I’ve given this sermon on this blog so many times my e-voice is hoarse: I really, honestly think everyone ought to be crazy about Paul Williams, who is in prospectively the toughest fight of his life Saturday night on HBO. He is unique; he is aggressive; he is tough even by boxing standards; he is willing to fight anyone; his bouts feature tons of leather-trading; he is young, talented and American; and he is focusing on knockouts more than every before. I know there’s no accounting for taste. But the evangelist in me hopes that if I keep pointing out all those things, everyone who’s not on the bandwagon will suddenly see them all and recognize.
It is not a blind faith. He could very well lose to his opponent this weekend, Winky Wright, who was widely considered among the very best fighters in the world prior to a recent two-year layoff. Wright has fought at middleweight for a long time, whereas Williams has only begun to moonlight there. Wright is beyond tricky, and the intelligent veteran might just make Williams look to some like a hype job, much as Bernard Hopkins did to Kelly Pavlik last fall. And it’s a high-risk fight even if Williams wins; Williams agnostics might say, “He beat a rusty 37-year-old. So what?”
Since both are southpaws who might be described as “awkward,” there’s not any guarantee or even likelihood they will deliver a classic. There are good fundamentals from an importance standpoint, though: These are two of the best of the best, assuming Wright retains some measure of his old form, and they’re fighting, in my view, for a slot in boxing’s top 5 fighters period, regardless of weight. Both are so dangerous, in their different ways, that hardly anyone wants to fight them. And there are elements of contrasting style that could make the fight a very good one. Williams is aggressive, and Wright is a counter-puncher. Despite his defense-first reputation, which he earned, Wright has been in good fights late in his career, with his draw against Jermain Taylor a Fight of the Year honorable mention-caliber bout; and Williams was in his own Fight of the Year honorable mention-caliber bout against Antonio Margarito, and gave 2008 one of its most picture-perfect knockouts.
Get acquainted with Wright and Williams via a few highlight clips below. If you don’t know ’em, I’ll wait for you.
The Williams clip leaves out two of Williams’ three most recent wins, since he fought on Showtime for one and Versus for another. Both were first round knockouts, starting with the revenge knockout at welterweight over Carlos Quintana, and the other is more pertinent here: that picture-perfect 1st round KO of Andy Kolle, a middleweight who went the distance with 2004 Olympian Andre Ward. Kolle was no world-beater, but Williams demonstrated he has power at the weight, is all. Combine it with some of the things that make him unique — the absurd work rate, the absurd height and reach, the athleticism — and you’ve got yourself a scary specimen that nobody wants a piece of, at least until he brings a lot of money to the table. Which he doesn’t yet, because, quite frankly, I think he’s been poorly promoted and developed as an attraction, fighting in locations where he builds up no obvious fan base, like Las Vegas Saturday during a recession. And back to that height/reach for a second: Check out this picture of Wright, listed at 5’10” and a half, and Williams, listed at 6’1″. I don’t even kind of believe Williams is 6’1″. 6’3″, maybe. And his reach is just silly. Jameel McCline, a 6’6″ heavyweight on the undercard, has the same 82″ reach as Williams, who will have a whopping 10-inch reach advantage over the supposedly naturally bigger man, Wright. It’s ridiculous, I say.
One of his advantages over Wright, his youthfulness, may also double as one of his disadvantages. Williams, as much as he has advanced, is still pretty raw in some ways. He still falls in when he punches, and when he misses, it takes him a long time to reset. He’s got the instinct of a pure fighter, which means he rarely takes full advantage of his height by boxing from the outside and instead tends to brawl when his man gets in close. And defensively, he has other lapses. In his last fight, against Verno Phillips, he demonstrated much-needed head movement, and it made worlds of difference, but he had to be told by his corner to do it after a few rounds of getting tagged with counters as he waded in aggressively. The best technician he’s fought was Quintana, and the first time, he got really out-techniqued. It’s my view that he just had a bad night. Another view might be that his revenge KO was the result of a bad Quintana night, and a sense from Williams that he couldn’t play around with a superior boxer.
Quintana is nowhere near the technician Wright is. It’s been easy to forget in his absence how supreme his defense is, and what a fantastic counterpuncher he is. No one has really beat him cleanly in basically forever. There were some who thought Wright may have pulled out the draw against Hopkins in his last appearance in the ring in July of 2007. If you can’t knock out Wright, and I’ve only even seen Taylor even buzz him, he’s going to make your life difficult whether you beat him or not. I might be worried about his tendency to blow up in weight between fights, especially since he reportedly got up to the 200-pound range during his long layoff, but I’m not this time because he was training for a fight in December before it got canceled. He probably hasn’t had to work terribly hard to get down in weight, so scratch one more potential Williams advantage off the list.
There’s a view that Wright can be outworked — he can — and that Williams is just the guy to do it, but it’s not as simple as that. Sam Soliman launched 1,260 punches at Wright, a middleweight record, but missed more than 1,000 according to Compubox. Wright won the fight, justly. Work rate alone isn’t good enough. It has to be effective work, of the kind Taylor did against Wright in spots. Here’s where things look a little sunnier for Williams: Taylor’s athleticism gave Wright problems. Williams has that athleticism. Taylor’s straight punches down the middle went through Wright’s high guard. Williams excels when he punches straight. And Hopkins went to Wright’s body effectively. You won’t see more scintillating displays of body punching than the number Williams did on Phillips.
What’s neat about this fight is that I can see multiple potential results with great clarity: Like, Williams overwhelms Wright and outworks the rustier, older man. Or Williams becomes the first to knock out Wright. Or Wright dominates Williams from start to finish by countering him to the point Williams doesn’t know what to do. Or in a number of exceedingly close rounds where Williams is busier but Wright is more accurate, one man or the other pulls out the very close decision.
I’ve decided that I think Williams will win, for a few reasons. Even if Wright isn’t affected by age or layoff, I expect Williams to fight through whatever comes back. He’s got real heart, I mean, the real stuff. Exhibit A is the 12th round against Margarito that he won on sheer willpower. Exhibit B is the way he fought through that nasty cut against Phillips, which, as recent fights have shown, isn’t the easiest thing for a boxer to do. Since Williams owns a great set of whiskers, should Wright tag him, I expect him to respond by turning up the heat even more. And let’s say there are a lot of close rounds; judges have shown time and again they favor aggression.
I’m less certain on the “how.” Part of me wants to make the bold KO pick, but that part of me sounds goofy to the rest of me. I’ll go slightly less bold and say Wright looks decent early, but Williams makes adjustments and ups his work rate to put the fight out of question by the end with a unanimous decision. I already regret the pick, thinking of how much trouble Wright has given even his conquerors. But I’m sticking to it.