Paralyzed Paul Williams returns to boxing in new role

Kevin Iole
·Combat columnist

LAS VEGAS – In his darkest hour, when things seemed bleakest, Paul Williams, the multiple-division world champion who as a teenager had to be coaxed to box, insisted he would never walk away from the sport.

Paul Williams (AP Photo)
Paul Williams (AP Photo)

Williams lost just about everything in 10 horrific seconds one Sunday morning as he was riding his motorcycle to his brother’s wedding near Atlanta.

The former two-division world champion loved to ride his Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle fast. His trainer and long-time father-figure, George Peterson, fretted about him long before the tragic events of May 27, 2012.

“Paul was a natural risk taker,” Peterson said. “You saw that in the ring. He didn’t back off from anybody. He took it to them. And in his life, whatever he played, whatever he participated in, he was the same way. With that motorcycle, it wasn’t an isolated case. He did all kinds of tricks with that. I mean, he loved to show off these tricks he could do.”

Peterson loved Williams like a son, and he worried about his safety on that bike. A former narcotics investigator for the Washington, D.C., police, Peterson would urge Williams to be careful, to not push things.

Williams is a light-hearted sort who, like so many young men, never thought it could happen to him.

“I told him many times, ‘Paul, be careful on that thing because if you have a spill one day, it could be some serious trouble,’ ” Peterson said.

When emergency medical personnel reached Williams that day after his accident, when he was thrown some 60 feet after swerving to avoid a car, he couldn’t move his toes.

Williams had done damage to his spinal cord, and would be confined to a wheelchair. But doctors said there was a chance – a chance – he could recover and walk again.

It might take a year and a half, even two years, they told Peterson, but there was at least hope he’d be able to leave his wheelchair and walk on his own.

Williams, who only a week before the accident had signed a deal to fight Canelo Alvarez in what would be his pay-per-view debut, vowed he’d make it back to the ring.

I promised my fans I’d fight again, and I always keep my promises, Williams would say to anyone who would listen.

But there were no fights in 2013, or 2014, or 2015. Williams’ sunny disposition was often tested.

“It was a long process, and I had to have some talks with God,” Williams said.

When a return to boxing began to look unlikely, he considered, at least for a while, becoming a stand-up comedian. Anyone who knows him well believes he’d be a natural if he ever hit the stage.

But though thus far he hasn’t been able to fight again, on Friday in the tiny outpost of Miami, Oklahoma, “Tall” Paul Williams will return to the ring for the first time since his accident.

He’ll train Justin DeLoach in an eight-round super welterweight bout against Dillon Cook that will be broadcast on Showtime.

Paul Williams and Justin DeLoach (Amanda Westcott/SHOWTIME)
Paul Williams and Justin DeLoach (Amanda Westcott/SHOWTIME)

DeLoach had a decorated amateur career with dreams of making it big as a professional, as his nickname, “The Chosen One,” not-so-modestly suggests.

Upon turning pro in 2013, he was trained by Ronnie Shields, one of the sport’s elite trainers.

Despite win after win in his early days, DeLoach (13-1, 7 KOs) wasn’t entirely satisfied working with Shields. He respected Shields’ boxing knowledge, and his ability to improve a fighter.

DeLoach, though, needed time, and time was something that Shields didn’t have a lot to spare. He had a slew of elite fighters, all of whom had big fights, it seemed, they needed to prepare for.

“I love Coach Ronnie to death,” DeLoach said of Shields. “Great guy. Great trainer. Just the best. But he had so many fighters and I wasn’t progressing the way I wanted to. I wanted someone I could have a relationship with, a real relationship. You know what I’m talking about, the kind of trainer who knows his fighter night and day, inside and out.”

DeLoach grew up in Augusta, Ga., not far from where Williams grew up in Aiken, S.C. Williams was 10 years older and DeLoach was well aware of Williams long before Williams had ever laid eyes on him.

They met at a weigh-in at a fight card last year in Arizona, and DeLoach asked Williams to train him.

“It’s a blessing to be with him,” DeLoach said. “Paul is such a good guy, such a nice guy, and he inspires me so much. We come from the same background, building ourselves up from nothing. He made something of himself and I’m trying to make something of myself.”

