Friday, December 13, 2019

Julian Williams: Dreams and the Realities of Boxing

"It was an amazing changed my life." – Julian Williams

Early in 2019 Julian "J-Rock" Williams was on the road to his second title shot. Training to face unified junior middleweight titlist Jarrett Hurd, Williams entered the fight as a significant underdog. There were a few reasons for that: In his first title shot in 2016, Williams was dropped three times against Jermall Charlo and lost by fifth-round knockout. In addition, Hurd was mowing down some of the best that the junior middleweight division had to offer. He knocked out now-titlist Tony Harrison, he was the first fighter to stop former champion Austin Trout and he won a spirited battle against long-time 154-lb. beltholder Erislandy Lara. Hurd also was physically enormous for the division, and his size was supposed to be an advantage going into the May fight against Williams. 

Yet when they faced each other in the ring, conventional wisdom was turned on its head. Not only was Williams the quicker fighter, both in terms of hand and foot speed, but he was the more physical one. And it was Williams who scored the early knockdown in the fight, flooring Hurd with a sharp right hand in the second round. He would go on to win by a unanimous decision in a fantastic match. 

Williams (left) in his title-winning effort in May
Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Trapp

Looking back on his title-winning effort, it wasn't just that J-Rock got the win, he had been highly regarded as an emerging fighter on the junior middleweight scene, but it was the audacity of his performance that was particularly captivating. Those who gave Williams a good chance to win the fight thought that he would have to command the outside. But few thought that taking it to Hurd on the inside would be his path to victory. 

Speaking with Williams over six months after the fight, one can still feel his excitement over what he was able to accomplish. The decision to fight Hurd on the inside wasn't a gut instinct or an adaptation during the bout; it was a central approach to getting the win. 

"We saw that he was overwhelming opponents with his size not his skill," said Williams. "The fighters that he fought – and take no credit away from him because he beat three guys in the top ten – but when we looked at them, Lara wasn’t a good inside fighter. He had plenty of nuts, gritty, a lot of heart and skill, but he wasn’t a good inside fighter. Then we looked at Tony [Harrison]. Tony wasn’t physically strong enough to deal with Jarrett Hurd. Then we looked at Austin Trout, who's a really good fighter, but he’s not an inside fighter either...and I knew how good I was on the inside, despite what everybody else thought."

In an interview with Williams's trainer, Stephen "Breadman" Edwards, immediately after the victory, he said that he wanted Julian to preserve his legs in the fight and that Hurd's opponents often wilted in the second half because of their movement trying to evade Hurd's pressure. Edwards also realized that Hurd preferred to get extension on his shots and he thought that Julian would be the much sharper and more versatile fighter at close range. 

After the victory, Williams (27-1-1, 16 KOs) expected Hurd to exercise his rematch clause, and that they would fight at the end of the year. However, Hurd declined, leaving Williams without a dance partner. Into the breach stepped Jeison Rosario (19-1-1, 13 KOs), a junior middleweight from the Dominican Republic who is now based in Miami. Williams and Rosario will meet in the ring on Jan. 18 at the Liacouras Center in Philadelphia (Fox will televise). Although Rosario doesn't have a particularly high profile within the sport, he can fight, and Williams knows it. In the last two years Rosario has sprung upsets over Jamontay Clark and Justin DeLoach.

"He's a really aggressive fighter," said Williams. "He had some fights where he came through where he wasn’t supposed to win. So that shows me a level of character. Coming in as a B-side, fighting guys that are perceived to be more talented than he is, and he’s won some of these fights. He took a loss to [Nathaniel] Gallimore [whom Williams beat in 2018], but he was a young pup back then. He rebounded. He’s gotten better over the last few years. And just because people don’t know who he is, that doesn’t mean that he can’t fight.

"When I say that, people might think that I’m trying to big my opponent up. I’m not. The dude can fight. His record is his record. He’s beaten who he’s beaten. I can’t take that away from him. And Jeison’s getting the opportunity of his life. He can change his life forever taking 36 minutes. We have to be prepared."

Williams and Rosario at the pre-fight presser
Photo Courtesy of Stephanie Trapp/TGB Promotions

Although some boxers have struggled fighting at home, the Philadelphia-born Williams is embracing his hometown title defense. In fact, Williams has been fighting on the road for so long that he last boxed in the City of Brotherly Love all the way back in 2011 as an 8-0 young prospect. For J-Rock, he's looking forward to his homecoming. 

Since winning the title, there have been many wonderful moments for Williams, but one has stood out. One day when he was picking up his four-year-old daughter from pre-school, he noticed that she was holding a picture of him. And she was bragging to everyone that the man in the picture, her father, was the world champion. And Williams said that he had never felt prouder. 

Despite his new-found status in the sport, Julian remains level-headed. A successful real estate investor, Williams hasn't been overwhelmed by the influx of new money. His friends know him as prudent with his financial decision making. No one is coming up to him with get-rich-quick schemes. His circle is close and tight, and those who are let in know that Williams isn't one to be exploited. However, J-Rock did joke that since winning the title he's discovered more cousins than he ever knew he had. 

For Williams and Edwards, they are far from self-satisfied. They know Rosario presents a viable threat and there are other huge fights in the division coming up. J-Rock thinks that he has three or four fights left in the division before he moves up to middleweight, but the allure of becoming an undisputed champ at 154 lbs. motivates him. And if he needs to be on a strict diet to ensure that he stays in the division, so be it. For Williams to fulfill all of his dreams at 154 lbs. he knows that the gym will help lead him there. Despite an excellent showing in his victory over Hurd, he is personally never satisfied with his performance. He knows that there are areas for improvement. 

"I’m trying to work on my whole game," he said. "I got flaws. I went back and looked at the Hurd fight and I took a lot from it. I never want to say that I looked good. Even though it was an amazing fight, I did a lot of things wrong. I pulled off when I should have stepped on him. I think I need to become a better finisher. I think I get guys hurt all the time, but I don’t always finish them. There are a lot of things I can work on."

And even though 2019 has been a wonderful time in Williams's life, he understands the realities of boxing. Someone always wants what you have, and there are no short cuts. 

"It’s probably one of the greatest years of my life," he said. "I accomplished a lifelong goal. Everybody that turns pro doesn’t wind up being world champion. And the ones that do, don’t become unified champion. So I achieved a lifelong dream in 2019. I recognize that. 

"I have to train with the same vigor and the same focus that I had before because this kid [Rosario] is trying to achieve his dream. I can’t overlook him – you know with [Brian] Castano [who will soon be fighting for the WBO title at 154] and Jermell [Charlo] and Tony [Harrison]. That shit don’t matter right now, because I can’t get to them without getting through Rosario."

If things break right for Williams, 2020 could be a momentous year for him as well. He's excited for his future in boxing, but he also knows that the 154-lb. division can be unforgiving. Taking each fight as it comes will be vital for him. At 29 he's in the prime of his career. He has two title belts and handfuls of potential opponents who want them. With each win his opportunities will continue to grow; his name will become that much more prominent within the sport. Yet there are threats everywhere, starting with Rosario on Jan. 18, and Williams vows that he will be ready for the challenge. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
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