How Will We Remember Paul Williams’ Career?

by: José A Maldonado, MFA

The muscles in those impossibly long, skinny legs will now dystrophy. Nerves that once sent signals to pivot, cut, and slide across the ring will eventually forget how to send these messages. A long forgotten code. Arms that routinely pushed the limits of CompuBox statistics will now push wheels on a chair that Paul Williams will inhabit for the rest of his life, lest he beats the odds (which we all hope and pray he does).

On Sunday, May 27th, a severed spinal cord turned what was supposed to be a day of joy and celebration for the Williams family into a reunion at the ER. A day that was supposed to forever unite two families in a wedding ceremony for Williams’ brother became a day of questions. A day of fears. Pain. Uncertain futures.

The details surrounding Williams’ driving “too fast for conditions” no longer matter. The fact is he has a 10% chance of ever walking again, a stark reality for a man who is no stranger to conditioning his body to its absolute peak.

As with any accident, we begin to emerge from a shock-induced fog. Having been jarred and finding ourselves intact, we begin to pick up the pieces. We begin to ask questions. What could have been? What else could Paul Williams have accomplished? At 30 years of age, was his best performance behind, or ahead of him? Perhaps most importantly: how will his career be remembered?

For a time Paul Williams looked indestructible. He was a welterweight with the height and reach of a heavyweight, an absolute nightmare for anyone who dared step into the ring with him. His strategy was overwhelming: throw a superhuman amount of punches until your rival is subdued. Throwing over 1,000 punches in a fight was routine for this physical wonder. His punch output once allowed him to stop 13 consecutive opponents.

The wins kept coming. Terrence Cauthen, Walter Matthysse, Sharmba Mitchell, all found Williams’ wall of leather to be insurmountable. There were rumblings about this impossibly long specimen, making it difficult for Williams to get a significant fight with the big names who, as promoter Joe Goosen rightly claimed, now feared him. World champion Antonio Margarito failed to heed these warning signs when, in 2007, the iron-chinned Mexican warrior was totally outclassed by the now 33-0 Punisher. In his very next bout, nonetheless, Williams’ Achilles was exposed when Puerto Rico’s Carlos Quintana showed the world that a slick southpaw with good movement could slow down the champ in a surprising performance, Williams’ first loss.

Williams would not allow the surprise to last long, however, for less than five months later he reclaimed his title with an emphatic 1st round stoppage in the rematch. After the repeated failure to make a match with Kelly Pavlik, Williams rattled off a series of victories that included Winky Wright, Sergio Martínez in a disputed decision, and Kermit Cintrón in what looked like a dive. He would never be the same after a rematch with Martínez, a bout some said he didn’t really want. The Argentine brought down the giant with a vicious hook that is rarely duplicated in the sport, leaving Williams so dazed that in his next fight, a controversial win over Cuban Erislandy Lara, he still looked sluggish.

With these accomplishments Williams should surely be seen in a positive light. His career should be celebrated as having been fruitful. Unfortunately, it is inevitable that, as is their wont, many boxing fans will only remember him as he was in his final bout, a somewhat rusty decision win over Japan’s Nobuhiro Ishida. Against the limited Ishida, we were still able to see the flaws that had led to his defeats. Flaws that he once hid behind a wave of activity. His punches were loopy, he often neglected throwing the jab, and for a guy his size, he received a lot of unnecessary punishment on the inside. He had expressed wanting to get back into the pound for pound conversation, something he could have done with a win in his scheduled fight against Canelo Alvarez. We’ll never know if he would have accomplished this given his flaws and recent poor performances, thus causing further doubt for some when assessing his career.

Most importantly, though, how we remember Paul “The Punisher” Williams inside the ring is trumped by whether we will remember him outside the ring. Now that the gloves are off permanently, the medical bills will pile up. Years of therapy and rehabilitation, not to mention the complete stoppage of paychecks, will suck insurance and bank accounts dry. Will the boxing community respond for one of its fallen?

Let us not forget the fate of Gerald McClellan, who would live in poverty and solitude were it not for his sister. Or Z Gorres, a fighter whom fight fans have already forgotten in the two short years since his near-fatal brain trauma. And these men received their injuries while fighting. Williams was hurt on a motorcycle.

Yes, Paul Williams’ legacy is significant. His exploits in the ring should never be forgotten. We should always bring him up when talking about boxers who gave their all and entertained us. But we should also never forget that his struggles have only begun, and that a few years down the road, when taglines will cease to include his name, he’ll still be around, fighting the fight of his life. The question is: will we still be cheering?

José A Maldonado is senior staff writer at punchrate.com and contributing writer for realcombatmedia.com

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