AT first, Liam Williams didn’t know what hit him. He didn’t see glaring lights, he barely felt the violent thud, and a sudden shot of adrenaline clouded the taste of blood. But it wasn’t a hard right hook or a crunching uppercut that scrambled his senses. It was a car travelling at 40mph.
Even the panicked scream of a passing friend wasn’t enough warning for Williams. Only a mile from home, he was tending to a punctured tyre until the car’s impact interrupted him and volleyed his body 20ft through the air. The woman steering the car had driven on that road a thousand times before. On this day, she was texting on her phone.
“It all happened too fast,” Williams told Boxing News, his memory of the moment blurred. “All of a sudden, I was like, ‘what’s happened here?’ I jumped up as a reaction and just fell straight back to the floor and then I felt the pain.”
In the initial aftermath, boxing was on the backburner and Williams was hospitalised. He was lucky to be alive, even luckier to escape without any broken bones, albeit cut to scarlet ribbons. Unable to walk for the next three weeks, he scooted around the house on a computer chair and it didn’t take long for boxing, or at least the thought of it, to return to his agenda.
“She just had a bit of a slap on the wrist,” shrugged the Welshman. “We’ve all done stupid mistakes before and you don’t actually realise how stupid it is until something like that happens. I was very p**sed off but more to the fact that I couldn’t box.”
The collision happened in June 2011, and the timing was terrible. Still an amateur, Williams had turned 19 a month earlier and he was on the eve of flying to Turkey to compete in the European championships. The event doubled as a qualifier for the life-changing 2012 Olympics. Having won the Welsh national title in his first senior season, Williams was selected for Wales at a time when each home nation could send representatives to major international tournaments. The missed opportunity was compounded when his domestic peers at 75kg, England’s Anthony Ogogo and Scotland’s Brian Peacock, were eliminated in the first round. A member of the GB Boxing development squad, Williams would’ve only needed one win to standout, but it wasn’t to be. His time as an amateur, where he amassed a 44-5 record, had come to an end. He’d already accepted he wasn’t suited to Team GB.
“Listen, whether I would’ve qualified or not, who knows? But the likes of Anthony Ogogo and others were better than me as an amateur. I have no trouble in saying that. I was always more suited to the pros. I know if I fought any of them good amateurs as a pro, I’d smash them to bits. “It was always hard [because] they always seemed to prioritise the English lads. I didn’t really enjoy my time there, to be honest with you. It was a chore, it was s**t.”
One of the safest sweeping generalisations you can still make nowadays is that people from the Rhondda valleys are tough. Coming from Clydach Vale, Williams was brought up on a mountainous landscape carved by ancient ice-age glaciers, and among a population that felt the aftershocks of the industrial revolution, especially the end of the mining industry, as much as anyone.
Williams was a child when he first learned of how his fighting forefathers punched a way out of working in the coal mines. The lesson came courtesy of a blue plaque dedicated to 1930s heavyweight Tommy Farr, commemorating the terraced house he called home – a literal stone’s throw away from the Williams family home on the same road.
Now in his 90s, neighbouring Pete Bartlett was captivated by boxing as a young boy when he was in the street’s welcoming party as Farr returned home from his 1937 challenge to heavyweight champion Joe Louis. Later running Rhondda ABC, where Williams began boxing, the old school trainer influenced the lives of hundreds of local children in the community.
“I love Pete to bits. I’ve got more respect for Pete than I have for my own old man, that’s the God’s honest truth,” said Williams, forever grateful. The trainer’s guidance kept Williams grounded, and so did working for his father as a roofer for the first 18 months of his pro career.
Training in the same gym as Nathan Cleverly put Williams on the radar of promoter Frank Warren. Cleverly was the UK’s only world title holder in 2012, and his status secured a slot for Williams to open a homecoming show in Cardiff. The prospect improved to 2-0 and overcame a nasty wound to outpoint Tommy Tolan, not helped when then-trainer Vince Cleverly forgot to recruit a cutsman for the corner.
“I did have to [stand out] because at that time, I was kind of in the shadow of Nathan,” he reflected, grateful for the opportunity but wanting to be there on merit rather than privilege. “Being in the same gym as him, on the same shows… I had to prove to people I wasn’t just Nathan’s gym-mate. I was thinking, ‘I’m here and I’m meant to be here.’”
Williams left the Cleverly camp six months later to train with Gary Lockett, already his manager. Lockett made sure Williams served his apprenticeship against durable journeymen and kept him busy with seven fights in his first 16 months. The only problem was that five of those appearances came on the small hall scene, and they shared much bigger ambitions.
“It’s a bit of a s**tty feeling because you know, without sounding disrespectful, that you deserve to be on the big stage. It sounds bad but you think, ‘I’m better than this.’
“Do you remember anyone on them small hall shows with me that made it? Because I don’t think there’s one that I can think of.”
