“I called the fighters into the middle of the ring. I gave them final instructions that are uniquely mine, ‘I remind you both now, respect each other, obey my commands and we are going to keep this strictly professional.’
“We are still in mid-ring and Sosa growls at Williams, ‘Aqui jungle.’ I asked him later what he specifically meant and Merqui said, ‘I was telling him, now, here is going to be a jungle’.”
RON LIPTON, REFEREE
THE jungle is one of the most hostile and inhospitable places to wage war. Fighting humidity, disease and uncompromising terrain whilst under constant threat of ambush from an enemy skilled in the art of concealment and camouflage takes a special type of mindset.
It is 24 years since Merqui Sosa welcomed “Prince” Charles Williams to the jungle but once the opening bell sounded, the pair dispensed with tactics and stealth and engaged in their own form of hand to hand combat. With nowhere to hide, the light-heavyweights stood in front of each other and fought.
After seven cruel rounds, those charged with protecting the fighters from each other and themselves negotiated a peace treaty and brought a temporary end to hostilities. On January 13 1995 – a Friday – Sosa and Williams fought each other to a literal standstill.
The balmy baseball diamonds of San Pedro de Macorís in the Dominican Republic are a world away from the frigid January air of the Atlantic City boardwalk but that is exactly where Merqui Sosa found help when he needed it most.
“I had a coach from Brooklyn at that time. I knew I had a tough fight ahead of me so my wife’s parents had a house in Brooklyn, just by the ‘R’ train across from Church Avenue and I would use it for my training camp,” Sosa – born in the Dominican Republic but raised in the Bronx – told Boxing News. “My coach either didn’t want to go or maybe he thought I would lose but he failed to come for a week. I told him it was an important fight for me and it was his job. If he couldn’t do it I told him I needed to find another coach.
“I called my amateur coach in the Dominican Republic [Rudy Zapata] and I flew him to New York to help me. He knew me very well. I always did my best in the ring. I never needed anybody to push me in the ring or force me to do what I loved to do.
“It had been five or six years since I’d seen Rudy. I listened to my coach and he had been with me all over the world fighting. I needed somebody I could trust. It was the best answer for me.”
Sosa is one of boxing’s nearly men. An exciting brawler good enough to get himself into position, just slightly too crude to capitalise. He is the type of fighter who gave more to boxing than the sport gave back to him. After a bid for the super middleweight title ended in defeat at the hands of Michael Nunn in 1993, Sosa decided on a final run at light heavyweight. Williams would welcome him to the 175lb division.
“I was ready for him. In 1991 they wanted me to fight him. My friend at the time said no because I’d just lost two fights and he said if I lost one more fight it was probably going to be like this always. I listened to him and told the matchmaker.
“In 1991 I was fighting at middleweight and he was a light heavyweight. A few years later they gave me the fight and we told the matchmaker that I was ready for him now.
“I told him that if he beat me I would change my name. I won’t be Merqui Sosa anymore.”
If Sosa was fully aware of what lay ahead, a solemn look crossed Prince Charles Williams’ face as he sat on his stool after finally spending three minutes trading punches with Merqui Sosa. Boxers often operate on instinct in the heat of battle but Williams seemed suddenly aware of the situation he found himself in. More naturally gifted than Sosa, Williams had spent six years defending the IBF light heavyweight title before Henry Maske outboxed him and James Toney made him pay for an ill advised drop to super middleweight. To get back into world title contention, he would need to demonstrate his quality once again.
Ron Lipton always loved getting his teeth into a fight. During his days as a heavy handed amateur he was a friend and sparring partner of Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter and became one of the leading figures in the battle to overturn his wrongful murder conviction. Rather than having his enthusiasm for the sport beaten out of him during years spent working alongside world class operators like Dick Tiger, the experience only increased his admiration for the fighters and, eager to remain as close to the action as he possibly could, Lipton became a professional referee.
“I started in 1991 and I found out that a lot of referees don’t study the fighters when they take on an assignment,” Lipton told BN. “Some do, some don’t. Sometimes you don’t know what bout you’re going to be assigned so what I do is look at the entire card and study every single one of them. I read everything I can and study film to look for their tendencies, just like a good coach would. I did it for that fight and it helped me a lot.
“Merqui Sosa was what we call a ‘bricklayer.’ Every punch is a bomb and he’s throwing bricks in there. Williams was more of a boxer-puncher and it was the perfect melding of styles for a great fight. I knew they could handle themselves in there.
“There was hardly a clinch in the whole fight. They were throwing bricks and it was only a matter of time before someone’s body just gave out from the punishment.”
Lipton would go on to design fight sequences for some major boxing projects and plays – “Ron Lipton is the finest fight choreographer in the world,” Dr. Ferdie Pacheco said in July 2000 – but on January 13th 1995, Lipton found himself with a key role in a drama not even he could have pieced together. If Williams had been taken aback by Sosa’s initial aggressiveness, it hadn’t take him long to reciprocate. The battle lines had been drawn.
