When the bad Moon in your heart sings
And your wind-up gears start grinding
Your teeth feel you smiling
The better, happier you
A better, happier you
—Giant, Matthew Good Band
He was in the MGM Grand Garden Arena that September 2012 night to watch Saul Alvarez fight Josesito Lopez. Lopez, battered to submission in five rounds, fared as well as a fighter chasing a payday beyond the threshold of his frame and talent does, no better than a replacement opponent is supposed to. The man he replaced, Paul Williams, he was there, remember? That bright smile, out of keeping with a fighter nicknamed “The Punisher,” one who poured punches into opponents, interrogated them with leather on route to a record of 41-2, with 27 knockouts—how wonderful it was to see it again.
That smile defined Williams in a way, a manifestation of his sanguine southern charm. He brought it with him everywhere. Now, he brought his wheelchair too. Did the wheelchair also define him? He was a fighter once. But seeing him that night, his legs almost tangibly nonresponsive, what was the first thing you thought of?
The math is ghastly. Launched from a motorcycle traveling 75 mph, a person can travel 60 feet—three boxing rings—in the air before returning to earth. Off a bounce. Even that carnage concedes to friction, ends in stillness, silence. In that stillness and silence, with his head resting in the hole it made in the ground, Williams recognized he was still alive.
It was the morning of May 27, 2012. Williams was in Atlanta for his brother Leon’s wedding, Heading east on South Marietta Parkway, he felt the car on his right drifting toward him. Williams veered out of the passing lane, away from that threat, and into oncoming traffic. The numbers involved in a head-on collision between a man on a motorcycle and a car aren’t just ghastly, they’re terminal, so Williams turned toward the embankment on the side of the road and submitted to the unknown. It was the right choice, but it left Williams paralyzed from the waist down
Ask Paul Williams about how he’s doing now, how his family is doing, and that’s what he’ll tell you. Listen to him long enough and you’ll understand he means it. There is an impossible optimism about Williams, the difficulty in understanding it is compounded by his tendency to talk around himself, choosing instead to focus on other people or the future. But, then, that tendency might also be enlightening.
Williams brings to mind a line from Don DeLillo’s End Zone: “Words move the body into position. In time the position itself dictates events.” People downplay their troubles for many reasons: to convince themselves those troubles are smaller than they are, for example; or to deter others from offering support; sometimes they do it to hide vulnerability. Williams isn’t doing any of those things. He is speaking himself into position, using his words to set a standard his actions must achieve, not downplaying his troubles but not exaggerating them either. In that position, with that perspective, Williams can act.
This interpretation is corroborated by George Peterson, “Mr. Peterson,” as Williams refers to him to this day. Peterson has known Williams since the fighter wandered into the Final Round gym in Aiken, South Carolina at fifteen years old; he is the only trainer Williams had thereafter, and the kind of mentor and manager too few fighters are lucky enough to have.
“You’re never gonna get a sad word out of him,” says Peterson, “You know, even the day after the accident, he didn’t let that bother him. I visited him the afternoon of the accident and, of course, he was paralyzed from the waist down and he didn’t even recognize it as such.” Even Peterson was struck by Williams’s demeanor. “And he was all ready to go, he thought just three or four days of rest and he’d be ready to get back to the gym.” That prognosis smacks of denial, at least from the mouths of most people. It seems almost hallucinatory, the result of pain medication. But Williams’s words were moving his body into position.
Peterson says Williams believed in making things happen, that he always had to “fight up,” that, regardless of the challenge, Williams believed he would triumph. “He had this saying, whenever he ran into a problem,” remembers Peterson, “that it was always ‘a small thing to a giant.’ If you need one of his best quotes, that would be it. So that’s the way he looked at it, like, ‘Hey, I can’t move my legs now and my body’s not cooperatin’ now, but I’m gonna overcome this in a few days.”
There was more to consider than Williams’s physical recovery, however. He wasn’t going back to the gym in a few days, he wasn’t going to fight Alvarez, and he wasn’t going to collect all those millions. And then there were those private moments to contend with. A window can become a mirror in the dark—surely there were nights ahead where Williams would try to look to the future, to what he might do, and be confronted by the image of a man whose future, whose identity, whose very presence, had been compromised, had been confined. How could those reflections, like the bruising in his spine, not carry real consequence?
