Best of BM in 2019: Julian Williams - unbreakable
Photo: Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
Across Christmas and the New Year, Boxing Monthly is presenting some of our most memorable features from 2019. Today we go back to our November issue, when Mark Butcher spoke to Julian ‘J Rock’ Williams about his inspiring boxing journey...
Tough times don’t last, tough people do. The mantra of Julian ‘J Rock’ Williams has stood the test of time like the fighter himself. From the historic fight city of Philadelphia, Williams has outlasted the kind of hardship that would make lesser souls crumble to be considered the premier 154-pounder on the planet. Adversity makes or breaks, but in Williams’ case it forged a remarkable inner steel. Even by boxing’s hard knock life standards, Williams’ ascent is impressive.
As a youngster, he was raised in a homeless shelter in the basement of a Days Inn while his late mother wrestled with drug issues and his father drifted in and out of jail. These challenging experiences didn’t anchor a young boy’s aspirations - they formed an unbreakable spirit.
Nothing really seems to faze the West Philly box-fighter. Last May, Williams (27-1-1, 1 NC, 16 KOs) upset the division’s consensus number one Jarrett Hurd with a display of skill and tireless industry in his opponent’s backyard. A hefty 5-1 underdog, Williams dropped Hurd in the second round setting the tempo for a bona fide fight of the year contender.
But what might seem like a genuine ‘Rocky’ moment and realisation of a lifelong dream is just another step on the journey for Williams, a boxing fanatic with Hall of Fame aspirations. The WBA Super/IBF junior middleweight champion is dreaming bigger and, given his backstory, who are we not to believe him? The dream always existed in his head before it became a reality.
“I imagined it every day. I never thought it was unobtainable,” Williams, 29, told Boxing Monthly. “I just kept working hard. If I got the right opportunities, I knew I could make my dreams come true. All I needed was a shot and I made it happen. It depends on how you look at [life]. In that particular fight, the cards are stacked against you, but I really don’t care about perception and other people’s opinion of certain things, especially when it comes to me. I was all for it.
“At that time, it was still regular life. I was still a little kid. I’d go to school every day. All my friends went to the boxing gym. Then when I had to go home at night it was just a little bit difficult. But I pushed through that situation and I came out on top. It was just a learning experience. I took it all in. It wasn’t where I wanted to be at the time and everything wasn’t ideal, but I knew it wasn’t going to last forever so it made me. It’s part of the reason who I am today. I wouldn’t change it.”
The path to the top wasn’t smooth with a first world title shot ending in defeat to the hard-hitting Jermall Charlo in a firefight in December 2016. Williams had his moments against the heavy-handed Charlo before falling to a right uppercut in the fifth round. Inevitably, the naysayers said he’d peaked, but Williams remained unbowed.
“I think everybody reads too much into it when you take a loss early in your career,” said Williams. “They write you off like it’s a death sentence – that’s not what boxing is about. If that was the case, everybody would retire undefeated and all the great champions would have no losses. I got better from it and kept moving forward. I didn’t listen to people because if you get caught up in opinion it will weigh you down, so I just stayed to myself and worked hard.”
Having risen to the mandatory position to face Charlo, Williams fell back into the chasing pack before rebuilding once more to become No.1 contender and earning another shot the hard way. The second time proved the charm as he outhustled the hulking Hurd despite a considerable size and reach disadvantage. Hurd rebounded from that second round knockdown with a sixth round blitz that sent his hometown fans into a frenzy though Williams refused to buckle. Yet the Philadelphian, motivated by greater glories, refuses to linger on this notable success.
“It was a defining moment in my life and career in terms of accomplishments and money and just everything, legacy,” he said. “But I’m pretty much over it. I’m ready for the next stage in my career, for the next chapter to begin. I don’t want to keep dwelling on this fight. It’s just one fight. I’ve got so many more great things to do in boxing.
“Life hasn’t changed. I have a lot more media obligations, but other than that I don’t want it to change so much. I want to keep being the best fighter I can be and accomplishing my goals. That was just one goal so I kind of move on to conquer the whole division. I’ve got a whole plan mapped out for myself over the next five or six years. I’m ready to get to it and not dwell on beating Jarrett Hurd.
“I definitely think I wanted it more. Excluding our backgrounds [in contrast, Hurd was raised by a close-knit family in a middle class neighbourhood], I just wanted it more. I thought I was the better fighter and I displayed that on 11th May.”
Williams sunk to his knees in exultation after the decision was announced, still fighting back waves of emotion in his post-fight interview. “That’s what boxing is about,” he told BM. “Too many times boxing is caught up in everybody has to be undefeated. Sometimes underdogs can overcome. I just think it was an amazing moment.”
Nevertheless, the favoured Hurd had a rematch clause, which he immediately exercised, before surprisingly pulling out of the proposed return in early September. Williams and trainer Stephen ‘Breadman’ Edwards had petitioned strongly for VADA testing, but true to form ‘J Rock’ took Hurd’s withdrawal in his stride.
