Thursday, September 3, 2015

Breadman and the Violent Scientist

"He has a way of beating you down with sharp, accumulative, heavy blows and I think he's going to be the violent scientist of his era." 

– trainer Stephen "Breadman" Edwards on his fighter, Julian Williams

At the James Shuler Boxing Gym (known as Shuler's) in a non-descript corner of West Philadelphia, fighter and trainer are supremely focused on preparing for their next match, a September 22nd PBC headlining gig against Argentine Luciano Cuello. Much work is to be done. There are three rounds of pad work, six rounds of sparring, three rounds of hitting the double end bag and a variety of strength and conditioning exercises before the day would be complete. (Edwards and Williams allow me to observe the session and both provide interviews afterward.)

Also at the gym is a PBC video crew, which is there to tape promotional pieces for Williams' upcoming bout. If Williams, also known as "J-Rock," enjoys that the camera crew is spotlighting him, it isn't readily apparent from his demeanor. He is all business throughout the session.  

Over the last 18 months, the Philadelphia junior middleweight has quickly become one of the ascendant names in the 154-lb. division. Aligned with powerful boxing advisor Al Haymon, Williams, now 20-0-1 with 12 knockouts, is on the cusp of a title shot. Although Williams will be a decided favorite against Cuello (35-3, 17 KOs), the Argentine has been in tough, losing close decisions to Willie Nelson and Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., and only having been stopped by Saul "Canelo" Alvarez.

Edwards has been Williams' coach since J-Rock’s second professional bout and it has been his job to take the West Philly kid with the impressive raw tools and turn him into a more polished and refined product. Throughout the training session, Edwards focuses on specific aspects of positioning, angles and movement. The trainer knows that his fighter is supposed to beat Cuello but as a student of the sport, he also understands that Cuello is the type of opponent who could spring an upset if Williams is unprepared or unfocused.

Regarding Cuello, Edwards said, "He's very steady, He's hard to stop. He's only been stopped once in 38 fights and he was stopped on his feet. I expect a guy with a lot of experience, a physically strong guy...I'm not going to allow Julian to slip up. Now people have lost to worse guys than Cuello. He's supposed to win the fight, obviously. But he's no one that we can take likely."

Williams (a fighter who watches a lot of tape of his opponents) echoed much of his trainer's scouting report of Cuello. "I know he's a solid guy," he said. "He's a tough guy. I'm sure he'll be giving 110% percent and we're expecting a tough fight." 

The mood changes throughout the various points of the day. There are light moments where Edwards and Williams exchange in-jokes and razz on each other as well as the other fighters who are working out at the gym. A pin drop could be heard as Edwards was instructing Williams on movement and punch sequencing during the pad work. Instructions are shouted from trainer to fighter during Williams' sparring with impressive Philly amateur Isaiah Wise. After the sparring, Williams and Edwards compete with each other on a movement and coordination drill. All throughout the day, despite the changes in activities and intensity, there is a palpable sense of respect and affection between the two.  

Even though many of the top fighters at junior middleweight are also aligned with Al Haymon, Williams hasn't been able to secure a matchup with any of them. Potential bouts against bigger names have fallen through. Despite ample television exposure, Williams remains on the outside of the division's top rung. However, he reveals no outward sign of malice or anger regarding the state of his career. 

"I don't usually think about where I am in my career," he said. "I'm just thinking about the next guy. In reality, I have to get that first before I can look at anyone else. If I sit back and analyze where I'm at, I think I'm knocking on the door. But I'd just like to focus on the next guy."

Despite bigger fights falling through, Edwards hasn't seen any negative fallout from his boxer. "Marvin Hagler didn't get a title shot until he had 50 fights," said Edwards. "He's [Julian's] not in that position. Sure, he's a little overlooked and a little overdue but he's not at a point where he's losing motivation. He's getting paid well to fight so I shouldn't have to motivate him at this point. He's self-motivated as far as I’m concerned."

Against Wise, the sparring partner, Williams has his hands full in the first round. (Edwards brings in Wise  each camp.) Wise applies effective pressure and has some success with punches from untraditional angles. In the second and third rounds, Williams turns the tide with some blistering left hook-right hand combinations. His large offensive arsenal is also starting to have an effect in breaking down Wise's defense. In the latter rounds of sparring, Williams uses his jab very effectively at points to control range. He also features a very sharp counter right uppercut.

