HE could have been so much more. Richard Williams is convinced of that. “My attitude with most things was I’ll do it for the experience,” he reflected. “Because for me, it was I’m just going to try it. When I was training and the training wasn’t that good or it wasn’t that effective, I didn’t have a destination in mind. I was just doing it.”
“For that reason I think sometimes I strayed off where I should have been going,” he concluded. “I had no goal. So I had no direction.”
The man from Stockwell won the Commonwealth title in 2001 but was capable of more. He did mix with high calibre opponents. He fought Sergio Martinez twice, the Argentine who at his peak would be regarded as one the finest fighters on the planet. In 2003, when Williams was travelling up to Manchester to box him, he had no idea what he was letting himself in for. “Who knew?” Williams said.
Even though he had been expecting to fight two weeks later and didn’t want to box a southpaw, he had been happy to accept Martinez. “In my mind I can beat everybody. I’m a fighter, that’s how I think. If you’re in my weight division, I think I can beat you. That’s what fighters do. So we get to the fight. First round I’m checking him out, the second round I’ve gone back to my corner and I said to Don Davies [his trainer], ‘Okay I’ve got him. I’m going to finish it.’ Go out, catch him, drop him. I drop him, I’m trying to land to finish it. Generally when I get to that position I’m a pretty good finisher. I can’t get him, I can’t get him, I can’t get him. The next round energy starts to dip. From the fourth round or something like that I was struggling. I just felt weak. Everything was forced. I felt terrible. I think I dropped him again in the 11th round. [But] from about round five every time I’d go back to the corner, I’d think about my young family. I wanted to quit. So that’s how I felt. I was so tired,” he recalled. “I sat down and I was thinking about my kids. I’d [think], ‘You’ve got to get up and win this fight, you’ve got to get up and win this fight,’ [thinking] about things I wanted to do for them and things I wanted for myself. That’s literally what was getting me up off the stool because otherwise I wanted to go home.
“I dropped him in the 11th round and then the 12th round he came out firing punches and I remember the referee shouting at me saying, ‘Williams, Williams, if you don’t punch back I’m going to stop it.’ So I was thinking go down, I took a knee because I was thinking while I’m in the fight I might be able [to win it]. That to me is how I know, deep down, I’m a fighter. Because I’m losing the fight, I’m getting beat up, I don’t want to be in there but when he said Williams if you don’t punch back I’m going to stop it, I was thinking if I take a few breaths I might be able to [win]. Because you’re hanging on to the impossible. You’re thinking I can do it. You believe to the bitter end I can do it. To me that’s what fighting’s about.”
Among the regrets from his career is how he used to make weight. “Now that I’m a trainer and I understand about nutrition and all that sort of stuff, I wasn’t only doing stupid stuff to get down to the weight, once I got there, I wasn’t putting the necessary stuff back in,” he said.
He came back from that defeat to win the Commonwealth title again. “I was doing different things, I ate differently. I made 11st really easily. I couldn’t believe how easily I made it. We had the fight I think I stopped him in round eight. I felt pretty good,” Williams said. “Barry Hearn says to me I can get you the rematch with Sergio Martinez. In my mind I’m like if I have six, seven weeks training and I make the weight like I did for this fight, I’m going to tear him to pieces.”
Yet he hit another block. He couldn’t get the weight off easily. To this day Williams considers one of his greatest mistakes was failing to confide his problems in his others. He never asked for help. “The weight won’t come off. Absolutely killed myself to make the weight. Like I said, I still didn’t tell anybody I was suffering and then when I murdered myself to make the weight, had the weigh in, didn’t refuel properly. I ate stupid stuff,” he said. “When I fought that fight from the first round the bell went, I didn’t feel quite right. I could hear people in the crowd so I knew my mind wasn’t focused.” But he still believed that he could win.
In Belfast though he lost a second time to Martinez. “The second time we fought I knew from round one that I was going to get a beating. I felt terrible. But I’m here. I might as well keep trying to win. I think it was round 10 or the end of round 10 that Barry Hearn came up and said stop the fight. I was like thank God for that. Because I wasn’t going to stop. Because in my mind somewhere there was you might swing a punch and catch him,” Williams said. “He wasn’t a really hard puncher. He just answered everything. If you threw something, he answered it back… A really, really good fighter.”
