ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: AUGUST 16 2012
Photo: Esther Lin/SHOWTIME
THE PUNISHER” Paul Williams was a fortnight into a training camp for the fight that would have fast-tracked him back to the top of the sport.
A two-day break to attend his brother’s wedding, however, saw the direction of the 31-year-old’s career and his life irreversibly change.
His next fight would no longer be the September 15 pay-per-view blockbuster against Mexican superstar Saul Alvarez. Instead, the battle he faced was one of being able to walk again.
“I had just left my brother’s house that morning on my motorbike,” he begins, retracing the fateful events that have left him paralysed from the waist down. “It was about seven o’clock in the morning and I was going round the kerb and another car was going round the kerb and the car started coming close to me. It didn’t cross the line but it was coming close.
“So I moved across and the ridges on the road made the bike go across the medium and into an oncoming car. The muffler scraped the sidewalk and made it go up a hill, and I think that’s when the bike threw me off. I landed on my head and folded like a suitcase.
“And there I was, lying on top of the hill waiting. I knew something was wrong because the first thing you try to do is wiggle your toes and all that, but it felt like I was still on my bike. Then the people came, the paramedics and the ambulance, and I could hear them coming down the road. I was having trouble breathing, I had broken a rib and bruised two of my lungs.
“But after that, they worked on me in the hospital and everything turned out pretty good. They noticed my spinal cord wasn’t separated, it was just bruised real bad and that was one blessing. I broke the bone but the cord wasn’t separated.”
News from the hospital was bad and the reports were that Williams was travelling at 75mph when hurled from his vehicle.
The boxer, known for his gangly stature, relentless southpaw pressure-punching style and who carried – for the longest time – the tag of boxing’s most avoided fighter, was told his career was over and that he would not fight again.
The father-of-two, however, refuses to accept the diagnosis as accurate. He cannot feel his legs but says he will walk again. He believes he can turn it around. He believes in himself.
“Between me and God and my faith, yeah, I’m going to walk,” he explains, unable to stop inspiration pouring through the phone wires that separate our continents. “But it’s all on me and God. One of the guys [in the hospital] said about the swelling that it might take a year or two for my body to heal so who knows – it could be faster, it could be longer – but for the first two years they consider you as a baby, for the first two years, and then you start coming back.”
He approaches the rehabilitation centre the same way he did the gym. In fact, some of the upperbody exercises he does now are the same as some he previously did in training for his world title contests.
No stone is being left unturned as he fights to get feeling back in his legs. “I’m properly doing my exercises and working out and getting my strength back, working on my balance and all that,” he continues.
“Rehab, it’s basically like I’m in training again, so it ain’t nothing. It’s hard doing the weights at first but after a day or two it ain’t nothing.
“I deal with this like I deal with everything – Hakuna Matata [a Swahili catchphrase], it means don’t worry, take it in your stride. I’ve been getting in the car on my own. Going places you get out to, you can adapt and I adapt well.”
He attended a boxing show in Georgia recently and was encouraged by fans who passed on their well wishes.
“People said to me at the fight, you don’t look messed up, you look like you could get up if you want to and like I tell them, in time I will. I’m taking everything in my stride. I haven’t been watching much boxing but I went to the fights in Atlanta and I had a good time being back in the boxing world. They gave me a lot of respect there. It made me feel real good.
“My fans and people that respect the fight game. I’ve been getting a lot of letters and I really appreciate it. I appreciate the letters and the words.”
There is no hint of depression. No sign of reclusiveness. Just a determined admission that a real war lies ahead and that it is one he is devoted to winning.
“That’s how I deal with it,” he goes on. “I take the good with the bad. What am I going to
cry for? It’s like when I lost my first fight, ain’t going to cry over spilt milk, you just get up and try harder the next time.
“Now this is my biggest fight, trying to get my feeling back, to try and get my legs moving on their own again, to try and get my nerves working. I know something’s working down there but it’s like a roadblock and they need to clean all the stuff out of the roads so I can get my feeling back, from my brain and all that. So that’s why I try to sit up and sit down on my own and lift myself into bed and all that, just keep pushing. If I wasn’t going to push hard or be depressed my mind wouldn’t be in it. I need my mind in it and to push it all the way through.
“It’s about faith. My faith, that’s why I’m still here. You can’t give up no matter what the worse things are that happen. People say ‘Are you depressed, are you sad?’ I say ‘No, why should I be?’ Because then I’d have two problems. One problem I can’t walk and the next problem I’ve got a headache because I’m stressed out and all that. I’d rather just keep one problem.”
It is a tragic irony that a physical marvel, known for his abnormal dimensions and insane volume-punching has been shut down.
