wayward path.
“Education is the right path and answer,” he tells me. “My dad and my mom were middle school dropouts, they left after eighth grade. And they learned things in the streets that school didn’t teach.”
He will be telling his twins, now three, that books are their friends, and home work must be completed. “They are fireballs,” he tells me, chuckling, while lauding his wife Christina for keeping them in line.
Jimmy pauses, takes a deep breath to bolster himself, and then shares how he learned the news that broke off some of his heart.
It was 2008, Jimmy was a junior at Southern Connecticut State University, playing football, and thinking he wanted to keep excelling as a sportsman, keep hacking away, get to the NFL. He dabbled a bit in boxing as a pre-teen, but football, he thought, would be his ticket to ride higher.
“I was in a meeting, the playoffs were there, we were going to play West Chester. My sister called, like four or five times. I was walking back to my dorm, and I called back. ‘I love you, you gotta do what you gotta do,’ she said, and right then I knew. The police had found my mom’s body behind an abandoned building in Plainfield, not too far from where I grew up.”
He took the news, slept on it, and woke up a changed young man.
“I woke up angry,” he says. “I just wanted to destroy what I had going. I started smoking weed and stuff, but the pain didn’t go away. I didn’t wanna think about the memories. I was supposed to get ready for the game, it was the same day as her funeral. I told myself, ‘I can’t see her like that, knowing someone put her there.’ We played the game, we lost to West Chester, and I told myself, ‘This is your last game.’”
Williams dropped out of school, but he didn’t ditch the football dream. He knew enough that an alternative pathway wasn’t likely to end much different than dad’s arc. He made his own highlight tape, sent it out, and drew some interest. The Raiders liked the way he handled the cornerback position, and the athleticism on the tape. At a workout for free agents, he pulled a hamstring. He tried, but couldn’t heal up, and hit the re-set.
“I wasn’t training properly, I wasn’t eating right, I was sleeping in my car,” he recalls. And with the NFL as carrot on the stick off the table, he drifted to what he knew he could do.
“I started selling drugs in the streets. And in 2010, I got arrested, I had some drugs on me. But it was my first time being arrested, and I got a break, I got fined and had to do community service.”
The urge to compete and forge a path with physical traits didn’t die off.
“My mom was always telling me, ‘Go back to boxing.’”
In 2011, Jimmy signed up for a Diamond Gloves event. He was at 165 pounds, and wasn’t all in with his lifestyle. He lost the bout, but didn’t get put off this path. Jimmy carved down, and fought a couple times as an amateur, at 152 pounds. Word started seeping out, from people seeing Williams in Connecticut gym sparring sessions, that he had chops. No amateur pedigree, but talent that could emerge with proper patience.
“I was 25 years old, learning on the job. Jimmy Burchfield, the legend, the promoter, took a chance on me. We met at Foxwoods, and he had a contract, and I signed, and I’ve been with CES and Jimmy.”
His pro debut came in 2013 on TV, on an NBC Sports Network bill topped by Sergey Kovalev vs Gabriel Campillo.
“And before that fight, I looked up, and I said, ‘Thank you, mom.’”
He was fueled by her memory, he says. But the fuel isn’t all clean, there are side effects.
“I’ve absolutely had dreams about being with her at the time of her death. I have dreams of being with her as a little kid, having fun. I think me and my family deserve the closure of knowing what happened,” Jimmy tells BLH. “That’s my mother! And not knowing leaves a hole in my heart.”
So, was there a suspect in the case? Does Jimmy have a gut instinct on what happened, on who did it?
“Her body was found early in the morning. She was out in the streets, late, and I feel someone took advantage of her state. Clothes off, there were scratches on her, on her hands. It could have been an attempted rape, it could have been over drugs.”
But no, he doesn’t know, and so it can still be frustrating, because he runs through a couple different scenarios of Belinda’s final moments, none of them at all pleasant. It might help to get the case re-opened and get a handle of who did it, and what went down.
“I think authorities did the minimum,” Jimmy says. “They closed it, made it a cold case.”
There was investigation for maybe three months, he recalls. But nothing much he knows of after that. “She had a history with law enforcement. And yes, that hurts. Nobody deserves that.”
Jimmy mentions that some cops and investigators meant well and did well. One man in law enforcement, who knew of the Williams family from local schools, went to her funeral. “He said he knew about my mom, and she had a really good side. Here’s something I’ve always been confused by. There were scratches on her face, and that right there is DNA, right?”
Was there an attempt made to try and get suspect DNA, from Belinda’s nails, her body?
“Not that I know of,” Jimmy tells me. He knows himself, he says, if he starts to fixate on the matter, he will get pulled all in, and won’t concentrate properly on his craft.
“If I start to dig, I will lose sight of my goals,” he says.
Belinda is buried in South Plainfield, and one has to wonder if the effort were made, could some usage of forensic technology help Jimmy and those who knew Belinda get some closure?
“It could have been an old boyfriend, or revenge, or from a drug deal. I don’t know. But someone did it. Someone took advantage of her when she was probably at her weakest.”
There has been no hint of news, not even gossip, for years and years, even though some stories have been written, and the murder got featured as a cold case on a TV hit.
“Whoever did it, it has to lay with them for the rest of their life, and they gotta answer God,” he says. Yes, it sounds strange, but there is a hint of an upside, because Jimmy is pretty sure he wouldn’t be gloving up on ShoBox tonight if Belinda hadn’t been taken from the world in sad and shocking fashion.
“I’m not resigned to it, but if I have it be all-consuming, that wouldn’t be good. It does motivate me to be a better fighter. And every time I step in the ring, I feel like she’s back, she’s alive. I’m honoring her, and I’m continuing the fight she had in her that night.
“Yeah, if she hadn’t been murdered, I probably wouldn’t be here, on that stage. God made me, and I didn’t get down through the trials and errors, I embraced it all, and I’ll bring it to the ring. People all over the world will know her story, this story. I’m glad I never gave up!”
His voice falters, he is fighting off tears.
“This made me what I am. And I needed to get some emotions out. It’s been emotional for me, for this fight. But in the past, when I’ve felt this emotional, I’ve had my best fights, I’ve used it to my advantage.
“My parents, my mom, they were role models, they and she gave me that ’I never quit’ attitude. And at the end of the day, it is a cold world out there, your mom and dad are not always gonna be around. We gotta teach our kids to survive.
“What happened to my mom does stay with me. I just wanna know the reason.”