In December of 2009, Paul Williams stood on top of the world. After he won a razor-thin majority decision against Sergio Martinez in a fight-of-the-year candidate, many boxing observers ranked him among the top five fighters in all of boxing. To that point, with only a blemish to the mover Carlos Quintana (which he later avenged by a stirring, first-round knockout), Williams seemed destined for great things.
By November of 2010, Williams lay motionless, face-first on Boardwalk Hall's canvas, the recipient of a vicious left hand from Martinez. Earlier in the year, he was unimpressive in "winning" a strange technical decision against Kermit Cintron, whereby Cintron fell out of the ring and couldn't make it back within the allotted time. Cintron outboxed Williams leading up to the stoppage. In one short year, Paul Williams went from the toast of the boxing world to a flawed fighter whose career momentum had grinded to a halt.
The truth is probably more complicated than that quick summary. Things were not all rosy prior to 2010. Williams' elite ranking was a little too generous. The wins against Margarito and Martinez were excellent, credential-building victories. However, Williams did not dominate these opponents. He won thin decisions. Elite fighters, like Pacquiao, Mayweather and Donaire, blow fighters out. Williams' best wins were not in this category.
Additionally, Williams should never have lost to Quintana. Williams looked undertrained in their first fight and displayed no tactical ability to adjust to Quintana's side-to-side movement and straight left hands. His performance was so mediocre that HBO didn't even buy the rematch.
With Williams' less-than-dominant 2010, one might expect a sense of urgency from Williams' camp. Williams is already 29 and has shown significant defensive lapses. He also hasn't demonstrated an ability to change his approach in the ring when facing difficulty. There is no "Plan B."
Strangely, George Peterson, Williams' trainer, has maintained that the knockout by Martinez was just a lucky punch. Yet, anyone who saw their first fight would acknowledge that Martinez routinely landed hard left hands against Williams.
Throughout the first few months of 2011, the Williams' camp (Peterson, advisor Al Haymon and promoter Dan Goossen) has seemed rather blasé about their fighter's eventual return to the ring. At one point, Williams planned to fight in June on HBO; however, it appears that his return will be pushed back to later in the year. There has been no public discussion about bringing in a new trainer. (I mentioned here that Emanuel Steward might be a great fight for "The Punisher.") One does not sense much desire for change from Williams or his representatives.
This attitude is misguided. Whenever Williams decides to return to the ring, he needs to make significant adjustments in order to beat top fighters; he has a number of technical flaws. Williams can be caught throwing lazy jabs that can be countered. He often gives up his height, preferring in-fighting to winning rounds from the outside. He also can smother himself in close range, not getting full extension on his power shots. Additionally, Williams has never really sat down on his punches. He often punches at the target instead of through it. He seems to have problems fighting movers, not to mention southpaws.
With Williams' inactivity over the last two years (only four fights), it's very possible that his development has been stunted. Haymon's fighters don't often fight "off-network." Waiting around for HBO dates has not led to significant advancements with Williams' technique. If Williams or his camp were prudent, he would fight a couple of lesser opponents in order to correct these flaws. Unfortunately, they don't see the need for additional development.
Williams would like an eventual third fight with Sergio Martinez. That fight seems more than likely to get made in that there aren't too many high-profile fighters in the surrounding weight classes. Williams has certainly been competitive with Martinez in their 14 rounds. However, some attributes of the matchup might be different in the future.
Williams always believed and fought as if he had an excellent chin. Who else would fight Margarito for 12 rounds by staying in the pocket? But Williams isn't fighting at 147 anymore. Fighters in the higher weight classes bring more power. If Williams' chin is no longer one of his best defensive assets, then he may have additional problems with his current ring style.
Goossen has insisted (most likely at the behest of someone in Williams' camp) that his fighter's best weight is at 147, even though Williams hasn't made that weight in three years. Since 2008, Williams has moved around in weight classes quite a bit. He has fought as low as 146 and as high as 159. The philosophy behind the Williams team is that titles and weight divisions are overrated but big fights (and their subsequent payouts) are the only objectives worth achieving.
Although it is refreshing that Williams has fought the best available, this approach of moving up and down in weight may hinder optimal training and conditioning. Losing weight to fight Cintron at 154, Williams didn't have much snap on his punches. Perhaps too much time had been spent focusing on the weight instead of ring strategy and technique? If these conditioning questions were not factors in his recent disappointing performances, then these results clearly demonstrate insufficient tutelage on boxing fundamentals and strategy.
Goossen and Haymon have handled Williams in a rather disorienting way. Instead of having Williams dominate a division and making great fighters come to them, the Williams team has called out unrealistic, big names like Manny Pacquiao. This strategy is curious. Eventually, fighters with titles and great records (even ones with challenging physical dimensions) get big fights. The Williams team believes that these mundane rituals of defending titles and dominating divisions are beneath them, quaint notions of another era in boxing.
In interviews, Williams is a gentle, soft-spoken man who clearly wants to fight the best. However, the team behind him has decided that if Williams is a big star then he must be afforded all of the perks like a big star. In their minds, there will be no tune-up fights off HBO. A fighter of Williams' stature does not belong on ESPN or, worse yet, a smaller television card.
During the negotiations for the Sergio Martinez rematch, the Williams camp made a series of classless maneuvers. They insisted that their fighter, not the middleweight champion, should be introduced last and walk in the ring second, going against the traditions of boxing. Even though they were fighting for Martinez's title, they wouldn't let him fight at 160 lbs., even though they had previously fought at that weight. I doubt if Williams personally insisted on all of these points, but the lack of the respect for Martinez was disgusting.
Years ago, Goossen, Haymon and HBO decided that Paul Williams was a star. To date, he has never generated even decent ticket sales and has made no imprint on the general sports fan outside of boxing enthusiasts.
In anointing Paul Williams as one of the special fighters in the sport, his team has stunted his growth. Instead of concentrating on refining Williams' development, they short-changed a wonderful, athletic talent by chasing big game. By keeping him inactive and playing games with his weight, their fighter has not reached his potential.
But do Williams, Goossen or Haymon seemed bothered by these setbacks? And if so, why have there not been serious changes in training, conditioning and how his career progresses? This is their chance to get things right.
One important question remains: what does Williams really want? He has been too happy to take a backseat during this time of duress. His overall passivity in how his career has been managed is concerning. If he is listening to the right people, then drastic changes must be made. Real stardom may come but there is serious work ahead.