Jonathan Lockwood, a resident physician in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto, explains that the reaction to debilitating injury is often “something like grief and the stages of reckoning, i.e., denial, anger, bargaining, sadness, et cetera, and fluctuation between those phases.” Major depression and suicidal thoughts are not uncommon either, as hopelessness and isolation, often features of a significantly disabling accident, are “highly correlated with suicidal thoughts.” Moreover, there is evidence suggesting that these effects are amplified in professional athletes, people who make their living with their bodies and enjoy an elevated, exclusive place in society because of their physicality. Unsurprisingly, they can suffer a loss of identity too.
Williams wasn’t immune to these effects. His vulnerability here authenticates his optimism: a person who denied them would be hard to take seriously. Speaking about his injury now, Williams says “It’s good and bad. The good part is, I’m still here, I can see my family.” He says he even appreciates the painlessness his lower body experiences. “The bad part is like, you mess up your clothes or like, you feel bad, like you’re not the same as when you were walking, you were making moves, and like, now everything slows down financially cuz your not jumpin’ in the ring making big paychecks.” There is some sadness there—however fleet, episodic—over the loss of identity, perhaps some grief at a financial future truncated by injury.
Those feelings haven’t extinguished his resolve, though, something Williams thanks boxing for. “With my situation, when I got hurt and stuff, boxing taught me to just deal with it. When I lost the first time, I realized that’s how things go, ain’t nothing to cry about. Let’s start over and see how things are gonna go.” If there is delusion or denial there it is expertly concealed. Williams isn’t saying things are going to get better, he is looking at an opportunity, at the possibility—rather than the empty promise—of improvement.
Did Peterson see cause for concern in Williams’s demeanor following the accident? It’s a question he is willing to entertain but only after vetting the person asking it, retracing the steps, the familiars that led two strangers to an evening conversation about someone so important to him. It’s clear Peterson still cares deeply for Williams. Indeed it was Peterson who helped secure Williams’s financial future years ago. Himself the owner of a few properties, Peterson advised Williams on a series of real estate ventures that Peterson chuckles, “connected really well with Paul ‘The Landlord’ Williams.”
As for Williams’s mindset in the aftermath of the accident: “He’s just getting to the point now where he’s coming to grips with it,” according to Peterson. “What I’m saying is this here: He had some opportunities, some rehab opportunities to make this thing come to play [improve his prospects on walking again] but he got comfortable doing what he was doing and just didn’t choose those rehab opportunities, you understand?”
“We contacted some of the best surgeons and, sure enough, after the surgery, the doctors were happy about the outcome of the surgery. And we were told that his condition was such that after a year or so he would be able to resume his regular activities. His spinal cord was bruised [as opposed to severed] and it would take a year, year and a half to heal completely.”
That required a commitment to rehabilitation that never quite materialized. Peterson accepts some responsibility for Williams’s unsuccessful efforts with rehab, just as he accepts some responsibility for Williams’s accident since he let the fighter break camp to attend Leon’s wedding. Perhaps responsibility is the wrong word, guilt is too, but whatever feelings weigh his words down when he speaks of these events are influenced by his sense of agency in both.
Williams was not a “self-motivated person” in Peterson’s eyes. Williams himself hints at his motivational makeup in talking about how he approached his craft. “Some guys, like Mayweather, they strictly box, they stay in the gym. Me, I didn’t do that. After I fought, I’d be like, ‘Let me go get my vacation.’ Don’t get it twisted now, I respected my craft when I got in there, but after working like, every day, every day, every day, after I fought, I was gonna go have fun, chill with my homeboys.” Williams was going to torture himself in training, as any YouTube search of his workouts can attest, but Peterson had to “put things in gear for him.” “When I’d go to training camps,” Williams told Jason Langendorf for VICE, “that day when I’d get in the car with Mr. Peterson, that’s when my training camp would start.”
Peterson’s role changed in the aftermath of William’s accident. “We sort of separated for a while,” he says. “When I say separated I mean I wasn’t there because he was in the hospital for a couple of months and we, we just disconnected.” It was over this period that Peterson believes Williams “got real comfortable in there, real comfortable doin’ nothin’, and so we didn’t get into that rehab.” Do not overlook Peterson’s use of “we” in that sentence, it shows how tight the bond is between the two men. Williams meanwhile, was only too happy to escape Atlanta’s Shepherd Center where he was supposed to complete his rehab. As soon as Williams learned to transfer his body from his bed to his chair, he bid rehab goodbye. It took him a week.
It was a puzzling move, especially for someone who despite being in a wheelchair intended to fight again. But whatever motivation Williams may have had for walking again, he knew his time in the ring was coming to an end. The roar of the crowd, the money, the thrill of competition, Williams was already thinking about leaving all of that behind.