At his peak, the 6ft 1ins monster could show up and fight the best at welterweight, light-middle or middleweight and he was an utter handful.
He hit the upper echelons with high-profile wins over Walter Matthysse, Sharmba Mitchell and Antonio Margarito but Williams, perhaps with his long body growing weary of fluctuating in weight, gradually seemed to slow. A proposed fight with middleweight king Kelly Pavlik failed to materialise and he made do with dominating veteran Winky Wright before hitting the buffers.
Although he outscored Sergio Martinez in a rip-roaring battle the decision was controversial and when they rematched Williams was stretched out in sensational, worrying fashion in two rounds.
Maybe the tall Georgian, who had seemed hell-bent on giving up his natural advantages of height and reach so the fans would get thrilling fights, was beginning to pay for his value-for-money approach.
Had the punch resistance gone? A fight with Cuban dangerman Erislandy Lara only enhanced the questions over the Georgian and whether his best days were firmly behind him. Paul was awarded a majority decision but so bad was the scoring that the three judges were suspended although his domination (on the cards) of tough Japanese Nobuhiro Ishida, who had flattened James Kirkland in his previous fight, indicated there was more to come from “The Punisher”.
And with a point to prove he signed for his defining fight, a shot at the hottest hope in boxing, Mexico’s WBC light-middleweight king Alvarez on a September 15 pay-per-view headliner.
He had been in training for two weeks before the accident.
“He was overly excited,” recalls his trainer of 14 years and dear friend George Peterson when reflecting upon the two weeks they spent in camp before the accident. “He was like that because this was the opportunity he really wanted. It’s the biggest belt in the world and it was against an undefeated champion who they say is the next big thing.”
But on Sunday, May 27, Peterson was in camp, waiting for his charge to return, when the news came that the man he views as a son had been seriously injured.
Glum days might have followed but neither man refuses to give into the darkness.
“Paul is doing fine,” he asserts, saying his charge’s morale was lifted when he was able to go home on his birthday on July 27 a fortnight ago.
“His spirit is great but he’s always been that way since day one. It’s going to take time, it’s going to take a healing process and we will be able to see him improve. He’s going to be all right. We just need to wait and see how time goes by.”
Williams still wants to go and scout Alvarez in Las Vegas on September 15, when he takes on
Williams’ replacement Josesito Lopez, and promises he will not be lamenting what might have been.
“It’s not really like that,” Paul sighs. “I look at it like I was going to fight him but I pulled out and someone else is going to fight him.”
Even the news that he will not walk again will not snap his infectious optimism. As he always said, he refused to lose in the ring and he refuses to lose this fight.
“Mentally I don’t think about it,” he says, when asked about the doctor’s horrifying predictions. “Basically, they don’t know, they just assume. They have the medicine and everything but I have seen guys in rehab who said they’d been way worse than I was and they’d been told they would never walk again and they walked, and they walked better than some guys you’d see on the street. They said, with the rehab and if you keep doing that therapy and keep your faith...”
Paul momentarily catches himself.
“The doctors don’t know. They assume and tell you the worst but between you and God and your strength that’s what made them start walking again. So as long as I keep my faith and my strength I will do it. If, God forbid, I don’t ever walk again I won’t be stuck and depend on somebody, I will do it all on my own like I’m doing now.”
Williams has the support of his girlfriend but he refuses to seek help. It is his situation and he wants to deal with it his way.
“Right now I get a little help from my girl and stuff but if I want to get up and go I’m going to get up and go. The whole time I’ve been getting round like nothing happened, the only difference is it takes a little longer getting in and out of the car.
“I can’t feel my legs right now but sometimes I know I’m touching something, like if I pinch myself I can’t feel the pinch, but I can feel something. There was no pain at all [at the time of the accident] but I knew something was wrong. I knew something was up because I couldn’t move my feet or my toes and stuff and it felt like I was still on my bike but I was conscious the whole time, talking to them and telling them I was having problems breathing and stuff.”
It was no longer about the superstar they call “Canelo”. It was life and death. It was survival. In the unforgettable film The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins – who plays wrongly-convicted prisoner Andy Dufresne – advises inmates faced with their ugly new world to “Get busy living or get busy dying.”
Williams has made his choice to do the latter. Moreover, he is going to get busy standing, walking and maybe even fighting.
“My aims and my goals are to stay afloat and get my feeling come back and walk again,” says one of boxing’s most inspirational figures. “So if I do decide to come back again and give Alvarez a run for his money I can get in there and do it.”
Get this week's BOXING NEWS for an update on Paul Williams, a year after the crash.