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Sherman Williams: ‘Make a donation, get a ranking. Titles mean nothing’

Sherman Williams
Hannah Peters/Getty Images
Sherman Williams is the archetypal heavyweight nearly man. There’s excuses. There’s pride. There’s genuine hard luck. Best of all there’s lessons aplenty for the fighters he now guides through the hardest game. By Oliver Fennell

LIKE many former fringe contenders, Sherman Williams has a lot of “what ifs”. What if the scores had been different in certain fights? What if he’d been given more notice for others? What if Evander Holyfield had answered the bell for the fourth round? The Bahamian heavyweight reckons he was robbed several times in his career, but never more so than the night he locked horns with a legend and learned sometimes you just can’t win – even when your opponent verbally surrenders.

Williams had rocked Holyfield several times in the third round of their January 2011 encounter, but a savvy application of the rules turned a potential upset into an anticlimax.

The record states a no-contest. The video shows a groggy Holyfield sporting a seemingly insignificant cut. The audio catches him telling the referee “I can’t take too many chances with this wild guy… I can’t see”.

Of course, no referee can allow a contest to continue after hearing something like that, but cynics will have noted the timing. One more completed round and the bout would have gone to the scorecards, the cut having been deemed the result of a head clash. With Williams seemingly in the ascendancy, that might have been too much of a risk as Holyfield, 48, precariously navigated the last days of his 27-year pro career.

“The referee was starstruck,” claims Williams. “He was taking pictures with Holyfield before the fight, kissing his ass. In a few seconds he took millions of dollars out of my pocket.”

Still, while it may not make up for lost millions, there was an upside to what Williams calls “the biggest robbery of my life”. Four months later, Holyfield would have his final fight, a 10-round drubbing of the limited but massively popular Dane Brian Nielsen, and this would provide the catalyst for Williams to enter a new line of work.

“They [Holyfield’s handlers] wanted him to fight Vitali Klitschko, but I showed he had nothing left,” says Williams. “So he fought Nielsen instead and beat the s**t out him.

“[Nielsen’s promoter] Mogens Palle, we go way back to when I worked with Nielsen when he was going to fight Dickie Ryan [in 1999]. After the Holyfield fight, Mogens said ‘you got robbed blind, but if you can kick Holyfield’s ass and then Holyfield kicks Nielsen’s ass, then you can train my boxers in Denmark’.”

That set Williams on the path to the career he enjoys now – coaching full-time.

Sherman Williams
Christian Fischer/Bongarts/Getty Images

“Tank” was already training youths, so when the opportunity came to take on some pros, it was a natural progression.

“I volunteered with the Police Athletic League in Florida,” he says. “I started to coach troubled teens in juvenile detention and found I was a natural. It was fun. I was fighting too, so I was training together with the kids and I fell in love with it.”

Since starting to train pros in 2014, Williams has divided his time between Miami, where he has lived since 1998 (he has dual US-Bahamian citizenship) and Copenhagen, where he has most notably worked with WBC Youth cruiserweight champion Ditlev Rossing, undefeated heavyweight Pierre Madsen, and Sarah Mahfoud, the interim IBF women’s featherweight champion.

“We [Williams and Mahfoud] were in training for Amanda Serrano, to unify, but it’s been postponed twice for Covid, so now we’re just waiting,” says Williams of his current situation.

And while they wait, Williams keeps himself busy by staying in shape in case the phone rings for him to step back in the ring too. He last boxed as recently as 2019 and says: “I continuously get fight offers. Just last week I had an offer from Germany. I’m 48 but I feel like 28; my physical shape is perfectly fine, my emotional shape is fine and most importantly my spiritual shape is one thousand percent. I just have to decide if the situation is right for me. If so, I take the fight; if not, I don’t.”

That 2019 bout – a first-round knockout of journeyman Stacy Frazier to take his record to 42-15-2 (24) – topped the bill on a card he promoted in his native Bahamas. His own fighting days may be winding down but Williams very much has an eye on the future, as he aims to stage a boxing renaissance in the Caribbean.

His Bahamian Sons promotion was founded back in 2004 but had been gaining momentum in recent years. “We did two shows back to back in 2018 and 2019 and we were ready to do more, but Covid came,” he says. “We’d created a lot of interest and brought awareness. We partnered with the Ministry of Sports and Bahamian Brewery and showed our vision.”

That vision is not only to boost Bahamian boxing but to increase the standard and popularity of the sport across the Caribbean. “A lot of [Caribbean] countries don’t do shows at all,” Williams says. “We showed it is possible to put on local shows, to give entertainment and generate tourism. My vision is to create a platform for island fighters to develop fully and properly before going abroad, to become contenders and future champions while creating an atmosphere and a hub for boxing.”

