Boxing fans are a fickle bunch. You can give them a take-all-comers pugilist with an exciting style and a colorful personality who also has proven himself one of the best fighters in the world — which sounds like a composite of all the things they say they want — and they’ll make him a subject of derision for things like… his manager. To say that junior middleweight Paul Williams is looking for redemption Saturday on HBO, as the poster states, would imply that he ever held a lofty place. Sure, Williams was until recently in most everyone’s pound-for-pound top 5, but he couldn’t sell a ticket to Wimpy if it came with a lifetime supply of hamburgers. Some of it is merely because his manager is Al Haymon, whose reputation for influence with HBO is vastly overstated, or else Williams wouldn’t have been forced by the network into a rematch with Sergio Martinez, the man who nearly beat him in 2009 before destroying him in 2010.
It was the kind of knockout loss that, if one isn’t going to be redeemed after it, sure makes the prospects of a comeback daunting. One thing Williams and his team have done to generate legitimate derision is his claim that the Martinez shot was a “lucky” punch, when it clearly landed plenty over the course of two fights before the last one put Williams down for the Knockout of the Year. That was November. This weekend marks Williams’ return to the ring for the first time since then.
Which brings us to Erislandy Lara, his opponent.
Lara finds himself in a similar not-exactly-redemption position, in that he didn’t have a big fan base but had generated some support for his talent. Some even considered him the best pro prospect among a Cuban refugee class that included the much-heralded likes of YURIORKIS GAMBOA! and Guillermo Rigondeaux. But then he had a couple much-criticized performances over his reluctance to throw punches, including his last one, where many thought he was so conservative in his offense that he deserved a loss to Carlos Molina more than he deserved the draw he got.
Going up against a much more anticipated fight on Showtime Saturday night — the lightweight clash between Brandon Rios and Urbano Antillon — Williams-Lara, then, needs more going for it than “a couple guys people don’t like much trying to rebuild whatever reputations they had.” It won’t be enough to avoid being a ratings failure, but it does have this competitive element: Williams’ best asset, his volume, is exactly the kind of thing that can defeat a low-output puncher like Lara; and Lara’s best asset, his counterpunching, is exactly the kind of thing that can beat a sloppy all-offense puncher like Williams.
More than just tactics will decide how competitive the fight is. Perhaps the biggest of them is whether Williams has recovered from the knockout loss to Martinez, physically or emotionally. Some boxers have come back strong from being on the receiving end of a classic knockout, like Vic Darchinyan after Nonito Donaire. Others, such as Jermain Taylor after Kelly Pavlik, were forever increasingly vulnerable to being knocked out again. If you want to add doubt to whether Williams specifically can come back, consider that he’s taken a lot of punishment over the years with his frequent abandonment of defense; some thought he looked like a spent force coming back from his first fight with Martinez, when he got wobbled briefly by Kermit Cintron.
As a big P-Will fan, I’m more worried about his physical state than his mental one. He and his trainer, George Peterson have had the right attitude about the mere act of losing or getting knocked out. Williams avenged his first loss in style, knocking out Carlos Quintana in the 1st round of their rematch. The pair have said repeatedly that anyone who fights the best available opponents as consistently as Williams does is going to risk getting knocked out. No use crying over spilt milk, I believe Williams said.
The problem with blaming it on a lucky punch is that they might not realize that they need to make changes, or else a knockout courtesy a perfectly placed shot could happen again, no matter how good Williams’ chin has been over the course of his career. Williams’ defense is frequently awful, and he has a real knack for making it worse by reaching with his punches in his insatiable desire to land his own punches in massive numbers, damn the consequences. His volume style, his southpaw stance and his length are what makes him dangerous. When he consistently gives away one of those — and face it, folks, it’s hopeless that Williams will ever fight “tall” — he better make sure his volume style works as well as it can. When Williams moves his head a bunch on defense, as he has in any number of his fights, he’s very dangerous. When he doesn’t, he’s the one getting into danger.
Lara is a harder guy to figure. Against the best opponent of his career, Grady Brewer, he was mostly effective despite getting wobbled at one point in that fight. He then had a harder time than he should have against Danny Perez, largely because he was so tentative. After that, he took a massive step back in competition, and scored four straight 1st round knockouts, each time gunning for the KO like a madman. Then, against Molina, it was back to the old reluctant Lara. He would stand there with his guard up, waiting for Molina to stop punching, then finding it hard to locate Molina when he did fire. He’s undefeated, but he probably doesn’t deserve to be.
I think Lara’s the faster boxer — although Williams is pretty fast — and better defender and technician. Williams is obviously far, far more experienced. Williams is capable of knocking out, wobbling or hurting most everyone, when he sits down on his shots, something he doesn’t do too often. Lara’s power is less clear. He can knock out people who have been knocked out a bunch, but it’s unknown whether he can do it against someone who’s been knocked out just once, even if it was in his last fight, and even if it was totally epic. And I think Williams is wise to move down to junior middleweight. I don’t think, and never did, that he was a middleweight, the division where he fought Martinez. On the other hand, Lara being a southpaw spells trouble for Williams, whose two losses came via quick-fisted lefties.
Any fight for Williams coming off that knockout loss to Martinez would potentially have been a real challenge. Lara doesn’t figure as the toughest available opponent, but he does figure as the kind of guy who very much can beat Williams if he’s not recovered.
We simply don’t know if he is recovered, and we won’t know until Saturday. That makes this a tough one to call. Absent knowledge that nobody has, I’m going to go with the more acclaimed overall fighter, the one who recently lost to a pound-for-pound opponent as opposed to the one whom most everyone thought lost to a hard-nosed but less acclaimed opponent. Give me Williams by late stoppage. And man do I want to be right. If Williams loses this one, he won’t have any believers left at all, and it won’t be the fault of the boxing fans.