(Photo credit: Howard Schatz)
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — I don’t go to many fights in person, for a lot of reasons too unimportant to explain just now (mainly: cash, even with a media credential). What that means, though, is that I pick the fights I do go to very carefully. And I’ve picked this fight Saturday between middleweights Paul Williams and Sergio Martinez for one main reason: It’s unfathomable to me that Williams isn’t one of the biggest stars in the sport, and I consider it my duty to give fighters like that the attention I think they deserve.
I’ve offered brief explanations about why I’m so high on Williams before, but I want to elaborate. And look, there’s no way to do this without coming off as fanboy-ish. So allow me to say right up front, I think Martinez is a legitimately dangerous opponent and I wouldn’t at all surprised if he beat Williams. Williams may not be the fighter I think he is. Even if he loses to Martinez, he still might be the fighter I think he is. But while I feint at journalism here at times — the occasional interview, for instance — this is still a blog, which means I’m going to get personal sometimes. Personally, I like to play tastemaker, and my tastes run to Williams.
So indulge me while I make his case.
He’s Fucking Really Good
I can tell you he’s a consensus top-5 pound-for-pound fighter, one of the best in the world at any weight, but I think the best argument here is this: If you polled 100 hardcore boxing fans about which fighter would be most likely to beat Floyd Mayweather, the poll winner wouldn’t be Manny Pacquiao — it’d be Paul Williams. I’m actually not sure I’d agree with them, but that ought to give you a sense of Williams’ talent level. And it’s not at all far-fetched to envision a near future where Williams is considered the best man in the sport overall.
But his accomplishments speak to how good he is, not just the perception of such. At welterweight, he took out three top-10 caliber fighters, most notably Antonio Margarito. Margarito, as we’ve since learned, tried to cheat in a recent fight, and there’s reason to believe he tried to cheat before then, too — which means Williams may have beaten a boxer who fought him with loaded gloves. He beat one of the top couple guys at junior middleweight, Verno Phillips, stopping a fighter who had only been knocked out at the beginning of his career 20 years before. Literally, 20 years. And when he got to middleweight, he beat the stuffing out of Winky Wright, who prior to a long layoff had been on everyone’s top-10 pound-for-pound lists. Some have questioned whether Wright was rusty, but that doesn’t explain how no one had beaten Wright by more than a handful of points on the scorecard before and Wright barely won a single round against Williams.
The knock on how good Williams could be is that he was outboxed by Carlos Quintana, a legit top-10 welter but not considered by anyone an elite foe. Williams writes that off to a bad night, and it should be noted that he avenged that loss by 1st round knockout in the rematch. Still, there are doubts about how he would fare against a bigger, better version of Quintana, that being the tricky southpaw Williams will fight this weekend. If he beats Martinez, you have to think doubts about how Williams handles sharp boxers who can move would evaporate.
He’s Utterly Unique, And He’s Fun To Watch
There’s really no one in boxing who ever has fought exactly like Williams. He’s been compared to Tommy Hearns, another giant, 6’1″ welterweight. But Hearns’ reach was 73″. Williams’ is 82″, longer than the 6’7″ heavyweight champion of the world, Wladimir Klitschko. He’s like an exaggerated version of Hearns, bodywise. Yet he’s completely different than Hearns, and he’s completely different than anyone, really. There are no humongous, lanky boxers who throw 100 punches a round, fight equally well on the inside and outside and compound it all by being left-handed. If he doesn’t knock out his man early, he drowns them in a never-ceasing tidal wave of punches from every angle, including the kind of punches I’ve never seen before. And he has fought over the years in multiple weight classes, indicating willingness to fight at 147 one fight and 175 the next. Eat your heart out, weight-hopping Pacquiao.
His uniqueness makes him fun to watch, but there are other reasons. You’re guaranteed action because of Williams’ style, since he throws so many shots. He’s improved his defense, but he still is more than happy to trade punches, another component of good action fights. And because he doesn’t fight like most tall fighters, keeping his opponent on the end of his jab and tying up on the inside, he creates more action than he probably needs to because you get the sense he actually enjoys swapping leather. As he says: That check won’t bounce.
He Goes After The Hardest Challenges, And He’s Passed Tests Of His Guts In The Ring, Too
Remember when nobody wanted to fight Margarito? Williams did. Remember when nobody wanted to fight Martinez? Williams did. Williams has standing challenges issued to the entire rest of most people’s consensus pound-for-pound top 5: Pacquiao, Mayweather, Shane Mosley and even light heavyweight Bernard Hopkins. The handful of times Williams has been accused of not wanting to fight someone, those accusations have proven incorrect. Joshua Clottey was calling out Williams for a while, but Williams made sincere overtures to Clottey for Saturday when original opponent Kelly Pavlik dropped out. I’m not saying Clottey ducked Williams, mind you — I’m just saying Williams didn’t want to duck Clottey.
But he’s not just brave in picking who he wants in the ring. The moment where Williams won me over as more than a mere freakish curiosity is in the Margarito fight when, after an 11th round where Margarito had Williams in some serious trouble, Williams bounced back in the 12th to win a round he absolutely needed. But it’s not the only such gutty moment in his career. Consider how he handled a terrible cut when he fought Phillips. Most fighters respond to bad cuts by being taken totally out of their game. A handful of special fighters find a way to fight through bad cuts and limp to the finish line successfully. Williams fought with that cut like it never even happened.
He’s Young, Talented And American
Even amid these new days of mainstream media recognition that boxing is alive and thriving, there’s still the caveat in some articles that the bench of talented fighters to take over for the current generation is thin, and there are few young Americans waiting in the wings in particular. Those people should check out the 28-year-old Williams.
So why isn’t Williams a bigger star?
I have my theories. He’s made strides in showing off his personality — his verbal tics are amusing; lately he seems to be trying to break the record for saying the word “stuff” in interviews, like the “meow” game in Super Troopers — but outside the ring, he’s a humble, soft-spoken guy for the most part who doesn’t have a story or hook that people can immediately connect with, per se. He’s probably not been marketed correctly, never building a home base of support in any particular location of the country. (I’m grateful he’s fighting in AC for my travel purposes as an East Coast guy, but it’s a complete mystery why he’s fighting in AC.) There are people who are skeptical of him still, dating back to the Quintana loss. And he isn’t some people’s “cup of tea,” for reasons that still confound me, given all the explanations I’ve listed above.
One of the things I intend to ask around about this week is that very question: Why isn’t Williams a bigger star? (And before you write me off as complete fanboy for even wondering the answer to that question, know that far more serious, mainstream types have the same question.)