In boxing, not all wins and losses are equal. Julian “J-Rock” Williams knows this.
That losses vary—in bitterness, in consequence, and duration—was something Williams learned on December 10, 2016. He got his long-coveted crack at Jermall Charlo’s IBF junior-middleweight title that night, a title Williams swore he’d wear, showing all why Charlo had—in Williams’s words—avoided him for nearly a year. Instead, Charlo vaporized Williams’s championship dreams in a display of arresting fury that spilled over into the post-fight rituals. If that behavior made a poor sportsman of Charlo, it made him one to watch, nevertheless. All of that gain came at Williams’s expense.
There may be no lonelier man in sports than the fighter whose words are used to augment the swiftness and savagery of his downfall. When members of Williams’s team leveled poorly-veiled accusations of PED use at Charlo, they only worsened their fighter’s defeat. Widely written off, Williams fought accordingly, facing a string of forgettable opponents in forgettable bouts while the division went on without him. In another example of boxing’s twisted logic, that moribundity made a mandatory challenger of Williams, putting him in line for one of Jarrett “Swift” Hurd’s many titles.
How Philadelphia’s Williams might fare against the freakishly massive Hurd was not merely a question of strategy. PBC fighters, many of them enticed under the banner by the undeniable discrepancy between compensation and risk that was Al Haymon’s calling card, have shown a propensity for preservative compliance. The way Williams treaded water after his near-drowning against Charlo seemed a page from the company playbook, one validated by the title opportunity he owed more to sanctioning body bunkum and the achievements of others (like Tony Harrison, who upset incumbent Hurd opponent Jermell Charlo last December) than anything Williams did in the ring. Hurd–Williams, fought a mere thirty miles from Hurd’s home in Accokeek, Maryland, had the makings of another safeguarded victory for the favorite.
No, when the bell rang in the EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia, Saturday night, Williams acted like anything but a cog in the machine. He tore the undefeated Hurd up, winning a unanimous decision in a performance that earned, rather than simply preserved, his future.
Williams did so by bringing the fight to the division’s premier grinder, which is a nod to Williams’s nerve, yes, but also to his craft and strategy. Had Williams tried to keep Hurd at bay, employing movement and a steady jab he’d have only provided his hulking opponent the space needed to generate forward momentum. Hurd fights to his strengths—size, power, durability—and thus can only fight one way. Williams used the first against him, denied him the second, and asked everything of the third.
Putting his head on either of Hurd’s shoulders, Williams got underneath his bigger opponent, forcing Hurd to fight on his heels. Without a sturdy base, Hurd was reduced to slapping with his punches and struggled all night to get Williams at the end of his shots. Instead of tiring himself in escape, Williams, 27-1-1 (16), rested under Hurd’s chin and kept his hands working inside, ripping Hurd to the body, baiting him into uppercuts; but because he knew how Hurd would retaliate and how little that off-balance retaliation promised, Williams was at ease. Exhaustion is a force-multiplier in a fighter’s undoing, and many a Hurd opponent has buckled first under the strain of his pressure before succumbing to his fists. Williams, however, had no intention of expediting his own destruction. Hurd was going to have to fight to keep his titles—but in the kind of fight he couldn’t imagine having to make. That Williams’s strategy was not quite one of kamikaze machismo by no means diminishes the craft he used to employ it. Williams is not James Toney nor Hurd Iran Barkley, but watching Williams work so comfortably, so confidently, within the eye of another man’s violent storm brought such comparisons to mind.
The signature moment of the bout came in the second, when, reminiscent of Montell Griffin’s first fight against Roy Jones, Williams popped Hurd’s chin up with his shoulder before burying a cross. Shocked and hurt, Hurd backed up, ate a left hook, and hit the canvas. It was a trick Williams employed numerous times, along with guard pulls and extended lefts that blinded Hurd to the hurtful crosses incoming. Whether these tactics would have worked had Hurd been allowed to come forward is a question only one of the fighters is likely to ponder. Defeat brings a litany of such questions, but winners have no reason to wonder “What if?”
By the late rounds, Hurd, 23-1 (16), was a beaten man. Williams knew it and stuck out a defiant tongue as he muscled his depleted opponent. He looked hardly better than the bleeding, swollen Hurd, though, which only adds to Williams’s achievement. Had he whitewashed Hurd, the fight would have been—and might still be—used as exhibit A in the case against Hurd’s legitimacy; the credit Williams earned would have been limited thereby. But Hurd was able to swell Williams’s eyes, to force the odd retreat, demanding Williams reveal the kind of mettle Charlo’s counter uppercut wouldn’t permit.
Because Hurd finished the fight on his feet, Williams’s performance is unlikely to have the kind of staying power that remains relevant by year’s end. But he has recovered much of what he lost against Charlo, invigorated the division via upset, charmed anew those aficionados who stopped caring years ago, and regained control of a career in the doldrums. Not all wins are equal, you see. And Williams knows it.