After signing with Frank Warren, a plan was put in place with matchmaker Jason McClory to give Williams the experience all up-and-comers should encounter. Unknown to anyone, it set Williams on a path towards another career-threatening episode. Securing one of his first televised slots on BoxNation in 2014, he appeared on the undercard of Enzo Maccarinelli vs Juergen Braehmer in Germany. Halting Youri Pompilio in the last of eight rounds was an impressive result, especially as it drew direct comparisons to other quality prospects, but it came at a cost. Early on, Williams slipped a jab and threw an uppercut that connected on the point of Pompilio’s elbow. Punching through the pain, the performance singled him out and BoxNation were onboard. Warren delivered another three fights in the next seven months and Williams thrived; tearing through hometowner Ronnie Heffron in a British title eliminator, stopping Stepan Horvath four rounds quicker than Chris Eubank Jnr and running over Michael Lomax to claim the Commonwealth super-welterweight title. By the end of the year, the tendon of the knuckle above the index finger of Williams’ right hand had fused to the bone.
Unable to even unscrew bottle tops, Williams knew it was serious. Still, he was unprepared for the news he received from the UK’s leading orthopaedic hand surgeon. Just 22, he was heartbroken to be told, in no uncertain terms, he should retire and consider becoming a trainer. “I was fine in the moment and it didn’t actually sink in until I was walking back to the car once I’d left. I burst out in tears. It was unbelievable.
“I was with my old man. He said, ‘Liam, f**k that guy, we will find someone. Whatever it takes, you’ll get seen to because I’ll pay whatever you need.’
“I lost interest. I thought if the so-called best doctor in the country has said that, there’s not much hope. [For] maybe a week or two, I just thought that was me done, ‘I need to start grafting and working.’”
Through Lockett’s father-in-law, formerly team doctor for Llanelli Rugby Club, they eventually found the solution. It took two operations, £15,000 of medical fees and a lot of patience to overcome the injury. For months, the only resistance training Williams endured was weighted shadow boxing, so he was beyond eager to return to the ring.
When he did come back at the end of 2015, it looked like he’d never been away. Sporting a four-inch scar across his hand, he ended 13 months of inactivity and then ended Kris Carslaw, who has always lasted against good company, in less than four minutes. Onlookers were more excited than ever as Williams added the British title to his collection.
The joy was short-lived and 2016 brought fresh distress with a fatal fallout. Williams earned hard-fought experience in a bad-tempered British title defence against Gary Corcoran, but the knockout win in July was bookended by tragedy.
In March, Williams’ close friend and gym-mate Nick Blackwell had been put in an induced coma after 10 rounds against Chris Eubank Jnr. He remained unconscious for seven days, and the anguish wasn’t helped when the Eubanks held a press conference against the wishes of Blackwell’s family. Williams had been in the corner, as he was for Dale Evans in the following September. On that night, Evans’ won a British title eliminator in five rounds. Mike Towell, a father-of-one, suffered a brain injury and lost his life a day later.
“I know what I’m signing up for now, it’s a brutal sport,” said Williams in a forthright manner that suggest his eyes are wide open to the occupational hazards of his unforgiving profession. Many boxers say they are willing to pay the ultimate price, yet few have sat in the intensive care units and witnessed the sport’s most despairing, bloodcurdling consequences like Williams.
After back-to-back headline appearances in Cardiff, Williams ventured to world title contention in 2017 and tasted defeat for the first and second times as a pro. Warren had eyed a showdown with Liam Smith for a while and when the Scouser lost to Canelo Álvarez, it finally made sense.
In their first meeting, the only thing worse than Smith missing weight by 2lbs was referee Terry O’Connor missing a clash of heads that gave Williams a double laceration to his eyelid, forcing his retirement when ahead on the scorecards.
“Smith had been in bigger fights and he was more experienced. It was a great learning curve for me. That’s when I really realised the things that go on in boxing. A lot more goes on that what meets the eye,” said Williams, unintended irony tainting his last point.
Still competitive in the rematch, he lacked his usual aggression and the deflation from his first loss led to another. Repeat defeats promoted Williams to amicably part ways with Lockett, a decision mostly motivated by the need to get away from the distractions and home comforts that eroded his dedication.
Relocating to Sheffield in 2018 saw Williams rediscover his hunger, even conceding he became a “little bit arrogant” during regular displays of destructiveness over the next three years. His time with trainer Dominic Ingle featured six knockout wins, helping him to become a two-weight British champion and world-rated at middleweight.
Concurrently, there were less attempts to keep a lid on his emotions and he saw fewer reasons to rationalise or subdue his richest natural resource – anger. Understanding his short-fused anger better than ever, he’s tried to harness its energy rather than lose control of it.
The run with Ingle culminated in a game challenge to WBO titlist Demetrius Andrade, ultimately lost on points in April 2021. Parting ways with Warren and Ingle towards the end of the year, Williams has entered another new chapter alongside established coach Adam Booth.
Their first task together is bitter domestic rival Chris Eubank Jr, formerly trained by Booth. After two delays, they finally meet in Cardiff next week. They’ve traded trash talk, with Williams making unsavoury remarks about Jnr’s relationship with his father, simply to get the fight over the line.
“To be honest, I knew it would p**s him off, which is exactly why I said it. It definitely raised his blood pressure, I would say.
“He’s obviously got his hair off with me and he’s going to try and punch holes in me but that’s what I want because I can beat him to the punch and hurt him more than he can hurt me.”
Undeniably lighting a fire under Eubank, the crude comments could be considered a sign that Williams believes he’s mastered his own rage so well that he can create and control it in others. The proof, as always, will be proven with punches.