The Overdue: Julian Williams finally gets his shot at Jermall Charlo
Other than two kids jostling a heavy bag in the corner, there was an absence of the usual white noise – the blaring tunes, the rowdy small talk – of a boxing gym, the stillness was more appropriate for the morning prayer of a Cistercian monk. Still, you had to lean in close to hear what Stephen Edwards was telling Julian Williams, less a conversation than a series of unintelligible whispers, a private Morse code understood only by one another. No, this wasn’t a secret meeting between Freemason brothers, just another routine hand-wrapping procedure between trainer and trainee, taking place at the Strength Academy in East Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood. And yet, it was telling that an act as mundane as hand-wrapping bespoke a bond tighter than most in the fight racket.
On this day, Williams was prepping for a sparring session and Edwards spared little in the way of gauze and tape for his pupil’s hands, treating them the way a jeweler would handle opal or Muscovite. A speck of blood could be spotted on William’s lips, a mark from a previous sparring session.
On Dec. 10, Williams, 22-0-1 (14), gears up for the biggest fight of his six-year professional career: a shot at the IBF 154-pound crown held by Jermall Charlo, 24-0 (18), at USC’s Galen Center on the Jesus Andres Cuellar-Abner Mares card. While the talent of Charlo and Williams has never been in question, it’s generally thought that their opposition, thus far, has been incommensurate with their respective skills. By fighting each other, they will seek the credible win that has long eluded them and start building their cases for supremacy in the 154-pound division. When asked how he viewed the biggest fight of his life, Williams replied unequivocally, “I’m ready. I’m definitely overdue.”
It’s no secret that Williams’ reputation has circulated throughout the boxing industry and he has passed the eye test as a well-rounded boxer-puncher, technically sound, with few visible weaknesses, ingredients that can get one far in this sport. Naazim Richardson, once the lead trainer for Bernard Hopkins for most of the latter’s late career renaissance (Richardson will not be in Hopkins corner for his final bout against Joe Smith Jr.), is usually cautious about dishing out early accolades to up-and-comers. In Williams, however, he sees more than just potential but actual dedication to merit the praise.
Richardson told UCNLive, “I’ve never been one to point at young guys and say, ‘This guy is going to be this,’ or ‘That guy is going to be that,’ because there are so many pitfalls and it’s such a long road to the championship that anything can happen. I always say you gotta watch out when a young boxer meets his first girl or when he gets his first automobile. These things are distractions.
“Julian, though, he was different. He is a rarity. You see kids with a hunger for the sport but he has a hunger to the point that he is very disciplined in life. There’s very few trainers who know him that didn’t think, ‘I think this kid’s gonna be world champion.’”
Part of Williams’ appeal has to do with his poise in the ring. Whether that assessment will bear itself out against higher-caliber fighters, only time and competitive matchmaking will reveal. It’s easier to be composed when there is little firepower coming back the other way. But for the time being, Williams’ coolness has impressed. Edwards contends that pacing oneself for 12 rounds is key to maintaining composure and, in that manner, they work on certain things in camp to reinforce Williams’ patience. For Williams, composure comes down to conditioning. “That’s 50% of the battle,” he pointed out. “If you put in the work to be in shape, it’s easy for you to stay composed.”
“That kind of maturity – you saw it in Andre Ward,” said Richardson, his craggy voice, betraying a sense of affection. “Ward was like that when he was 10 years old. It was unbelievable. I used to say (to Andre), ‘Man, you’re a midget and you beatin’ up all these kids. You better show me a birth certificate before you fight one of my kids.’ ‘Cuz Ward would even ask questions that didn’t make sense from a kid his age. He asked you the kind of questions that coaches talk among themselves. And Julian thinks like that. He stays poised under fire.”
If the praise for Williams is a tad excessive, Richardson notes that Philadelphia is a fight city that cherishes the struggle of its unheralded fighters. In Williams, there is grit and survival.
“Philly doesn’t really embrace the superstar kids that come out of the amateurs, Richardson explains. “They question them the whole time. ‘He won a gold medal but can he do this? Can he do that?’ They doubt him until he proves what he can do. A kid like Julian, they see him as a blue-collar kid, the kid who kind of got overshadowed by the amateur elite levels – so they cheer for him even harder.”
As Edwards finishes up applying the last strips of tape on his pupil’s hands, Williams begins taking questions. His answers in return are brief and programmatic, as though a publicist was whispering in his ear. An effort to elicit more than a few words is made. Does he still believe Jermall Charlo to be the lesser talented of the two brothers, as he quipped? “I think they’re both equal talents,” Williams said, offering a diplomat’s response. “But I think (WBC junior middleweight titlist) Jermell is a little bit better. He’s fought the better competition.” Maybe reticence, however, was a natural outcome of intense focus, a single-mindedness that obliterates elaboration. “Julian’s kind of a reserved guy,” Edwards said, regarding William’s sudden sharp tongue on the web. “People don’t know that about him.” It wasn’t long ago, though, when he more prospect than contender, that Williams played the part of rabble-rouser.