“After fighting [Nobuhiro] Ishida, I was ready to retire then.” This was in February of 2012, a few months before the Alvarez fight was signed. “Boxing wasn’t the same. Like, I was always tryin’ to get a fight with Mayweather or Pacquiao, you know, somebody like that, and it felt like those days were never coming. So I was like, ‘Why don’t you just take this last fight here and go out with a bang?’”
It’s odd to hear this kind of frustration from a fighter signed to Al Haymon. Haymon’s fighters, at least when he was first making inroads into boxing, were matched notoriously softly, compensated abnormally well, and usually both. But Williams was different. He targeted challenges. He beat iron-jawed bruiser Antonio Margarito to win the WBO welterweight title, fought Sergio Martinez twice (losing the rematch by stunning knockout), and was supposed to face middleweight champion, Kelly Pavlik, before a staph infection in Pavlik’s hand killed the fight. Many fighters talk about being avoided, it is a convenient excuse for milking mismatches. But Williams, a six-feet-two southpaw volume puncher, was indeed avoided, which is why he went the hard route to a welterweight championship, why his comeback opponent after losing to Martinez was the stylistic nightmare, Erislandy Lara, and why he fought in three divisions simultaneously.
Already in his thirties, Williams recognized his reflexes were beginning to slow down, that he was taking more punches—something the competitor in him couldn’t help but interpret as an invitation to a “dogfight.” Traversing three divisions was getting harder too. “I’m fightin’ because I wanna get food on my table, so it didn’t matter who they were, put them in there,” says Williams. “But after a while like, sometimes that weight didn’t come off like it was supposed to come off. Of course, you’re gonna put on like it came off easy, like it was nothin’, but you know deep inside, like, man . . . I could get down to like the forties, like forty-eight, but that last pound was like, ‘Yooo!’”
Frustration with the game, with the scale, had Williams thinking about time away from boxing. He was ready for a change: “My whole lifestyle, like, from the age of eight until I was like, thirty-something was always boxing, boxing, boxing. You know what man, I’m good, I’m comfortable, I’m about ready to get into something else.” He intended to fight Alvarez twice because winning the first fight would’ve earned him a rematch before he could focus fully on his real estate. Williams’s readiness to leave boxing may not explain why he abandoned rehab, but it could explain why he escaped the psychological damage typical of people who suffer his injury. Lockwood explains that factors like an individual’s emotional resilience, his social supports, his socioeconomic status, can affect the severity of the psychological effects of his injury. Williams was resilient, graced with perspective, buoyed by his faith, surrounded by people who cared for him, and financially secure. Taking these factors into consideration, Williams’s ability to smile despite being paralyzed seems almost logical, and yet it is still remarkable enough to retain its charm.
“He’s a special guy, he still is,” says Peterson softly. Is he still happy? “Oh goodness, yeah.” But happy doing what?
“I thank God for puttin’ me in a position to make these moves.”
If we can judge a man by the quality of his friends, Williams is everything he appears to be. You don’t spend your life with a mentor like Peterson if you don’t deserve one, and you don’t have a lifelong friend like James Forrest either. Forrest met Williams at the Aiken Boxing Club when they were kids; Forrest was eight, Williams eleven or twelve.
“We came up in the same gym, we stayed in the same neighborhood, we kinda ran together, you know.” Forrest speaks excitedly, animatedly, he accelerates toward a key moment in his story, and you start to understand why well before he’s done. “But I took a different path to life than Paul did, I chose the streets. You know, Paul ended up finding some part of discipline, man and goin’ off to do the right things, and around the time I crashed in the streets to do my prison time was around when he ended up becoming world champion.” It’s obvious from his tone which event Forrest chooses to focus on, and not because he has any desire to hide his mistakes, but because he wants to share the pride he feels for his friend. “I’m in there [prison], and I’m telling everybody, you know, that’s my partner, man, you know, we did this together, and we fought amateur together and all this good stuff.”
Released from prison, Forrest went two years without seeing Williams. When they reconnected, it was as if they’d never been apart. Forrest and Williams spent two or three weeks catching up, and then Forrest asked Williams the question that would change their lives. “Paul, you think it would be good to work with these youth, man?” Williams, who’d already been working in the community through the Paul Williams Foundation, responded with words that would move bodies into position: “Listen, James, that is the way out, that’s the way to keep yourself above water, that’s the way to keep your mind off the negative, and that’s the way to get your blessing from God.” And that’s what the two have done for the past four years.