Williams says the Bahamas offers the perfect combination of location and affordability to make it a viable Caribbean boxing hub, and not just for himself but for other promoters, too. “It’s so close to America, just 40 miles east of south Florida, and it’s much cheaper to do it in the Bahamas than in the States,” he says. “Other promoters are welcome. We can co-promote. I have good rapport with local networks and I’m in constant contact with fighters, and they’re all looking for action.”

And Williams’ ambitions extend beyond the Bahamas. “The key is to build fighters from other islands, too,” he says. “Trinidad, the Cayman Islands, Turks and Caicos. They’re English-speaking, as opposed to the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. Their dollars are on par with the US. These are beautiful places with great potential and boxing can bring in a mix of locals and tourists.”

As a boxer himself, Williams may not always have got the breaks he felt he deserved, but the frustrations provided an education that he says he can apply as a coach and a promoter. “I always tell my fighters, this isn’t about athletic competition, it’s about politics and business,” he says.
Which is why Williams envisages building Caribbean boxers from the bottom up, so they have a reputation and a fan base before progressing to the more lucrative markets of the United States and Europe.

“I won’t say I have any regrets [about my pro boxing career],” he says, “but what I would have done differently would be to have been more involved in management decisions from the beginning and had more time to prepare for the big fights.”

There were plenty of big fights, and almost as many what-ifs. Williams could be counted on to provide competitive, crowd-pleasing rounds. What he couldn’t always count on in return was a level playing field.

“If you’re a 6’4” all-American and look good, you get to fight a load of taxi drivers,” he says. “For me, my whole career was real fights against big guys – and that’s how I liked it – but why would they back a 5’10” boxer from the Bahamas?”

Williams turned pro in 1997 after an amateur career that comprised “roughly 18 wins and four losses” – including two appearances in the Olympic trials.

Though one of his country’s most decorated amateurs, the lack at the time of a pro boxing scene in the Bahamas necessitated a move from his home in Freeport to the US – and it was clear from the start that Williams would not be afforded any breaks, as he lost his paid debut. “I was rushed by an idiot matchmaker to fight a guy [Renard Jones] who’d won the Golden Gloves in Nevada,” says Williams of the four-round majority decision setback. “They gave him the decision because he was Golden Gloves champ. Then it happened again [Jones won a rematch five months later]. It was a baptism by fire. A lot of people would have quit, but I pressed forward.”

That he did, with a perseverance matched by an exciting, aggressive style. He earned some good wins – most notably against Cisse Salif, Al Cole, Samson Po’uha and Chauncy Welliver – but it was in the what-ifs that Williams earned his name. We know what happened against Holyfield. There was also a 2000 draw with Jameel McCline (“being a Bahamian fighting in New York, if they call it a draw, you know who won”); a 2001 defeat to Obed Sullivan (“I won every round but still lost a split decision); a 2003 unanimous points reverse to Tye Fields (“he couldn’t lift my gym bag, but I had the flu. It was the worst decision of my career to go ahead with that fight”); a UD setback to Ruslan Chagaev in 2005 (“I beat him from pillar to post but he got the decision”); one to Manuel Charr in 2009 (“in Germany, you’ve got to win by KO”); and one to Robert Helenius in 2012 (“at a minimum, that was a draw”).

Still, Williams earned a solid reputation, travelled the world and won several belts – not that the latter mattered all that much. “Tank” understands the true worth of some titles, especially the “WBO China National” championship he won in 2012 as a Bahamian beating Welliver, a New Zealand-based American. “I got three belts from that fight,” he says, “including the IPBO, whatever that is. I don’t even know what means, but the belt is sitting on my bookshelf.

“At the end of the day, they all want sanctioning fees. Make a donation, get a ranking. Titles don’t mean nothing to me.”

What does mean something to him is that boxers are treated fairly. “Still today, fighters are being exploited, abused and manipulated,” he says. “I tell kids coming up, boxing is business first – you’ve got to get paid fairly and protect yourself.

“Boxing is the only place where you can get robbed but nobody goes to jail.”

Boxing robberies are, of course, subjective. Williams may feel aggrieved by what happened against Holyfield, Sullivan, McCline and co, but they’ll have their own takes on those fights. But Williams can at least say he came close on several occasions to making a breakthrough, so the what-ifs are inevitable.

“If I’d got some of those wins, my career would have taken a new turn,” he says. “I was good enough, I knew that from sparring the top guys. I sparred with David Tua and beat him up. Hasim Rahman had to be forced to spar with me. I held my own against Lennox Lewis and bruised up Michael Grant. I could have been in that mix.”

Instead, he hopes to create a mix of his own – a Caribbean blend of boxing that will put his beloved Bahamas back on the map. “Boxing was a big deal there,” he says. “Muhammad Ali had his last fight in the Bahamas. A lot of people forget that.

“There’s a lot of potential, it just needs to be grown. It’s not easy, but we’re restarting something that used to big.”

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