The grumbling started nearly two years ago when Williams had decided he had seen enough fighters with lesser ability get handpicked, one after the other, for a title shot. It was a violation of the pecking order, he believed. So, flexing his throat and stretching his fingers, Williams took a step outside of his comfort zone and made a pivot of the rhetorical kind. On Twitter, Facebook and in front of anyone with a camera and an inquiring mind, Williams ran roughshod over his Premier Boxing Champions stablemates, calling out the Charlo Twins, Vanes Martirosyan, Austin Trout, and Ishe Smith for pricing themselves out of fights and thereby “taking up space” in a crowded division to the point where their stubbornness, in Williams’ view, couldn’t be construed as anything other than avoidance.
Edwards, who is also Williams’ manager, was rankled by the circumventing and disagreed that Williams’ vocal stance was a misguided PR move. “People keep saying he made a lot of noise about getting a title shot,” Edwards reasoned, “but all he did was ask for an opportunity that he earned. I don’t think he did anything unreasonable. I don’t think he was being too boisterous or being disrespectful.”
Williams’ terseness, on this day, suggests perhaps the venom he once spouted at his 154-pound colleagues might have been a way to angle for a better position. The irony, though, is that Williams shares the same adviser as the fighters he criticized – Al Haymon, PBC’s architect. One would think, then, that Williams’ complaints should’ve been lodged toward Haymon. Edwards, who maintains a good relationship with the press-adverse mastermind, brushed aside what he felt were misguided and unwarranted accusations.
“Every time a guy don’t fight, everybody says that it’s Al Haymon keeping him away from him; you know?” Edwards said, shaking his head. “And that’s just not true. A lot of times a guy don’t fight because the guy just don’t want to fight. I’ve never heard Al Haymon tell me, ‘Steve, don’t fight Jermall. He punches too hard.’ He never told us that.”
For now, it is refreshing to see some competitive moxie coming out of the PBC stable, even if it’s just thoroughbred. For Williams and Edwards, their focus has always remained on preparing for the toughest outing and proving to everyone – including themselves – that Williams is “the goods.”
“Julian’s been a pro since 2010. He’s fought on TV 10 or 11 straight times. Around 2014, 2015, he could’ve been ready for title shot. Since that time, John Jackson, John Thompson, Liam Smith, Ishe Smith, Delvin Rodriguez, Jan Zaveck and even Brian Rose have all had a title shot; you know? So when people say not to take it personally, I say, ‘Do you guys pay attention to who has had titles shots in the junior middleweight division since the end of 2014? How many of those guys would be favored to beat Julian Williams?’ Of course anybody who has a competitive spirit is going to become (frustrated) and say, ‘How come I’m not getting my opportunity?’”
In any case, the boxing gods heeded Williams’ plea. Maybe that accounts for the tight lip.
“I feel good about the situation,” Williams reflected.
Teacher and pupil are, in a way, an unlikely combo. Williams was not a heralded amateur with an Olympic pedigree and Edwards, a property investor, came to boxing mainly through a mailbag he used to pen at Boxingtalk.com. The two met in 2007 and Williams would often come over to watch the fights at Edwards’ house. In 2010, shortly after he turned professional, Williams asked Edwards to be his full-time trainer. So far, the pairing looks to have paid off, although their union wasn’t always held in the highest regard. According to Richardson, early on in their collaboration, there were some onlookers who whispered doubts about an upstart’s ability to properly coach a budding prospect. Even Bernard Hopkins felt that to be the case.
“I remember mentioning to Bernard,” recalled Richardson – Bernard was like “That dude’s a writer? How does he go from being writer to a coach?!”
But Richardson saw the work Edwards put into the gym: “I said, ‘Bernard, he’s been in the gym for a minute. He came up around boxing. He knows his boxing. And he’s better than just knowing his boxing. He can translate. He can teach it.”
More important, unlike a trainer handling multiple clients with their various needs, Edwards just needs to manage one. “When Steve started working with Julian,” says Richardson, “I told Steve that’s good for (Julian) because (Edwards) didn’t have a lot of athletes. Julian needs that kind of one-on-one. Well, I don’t know if he needs it but I know he thrives on it.”
Edwards refuses, however, to dwell on the feel-good stories. “I can’t get ahead of myself. I have to coach the last two weeks. Everything has to be perfect. We have to win this fight.”
Droplets of sweat spill out of the headgear as it comes off. The breathing is heavy but measured, nothing that a minute’s rest won’t set right. The sparring session is capped at nine rounds but Williams looks as though he could go nine more – called it being prepared or, as Williams puts it, “long overdue.”
“I’ve already fought prospects. I’ve already fought ex-world champions. I’ve already fought ex-world title challengers. Really, who else can I fight?
“I think it’s time.”