The raised hand, the streaming tears of success, the gleaming, glistening, gorgeous belt held aloft. It is the dream of all fighters to hear their name reverberate around the packed stands at the end of those famous words, “And the new…”. But what does it really cost to make it to the top of the mountain? What is the price? And when all is said and done, is boxing a sound investment or does it take more than it gives back to those so loyal to it?
Liam Williams is a man who knows better than most the toll of the pursuit of glory. In a torturous six-month period in 2016, Williams found himself witness to two of British boxing’s most startling recent tragedies. First, as he worked the corner for close friend Nick Blackwell in his bout with Chris Eubank Jr. which ended in the 10th round after Blackwell sustained injuries that left him in a coma for nine days and unable to box again. Second, no less than six months later, Williams was once again in the corner, this time supporting stablemate Dale Evans in his matchup with Mike Towell. The fight was stopped in the fifth with Towell clearly in need of medical assistance. Just 24 hours later, the harrowing news came that Mike Towell, at just 25 years of age, had passed away. If there were ever moments to consider your dedication to the sport then these would certainly test the resolve (1).
The physical expenditure that boxing demands will come as no surprise – the dieting, the training and the strains on the human body are all to be expected for an elite level athlete – but, the weight that goes untold may well be the heaviest burden of them all.
Williams tastes professional defeat vs Liam Smith | The Grueling Truth
“One thing I know for sure is that I was starting to fade away from boxing. I was a bit pissed off with my surroundings and if I’m being totally honest, I didn’t want to box anymore. I’d had a gut full of it. Boxing has taken 18 years of my life – it has brought me a lot of good, but it’s brought me a lot of s**t as well. I’ve missed out on so much throughout my career. I’ve missed birthdays, I’ve missed out on weddings and I missed one of my best friend’s funerals on Friday: I couldn’t be there. I was devastated, I cried all day long; I was just gutted I couldn’t be there but then I know there’s good reason why I haven’t gone – I’m doing myself proud, I’m doing everybody else proud and I’m going to become world champion.”
It was Muhammad Ali who said, “You don’t lose if you get knocked down; you lose if you stay down”, a quote that holds true not just inside the confines of the ring. Following back to back losses to domestic rival Liam Smith, one of which occurred in controversial fashion, many felt that maybe Williams had found his level. But rather than settle and in an attempt to relight his fire, Williams made a switch from trainer Gary Lockett to Dominic Ingle, a move which seems to have boded well, with Williams stopping his last six opponents inside the distance.
“I think that’s the biggest thing [change of mentality] that Dom has done for me to be honest with you. Obviously, he brushed up my skills and different parts of my game, but the main thing is he has changed me a lot and how I approach things mentally. Dom has really changed me as much mentally as he has physically.”
Williams held aloft in victory by Dominic Ingle | Daily Star
Williams’ change in mentality and growing maturity is evidenced in his response to the unfounded accusations often thrown at him on Twitter by faceless accounts. Williams doesn’t shy away from any topic and when I probed into how the accusations of using performance-enhancing drugs impacts his mindset, he assured me that while it may have hurt him before, now it is just fuel to the fire.
“It’s joke isn’t it? Before, it did used to bother me. It didn’t upset me but it used to **** me off. I’m working my balls off, putting in the time, putting in the effort and somebody who has probably never trained has got the cheek to sit at the computer and slagging me off saying I’m doping. The more experience I have got I’ve just learned to turn a blind eye to it. They’re pathetic.”
At the age of 28, Williams may just be in the prime of his career – six consecutive knockout victories, a shot at American Demetrius Andrade’s WBO World Middleweight title in the pipeline, and Williams coming into a season of recognising his own maturity.
Without doubt, of those who have read this far, some will have rolled their eyes at the mere suggestion of Williams entering a season of maturity. From the outside, Williams can appear brash, aggressive, and confrontational. The list of fighters he has called out on Twitter is almost without end. Although it seems implausible, what if Williams’ demeanour is exactly what someone in just the right frame of mind and stage of their career should be doing?
Boxing as a business is hollow, devoid of morals and riddled with false promises. Boxing as a sport is not much better; it has no loyalty and it certainly waits for no man. Although Williams may have been bestowed with the promise of a mandatory title shot, nothing is ever truly guaranteed in boxing. Until a fighter is stood toe to toe staring into the whites of the champion’s eyes with nothing but the referee’s instructions and the sound of the first bell still ringing in your ears, then and then only is your shot truly yours. Until such a time, good things come to those who make it happen, rarely to those who wait.
“It [Andrade calling out Billy Joe Saunders on social media] does **** me off a little but on the other hand it’s kind of a compliment. This guy is obviously just avoiding me as much as he possibly can. I’d rather him not avoid me and just step up to the plate and fight me but if he decides he doesn’t want to defend against me he has to give up the title anyway which would leave me to fight someone like Jaime Munguía.”
Williams destroys Alantez Fox to claim a mandatory spot | BBC
My opening query was what the cost of success truly looked like in boxing. Hollywood will have us believe that it’s early mornings, long runs and raw eggs; and while the physical toll is monumental for elite level athletes, I propose instead that it is the almost unseen, certainly less talked about, cocktail of daily sacrifices, lonely nights away from home and the never-ending fragile promises of “this year” that really tax a fighter. It would have been easy, maybe even lazy, to just focus on Williams’ hitlist and add fuel to the fire that Williams is some reckless man, a loose cannon or a bolted horse, but I don't believe Williams is any of these things. I am of the belief that Williams is more calculating than social media may lead you to believe; and knowing that boxing waits for no man, Williams has his own plans and is in no way prepared to wait for boxing.
“I don't really have to show anybody anything. Everybody knows I can box and everybody knows I can fight. I'm just going to go [into the fight with Robinson] and enjoy myself, enjoy being back in the ring and I'm excited to be back. I'm going in there with bad intentions so if I hurt him early, I'm taking him out early... It’s a s**t situation where I’m having to chase him [Andrade] but my time will come… There’s not much more I can do. If need be, I’ll just knock out a couple more people until they can’t refuse me anymore!”
(1) Legendary writer, Donald McRae, details the six month period in which Williams was witness to boxing’s darker side - The Guardian