Martinez of course went on to great things, beating Kelly Pavlik, Paul Williams, outclassing Julio Cesar Chavez Jnr and more. Seeing that, Williams said, “It made me feel a little bit better.” But equally he told himself, “On the other hand, if you had spoken to somebody and got proper help, maybe you could have done better [in his career].”
He did not pursue what might have been. “You can’t dwell on those things,” Williams said, though he acknowledged, “When I first stopped boxing I was really disappointed with what I had achieved. Because I thought I was so much better than what I did. When I was not weight drained I remember how I felt and everything like that, a lot of times when I fought I didn’t feel the same energy, the same buzz and stuff like that. So when I first retired I was quite disappointed. But once I learned about nutrition and about training properly I realised that I’m lucky something didn’t happen to me. I’m lucky I didn’t get injured. Now I’m grateful. It could have been worse.”
His experiences with Martinez provide an example of where boxing can take a fighter’s mind. “It gets horrible. When you’re in a real fight, in a proper fight. You think about some dark [things]. It gets dark. You think about some things, well I did anyway,” he said.
His first fight with Paul Samuels was also a frightening experience. Firstly Williams discovered, “He was a massive puncher and definitely the hardest puncher I got in the ring with in my life, trust me, 100%. It was spiteful.”
“He hurt me. It shocked me how hard the guy hit,” he added. “I got a really bad cut. It was a draw. I can remember saying, as I was leaving the arena, to Barry Hearn in my next fight I’m not fighting anybody else.”
That is the mindset of a fighter. All the more daring as, totally unexpectedly, once he was cut over his right eye during the fight, Williams realised he suddenly couldn’t see out of his left either. He had a cataract. “This is the thing in boxing, expect the unexpected because we were fighting. I nearly knocked him out in round one. Round two I get cut and blood’s gone into my right eye. I can’t see out of my right eye. Look out my left and I’m thinking how come I can’t see anything… A cataract was developing right in the centre of my eye. Bright lights and your iris shrinks down. I was looking just through the cataract so he was all hazy,” he said. “With one of the hardest punchers I’ve ever been in the ring with, hitting me bloody hard. I’m trying to avoid the punches and I’m thinking what’s wrong with my eye?
He went straight into the rematch with Samuels in his next fight. Williams won by stoppage. But he has been left with scars, and still gets pins and needles in his lip due to nerve damage from the cut.
Despite the punishment, he still regrets never winning the British title. That was the one he really wanted. Towards the end of his career, he moved up to middleweight and challenged for the Lonsdale belt. Howard Eastman caught him with a hook. “I can remember falling and thinking, ‘Ah, man.’ Anyway, I got up, I don’t remember getting up, that’s the truth. That’s the bizarre thing people don’t realise. Boxing’s dangerous. I remember little snippets of Howard coming to talk to me in the corner,” Williams said. “I don’t remember any of it… It’s serious stuff.”
He has been able to retire happily. “Certainly towards the end it didn’t go the way I wanted it to,” he said. “I went into boxing because I wanted to try it out, I always thought to myself after boxing I want to go back to work. That was always my plan.
“Maybe for certain people their mindset is I’m going to fight become a champion, get rich and never have to work again. It’s probably harder for those guys.”
He has also, with the support of partners, started up a new, high end boxing gym in London Bridge, that has taken his moniker from his fighting days, ‘The Secret,’ as its own name. Now The Secret Boxing Gym has opened its doors, alongside its own trendy coffeeshop, he feels “immense pride” but adds, cheerfully, “What I didn’t realise at the time and subsequently realised – pressure. Because if something doesn’t go right in there, it’s me, I take it personally. I’m told that my reputation in boxing is quite good so I don’t want to tarnish it at this late stage in the game.”
He has learned “the secret” of sorts along the way. “Talk to people. Share things with people. Be as genuine as possible. Be as open as possible. Be as honest as possible with people and with yourself,” Williams said. “It’s easy to lie to yourself. People do it all the time, especially in boxing.
“Tell yourself the truth.” It all starts from there.