Williams wasn’t exaggerating either: the effect of their decision to open Team Punish3ers Boxing Gym in North Augusta, South Carolina and work with youth has been profound. This is the part of the story Forrest has been waiting to tell. “I’ve been through a lot in my life, through different obstacles and workin’ with different people, through different things, you know, good and bad. And let me tell you somethin’: I haven’t thanked God more than I have in the past four years, man, not in my whole life, and I’m thirty-six. Paul, man,” he pauses, searching for a word when no words can suffice, “Paul is tremendous, man.”
Here, the cynic in you might scoff, “Of course Forrest is grateful, Williams has set him up—that friendship has finally paid off.” The cynic in you is wrong. Because when Forrest speaks about the work he does with Williams, you understand he wasn’t looking for a free ride; he was looking for a calling, an opportunity to learn, to serve his community.
That meant almost starting from scratch. “Before he [Williams] taught me how to train at the pro level, he trained me and the kids at the same time,” says Forrest, “like, he did his job so he can just sit back now and I can do it. Now, I’m not Paul Williams, but I do to the best of my ability, what he showed me.”
So what did Williams show him? “The way I train them is the way I was trained and the way I fight. The same routine that I was doin’ every day when I was out there is the same routine goin’ on right now,” says Williams. “I’m not gonna teach some amateur stuff, and then when they turn professional, I have to tear all that down to teach them to fight like a professional. When I get ‘em, I don’t put them in there with kids they age, I put ’em in with kids bigger than them, older than them. It’s go hard or go home, and they go hard because that’s the way I teach.”
Training has provided a competitive outlet for Williams, who relishes a challenge. Training a fighter from the confines of a wheelchair is certainly that; hip, hand, and foot placement, punch extension, weight transfer—such subtle, crucial calibrations are best made hands-on. There is no slipping in and out of the corner between rounds for a man in a wheelchair. But Williams trusts and expects Forrest to apply his observations. Both expect results, traveling with their fighters to tournaments throughout the country.
“Our system,” says Forrest, “is one of the greatest systems ever. When you got one that makes you feel you’re greater than what you are—you’re in the right place.” He believes in it because it’s transformative, providing the kind of instruction that could turn a kid from up the street into a champion, or just instill them with the confidence to walk that same street with their head up.
It’s transforming the coaches too. Working with fighters has made Williams a self-motivated man. He shoulders the responsibilities he once left to the man who guided him for all those years. Perhaps that change was necessitated by his need to maximize the performance of others. That it occurred at all is yet one more testament to the lifelong presence of Peterson, the mentor who still lives only twenty minutes away, who stops by the gym to watch Forrest and Williams work, and believes “they’re doin’ a fine job with it.” When Williams speaks of the importance of “being true and honest,” in a ruthless business, you get the sense Peterson had his hand in that too.
Why take on these new responsibilities, all that work when a life of leisure is there whenever he wants it? Williams wants to do for fighters what Peterson did for him: change their lives, make them celebrities (though Williams refuses to consider himself one), even make them world champions. He understands that replicating his ring success is unlikely, but success is a contextual term, especially when working with young people. So Williams sees no reason why everyone who commits to the work can’t find some degree of success. “A lot of them ain’t gonna be champions. But I can keep them doing somethin’ like, so they ain’t gonna be nothin’ crazy. I want them to enjoy life. Like, they may be a champion, they may not, but they’ll be competitors that aren’t gonna get blown out.” If you think he’s referring strictly to what happens between the ropes, you misunderstand the driving force behind Team Punish3rs Boxing Gym.
That smile? It’s genuine. Peterson is right—Paul Williams is happy. “I know I may have it rough like, with my situation,” says Williams, “believe me it’s rough, like, every day is crazy, but I just deal with it.” He deals with it because he lives a life of gratitude and purpose. “I thank God that I can breathe, that I can see the sun come up, I thank god for what I’ve done, for my kids, you know, they go on and brag about what I’ve done but now . . . I gotta build.” That’s Williams, fixed on what needs to be done and what he can do.
“I never hear him mope, I never hear him cry,” says Forrest, “You know, I asked him, I said, ‘Hey bruh, do you cry?’ He said. ‘Why? God coulda did somethin’ way worse to me. God coulda took me away.’ You know we laugh, we laugh, we clap each other’s hands man, punch the gas on the vehicle and go to the next state.”
And past whatever small things await the giant.