After his accident, Peterson had encouraged Williams to show up at the gym and try to learn to train fighters. Williams, though, had always resisted.

It was much the same way as it was when Williams was a teenager who tagged along with his friend, Anthony Simpkins, a boxer who was trained by Peterson.

Williams had boxed a little when he was a young boy, then quit. As a teen, he showed up every day with Simpkins, Peterson said, and sat off to the side by himself waiting for his buddy to finish.

“Paul wasn’t excited about boxing,” Peterson said. “Never was. It wasn’t his cup of tea. He participated in boxing because it was convenient. His buddy was the one who was fighting. He had no clue he’d get into boxing. None whatsoever. He was coming to be with his buddy. When [Simpkins] was finished, they’d get up and leave.

“But then one day, he approached me and said, ‘You know, I think I may want to try this thing.’ And that’s how it started.”

It wasn’t long before he became one of the best fighters in the world. He was tall and lanky and fast. He knew how to move and was a quick learner.

He reeled off 33 wins in a row to begin his career, won a world title and made himself one of the biggest players in the sport. But he relied on Peterson so heavily for so much.

Not long after he agreed to train DeLoach, DeLoach called Williams. DeLoach was having personal issues and needed help. Really, he needed someone to talk to who could understand what he was going through.

Paul Williams (Amanda Westcott/SHOWTIME)
Paul Williams (Amanda Westcott/SHOWTIME)

And so, he picked up the phone and called Williams.

“I was a little under the weather and having some personal issues,” DeLoach said. “Next thing I knew, Coach Paul was in my driveway. That right there sealed it between me and him. That’s what I was looking for. As a fighter, you want someone to train you who is there for you and who is going through what you’re going through.

“Me and Coach Paul, man, he’s what I always wanted. We can talk about boxing, about life, whatever. I know he’s always got my back.”

Williams instinctively knew what to do when he knew DeLoach was having problems because of the way that Peterson had treated him.

There was a time when Williams was still a novice, dealing with the pressures of his job, the problems of his life, and needed someone to talk to right away.

“Mr. Peterson turned me from a young boy into a man,” Williams said. “Girl problems, money problems, life problems, whatever, he was always there. So I just try to do for [DeLoach] what Mr. Peterson did for me.”

Since he’s confined to his wheelchair, Williams obviously can’t get into the ring and show DeLoach the way he wants him to do things. He can’t hold mitts, as most trainers do, and help him with his combinations.

But he’s a presence outside the ring, shouting instructions and encouragement the entire session.

“He just has so much knowledge about boxing and he just shares it with me all the time,” DeLoach said. “If I’m doing something wrong, he lets me know. And if I kind of ease up, he’s yelling at me, ‘Work!’ It’s no different than any other trainer.”

At one point, Williams wasn’t sure he wanted to train.

Peterson had encouraged him to give it a shot on other occasions, but Williams had always declined.

This time, however, it was different. The time was right and Williams said yes.

“[DeLoach] asked me to stay at home and train him and I don’t know why then exactly, but it hit me at that moment,” Williams said. “I said, ‘Let me quit being selfish.’ So I had a talk with God. Maybe because I was hurt, I didn’t want to help anyone. But he asked me to work with him and I said to myself, ‘You know what, Paul. You have to help this guy the way Mr. Peterson did for you.’ So I decided to do it, and I’m glad I did.

“I want to be able to take this guy from ground zero and help him become a world champion, and be the most feared guy in boxing.”

Peterson said both men have made great strides. Peterson will be the assistant trainer on Friday, able to lend a hand if Williams needs help.

He said it took Williams a while to understand that not all fighters are as talented as he was.

Once he came to that realization, he adapted quickly and has done great work with DeLoach, Peterson said.

“It took Paul a while to understand that the guy he’s training isn’t Paul Williams,” Peterson said. “He’s learned how to handle him and they’re doing well together. There’s a good bond between them. Justin is learning a lot and has been a good student, and Paul has always been a very knowledgeable guy, and he’s legitimately helped him.

“They’re a good team.”

Williams is excited, though, he admits to a case of nerves.

“I think I’m more nervous than he is,” Williams said, laughing. “The one thing I learned when I was fighting is that the success you have up in that ring comes only when you put the time in. And we’ve put the time in. I can’t wait to see how it goes.”