The following evening – just a five-minute stroll along the freezing boardwalk from Bally’s -Vinny Pazienza and Roberto Duran would meet at the city’s more prestigious Convention Centre. Two more ageing fighters searching for one final opportunity and the accompanying pay check. But for Commissioner of the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board, Larry Hazzard Snr, 1995’s schedule began with the lower profile card headlined by Sosa and Williams.
“I didn’t expect it. I generally don’t expect a fight to be overly violent,” Hazzard told BN “I expected that it’d be a very competitive fight based on the history of these guys. Prince Charles Williams, of course, was a boxer-puncher type of fighter and Merqui Sosa on the other hand was very aggressive brawler type. They say that styles make fights. These two fighters had the signature type styles that would make for a good fight.
Hazzard has seen and done pretty much everything during a career which has earned him a place in the Hall of Fame but within a few rounds it became obvious that he was presiding over something unique.
“These guys were just punching each other, Arturo Gatti style. Back and forth, back and forth. Every time it seemed like the referee was going to stop the fight on behalf of one fighter, the other guy would rally back and have the other in trouble. They were like rock ‘em, sock ‘em robots.
“I was raising questions to the doctor as well as him raising his concerns. We were pretty much in concert with our thinking. This was really an aberration from what we were used to seeing. Often you’ll see one fighter taking the bulk of the punishment when the other fighter has established himself as being superior but in this fight both fighters were pretty much even. It was really rare.”
The action was brutal but Sosa versus Williams never ventured into the cartoon like technicolour violence of the Rocky films. It paints a much starker picture of the savagery of professional boxing. Both men entered the ring expecting to fight for their careers but in front of spectators reclining in the red velvet seats of a hotel conference room, Sosa and Williams were suddenly fighting for their lives.
“I always said I don’t want my fans to go to to the toilet to pee. I don’t want my fans to go and buy popcorn. I want my fans to stand up and call my name,” Sosa said.
“As an amateur I was always like that. I won a lot of trophies for having the best fight at the event. I love that kind of fight.
“If you don’t enjoy what you’re doing you shouldn’t be there. You need to enjoy what you’re doing. I was a baseball player but I like action more so I became a fighter. I enjoyed boxing because there was always action. I don’t wait for my opponent to bring the action. I put the action on him.
“After the second round the fight became tough for him and he was maybe fighting for survival. I hurt him very well. I fought like that all of my career. I was doing what I loved doing so it wasn’t difficult for me.”
Sosa might have been in his element but the sheer intensity of the fight was beginning to create a problem for the officials. The war showed absolutely no sign of abating. If anything, the give and take nature of the fight had ratcheted up the ferocity. Officially, only the referee can stop a fight but suddenly the condition of the fighters became the topic a three-way discussion between Lipton, Hazzard and chief physician, Dr Frank Doggett. Between them, they decided to take matters out of Sosa and Williams’ hands.
“I remember at the end of the seventh round I called the doctor up and told him I was concerned about Sosa’s cheekbone and Williams’ cut because it was inside the orbital bone. I’d called him up before that to check the guys but the hellacious facial damage was getting worse so at that juncture, I asked him to come up to the ring to examine both guys.” remembered Lipton.
“My whole thing is the welfare of the fighter. I was concerned about the amount of punishment they were taking. Not just the facial injuries but the brutality of the fight.
“They both wanted to continue. If I hadn’t stopped it, they’d both still be fighting right now.”
“That’s the thing that makes this fight stand out,” added Hazzard. “It was the only time in my entire career – as a referee and as a commissioner – that a fight had to be stopped because both fighters were basically declared by the ringside physician as being unable to continue. That’s rare. I haven’t seen that happen again anywhere.
“We have seen brutal battles before. The most brutal fight that I’ve ever seen was the ‘Thrilla in Manila’ with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. This fight doesn’t come close to Ali v Frazier but in terms of punishment being meated out at that level, in many ways there are comparisons. It certainly reaches that point.”
Sosa – ahead on the scorecards – rose from his stool and somehow mustered the energy to raise his arms in celebration. Within minutes,Williams also had his hand raised. The judges had been rendered useless. With neither fighter deemed to be in any position to continue, the fight was declared a technical draw.
“The fight was tough,” Sosa admits when he thinks back. “I think I was winning and I thought that they should have given the fight to me because I was ahead when they stopped it. I know that Prince Charles didn’t want to give up so maybe it was a good decision that they decided to give us a draw.
“Michael Buffer didn’t like that he had to announce a draw but the commissioner said that it was a doctor’s decision and that was it. I was screaming, ‘I won, I won!’ but I didn’t.”
The events of January 13th 1995 are seldom mentioned and its combatants are rarely celebrated. Apart from the respect of all who witnessed the fight and a place in the history books, the only thing either man left Atlantic City with was the promise of a few extra dollars for an inevitable rematch which took place just six months later.
“I enjoyed both fights,” laughed Sosa. “I enjoyed the second one better. I won.”