“He doesn’t want to exercise the rematch clause, but I’m not upset about the fight not happening,” he said. “I wanted the fight because the [lineal] title would have been on the line. There hasn’t been a [lineal champion] in the division since Floyd Mayweather and before that I think it was Winky Wright. If we had fought a second time [as No. 1 and No.2 in the division] that title would have been on the line. I wanted that but I’ll still get it – it’s just going to take a bit of extra time. But, other than that, I’m not mad at all.
“As many world champions as Philadelphia has had, there had been only two unified champions [born in the city] - Bernard Hopkins then Danny Garcia [in the multi-belt era] and I’m the third one. There’s only been two [lineal] world champions from Philadelphia, Hopkins and Garcia, and that’s why I am so gung-ho about getting that title.”
Now Williams is casting his eye elsewhere bolstered by Al Haymon’s PBC promotional vehicle, which can boast most of the key players in a vibrant 154lbs division. Unburdened by inter-promotional politics, Williams can excel on homefield with main rivals Erislandy Lara, Jermell Charlo, Tony Harrison and even Hurd in the company bullpen.
“I think they are all top fighters. Lara is a great fighter. Jermell is a good fighter, but I think he has his hands full with Tony Harrison again,” he said. “It’s probably the best top 10 in boxing because I think anybody can beat anybody and I just proved that. I was technically number seven before my last fight and I beat the number one guy.
“Al Haymon is an extremely cool guy. He did a lot for me,” continued Williams. “I’ve been with him for more than half of my career. He’s kept every promise he ever made for me. Sometimes, I wonder how he does it. Because he’s got 200, 300 fighters and he’s got to promise everybody, everything. I can’t speak how he is with other people, but I know how he is with me and everything he told me he was going to do, he did it. Every promise he ever made, he kept it.
“He gave me the opportunity, man, and that’s all you can really ask for. A lot of guys don’t get that. They have bad situations with bad contracts. He makes it so much easier for me to be a fighter, train and focus on winning. On top of all that, he makes sure I’m financially stable. I made a lot of money before I won the title and that’s because of Al Haymon.”
Williams is mindful of his global status as unified world champion, but is not leaning towards a fight in the UK any time soon despite former world champions Liam Smith and Kell Brook lurking in the rankings. “I’ll fight anywhere. I’m a world champion. So I’ll travel the world, but I wouldn’t come to the UK to fight Liam Smith,” said Williams. “He brings absolutely nothing to the table. He’s not a champion no more. He’s not in the Top 10 no more [WBA and IBF ratings], but I think he’s a decent fighter.
“Kell Brook will possibly bring some money, but I don’t know if he’s a fighter anymore. When was the last time he fought a world contender? It was Spence and that was about two years ago. I don’t know if he wants to be a fighter. It’s his trade, of course. But he doesn’t fight – he doesn’t want to be great no more. Kell Brook can get a title shot from any one of the 154lbs champions, but he decides not to fight. I just don’t think he cares for the sport. He’s not hungry no more. I would love a fight with Kell Brook, but it’s not going to happen.”
Philadelphia is noted for its sizeable Muslim community and a number of famous boxers from the region have adopted the faith including Williams, Matthew Saad Muhammad and Bernard Hopkins among others. Williams first embraced Islam early in his adult life and notably won his unified world titles during the early days of Ramadan where adhering Muslims must fast, with no food or water consumed during daylight hours.
“The first day of Ramadan was May 5th and I fought Hurd on May 11th, so it was pretty tough, but I got through it,” he said. “It was only for a few days because I was a travelling Muslim so I didn’t have to fast [Muslims who are travelling can be excluded from fasting during Ramadan] and made those fasting days up after I got back from the fight.
“There’s a huge Muslim population in Philadelphia and a lot of great Muslim fighters from there - Matthew Saad Muhammad, Bernard Hopkins. We can’t claim Dwight Muhammad Qawi, but he’s from [nearby] Camden, New Jersey, and used to train in Philadelphia.”
Training at the James Shuler Memorial Gym, Williams is assessing his next move with rival WBC champion Harrison due to rematch Jermell Charlo and a Hurd return currently off the table. He still hopes to fight in December. “There are so many names being tossed around,” he mused. “Boxing is a funny sport, man. These reporters come out with what they think is going to happen and they try to play matchmaker. It gets rumours started. It’s just a lot, man. Right now, I don’t have an opponent to beat.
“I want to fight 10 specific fighters because I plan to be a Hall of Famer one day. That’s my goal, to be an all-time great. I don’t want to put their names out there because I want to pick them off one at a time and just focus on the next guy. But, nevertheless, we’ve got a plan for the next five or six years. I don’t want to fight until I’m 40. I just want to have a great career, put on the best fights and face the best competition available.”