But Wise gives him good work throughout. Edwards calls out more than once for Williams to increase his punch activity. He wants Williams to use his jab more consistently. In addition, Edwards implores Williams to spin out of corners with more precision. He's trying to get Williams to move in a more compact motion so that he can be in a better position to land shots.

By the end of the six rounds, Williams has clearly gotten the better of the action but Wise was successful in pushing him. The two fighters embrace after the final bell and Edwards congratulates Wise and his trainer for giving his fighter good work. Later on, Edwards talks about how well Williams did during the sparring session and he specifically highlights his fighter's punch variety.  

"I call him Mr. Do-It-All," said Edwards, "because he knocks guys out with body shots. He knocks guys out with left hooks. He knocks guys out with right hands. He can win a fight any kind of way. You know a lot of guys can't do that. It's a gift. Some guys can only win a fight one way. He's comfortable fighting in any kind of way."

As pleased as Edwards is after the sparring, when he moves Williams to the double end bag, he makes the fighter repeat several exercises until he gets it right. Edwards barely raises his voice during this part of the session. He consistently stresses movement and footwork. When Williams does something that Edwards doesn't like, the trainer corrects him with soft instruction, as a supportive teacher would. Edwards isn't a fire-and-brimstone type.

After the session, Williams conducts an interview with the PBC crew and goes through several poses and camera set-ups for their promotional material. (Interestingly, the PBC guys spray Williams down to get just the right "look" of perspiration.) 

Irrespective of the opponent, Williams is thrilled to be fighting much closer to home. Although Bethlehem is 70 miles from Philadelphia, this is Williams' first bout in Pennsylvania since 2011. 

Williams is understated when talking about himself or his career. He gives thoughtful answers and he's not one to disparage potential opponents or use the media to settle scores. Despite any frustrations that he might have with bigger opportunities falling through, Williams declines to say anything negative about the other fighters in the division. 

"I watch all of them – Andrade, Lara, the Charlos – I think it's a pretty stacked division," Williams said. "I'm looking forward to tangling with those guys. Whoever comes out of this division on top is probably going to be a Hall of Famer or pretty close to that...and very rich. I'm happy to be right in the middle of it." 

However, Williams' inability to land bigger names in the division clearly bothered Edwards. "Guys know who they want to fight and who they don't want to fight," he said. "There are certain champions who everyone wants to go after and there are certain champions that nobody wants to fight. So it's not a coincidence that there's always an excuse when it comes down to fighting him. 'Oh, what does he bring to the table?' And then a guy fights somebody else who brings less to the table.” 

But Edwards wasn't done on the topic. Later, he said, "There are a lot of guys who always have an excuse when it comes to fighting him. And they act like he's high risk/low reward and everybody acts like they're a superstar. There are only four superstars in this era: Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Canelo Alvarez and Miguel Cotto...Everybody else is pretty much in the same boat." 

Edwards points out that these past slights have affected Williams, despite his calm demeanor outside the ring. In fact, he has been impressed with how Williams has used these setbacks as positives. 

"Right now, he's fighting the best of his career,” Edwards said, "because he has a chip on his shoulder, because he's overlooked...I like the fact that he stays mean.  He stays motivated. He stays nasty. He's going to have to have that Marvin Hagler attitude in this era. So if they want to keep overlooking him, I kind of like it a little bit because it makes him meaner. It hurts his feelings. And he fights better as a kid that nobody appreciates...

"Ten years from now, people are going to talk about how many careers he ruined. I'm telling you. He's rolling. In the gym today, that was nothing. He's rolling guys...He can really take something off of a guy's career. That's why people don't want to fight him." 

The two make an interesting pair. Williams remains humble and even-keeled outside of the ring while Edwards is gregarious, passionate and has a bit of swagger. For whatever disappointments about the fight game that are hidden by Williams, these slights are immediately apparent in Edwards' defense of his boxer. The trainer is not just Williams' teacher but also his protector and surrogate. 

In the ring, Williams' reticence vanishes. He's knocked out 8 of his last 11 opponents (not counting a no-decision because of a cut) and his power shots are on point. He's out to do damage. The affability he exudes outside of the ring dissipates like morning fog once he gets into the squared circle. He knows his time is coming soon. And everyone in the gym has the same feeling.

Adam Abramowitz is the head writer and founder of
He is also a member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board.
@snboxing on twitter, SN Boxing on Facebook

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