It was a half a lifetime ago, but Julian Williams can recall the ride home vividly. Little details remain crystal clear in his mind.
He’d just competed in the national Silver Gloves boxing tournament, and one of his coaches had a car full of kids he was bringing home. The car would make stops in various Philadelphia neighborhoods, and the coach would watch as the young boxers would climb out of the car and bound into their homes.
Williams was the final kid in the car as his coach drove down Roosevelt Boulevard.
“Let me out here,” Williams told his coach. But his coach glanced around and saw no home for Williams to go to.
“What is your address?” the coach asked. Williams was reluctant to say, and again asked to be left off where they were. The truth was, there was no home. He was living in a shelter in the bottom floor of an old hotel, and he was too embarrassed to admit that.
His mother, who died in 2013 at just 53 years old, was addicted to crack cocaine, and her children had a tumultuous early life when they were young.
“Things got really bad for us at the time,” said Williams, who on Saturday will challenge Jermall Charlo for the IBF light middleweight title at the Galen Center in Los Angeles in a bout televised by Showtime.
“She was struggling with her addiction. They took our house and my little brother and I got put into foster care. I went to stay with my father for a minute, but then I came right back because he got incarcerated. Then I started living with my mother again, but she was living with a friend of hers who also was a drug addict. It was a bad environment.”
It wasn’t the kind of place to raise children. When Williams was 13, he got a major break in his life, though he could hardly have understood the significance it would have at that point.
A social worker wanted to remove him from that home, and asked if he had a relative. His older sister was 21 and he was off to live with her.
“She was always mature and always had her own apartment and she had a boyfriend who is now her husband,” Williams said.
A stable home was a positive. By that point, Williams had found boxing and fallen in love with it. He was talented and even at that age, showing signs he could be a successful pro.
“I knew early on, he could be special,” said Kenny Mason, one of his early coaches who is still a mentor for Williams. “He was a little out there and we had to rein him in a bit. One of his things was, he loved to fight. A lot. That’s what brought him into the gym, really. He was getting in trouble quite a bit and he did like fighting. It was obvious, to be honest, so I took that and used it.”
Williams is now 22-0-1 with 14 knockouts and one of the best prospects in the sport. His only blemish was a draw in his seventh fight against Francisco “Chia” Santana, who was four years older and had more than double the number of fights Williams did.
But his home life presented problems that a lot of athletes didn’t face. The stable home his sister provided was a positive, but one of the downsides was that he couldn’t train as much. He had to babysit his sister’s children, because she worked the second shift and went to her job when Williams got home from school.
That meant he could only get to the gym once a week or so, and it wasn’t the way to advance his career.
Then came the real bombshell. His sister and her family were moving to North Carolina. By that point, Williams was plotting out a career as a fighter and dreamed of becoming another in the long line of successful boxers from Philadelphia, following the likes of Bennie Briscoe, Bernard Hopkins, Frank “The Animal” Fletcher and Meldrick Taylor.
He didn’t know much about North Carolina other than it didn’t have fighters like Briscoe, Hopkins, Fletcher or Taylor.
“I never heard of any great fighters coming from North Carolina, and I knew it would be hard to pursue boxing in North Carolina,” he said. “But if I stayed, I’d basically be homeless, or close to it.”
He was so dedicated to boxing, he decided to stay, and went into the shelter with his mother in the basement of the hotel.
Mason became his father figure, providing structure and discipline in his life.
There are unheralded coaches throughout the country who sacrifice themselves to help troubled youths, and that’s what Mason did. He had a daughter and two sons and doted on them, but he took on many fighters who walked through the gym doors and treated them as if they were his own.
Williams was one of them.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that boxing did change his life,” Mason said. “It turned him around. He saw that he was good at it, but he knew he’d have to work for it. And he understood that if he dedicated himself to it, he could do things that some of these other fighters had done.
“Give him a lot of credit. I was there to help him, but he recognized what he needed to do and he put the time and the effort in.”
He came to a crossroads in 2013 as he was preparing to fight the then-unbeaten Hugo Centeno. He was a prospect on the rise, though he hadn’t fully proven he could compete at the highest level.
He was in training camp, a month out from the fight with Centeno, when he learned his mother died of congestive heart failure. Despite her addictions, she was, he said, a great mother.
“She instilled the work ethic I have in me and despite her addictions, she always had a job until the last couple of years [of her life],” he said. “I learned about addiction and I understand it’s a disease, and she fought that, even though she had a lot of problems with it. She wanted to do right for her kids, and she taught the values I carry with me now.”
When she died, he was crushed, but he was at a pivotal point in his career. He could have canceled the fight and tended to his family, but he knew that’s not what his mother would have wanted.
So, he decided to fight. He told no one and took on the biggest match of his life to that point with a broken heart.
“In camp, I was literally training for hours and then I’d get back and I was planning her funeral,” he said. “I didn’t tell anyone because I knew if the media got a hold of it, they’d asked me about it and it would be hard for me to control my emotions.
“This was a huge fight for me and I needed to be ready. It was the biggest fight of my career. He was supposed to beat me and outbox me, and I had to be ready. It really hurt, but I went on with my camp because I wanted to do it for her.”
He easily won the first three rounds but an accidental head butt in the fourth opened a large cut on both fighters’ heads. Centeno couldn’t see how many fingers the doctor held up, and so the fight was stopped and declared a no contest.
It wasn’t the win he craved, but the results let him know he belonged.
And he has no doubt he’ll beat Charlo, who is 24-0 with 18 knockouts and coming off an impressive win over Austin Trout.
“He has a good skill set, but the key is just for me to be myself,” Williams said. “I don’t have to go out there and be anybody else but Julian Williams. I got this far, to a world title shot, by using good boxing fundamentals and by being mean and ferocious, and that’s what I plan on doing against him.”
He’s not sure how he’ll react if he wins, completing a journey in which he essentially will go from being homeless as a teenager to becoming a world champion, but he knows he’ll be flooded with emotions.
He’ll think of his mother, of course, as well as all those who helped keep him on the right path.
“I’m an example of a fighter who has proven, it doesn’t matter where you come from or how bad your circumstances might be, if you believe and if you compete and give everything you have to it, you can make it,” he said. “I was a kid and I wanted it so bad and I never let go of that dream. I kept pushing and pushing and guess what? Here I am.”