Like the inevitability of waves hitting the shore, accidents happen. Some accidents are so minor that they are barely remembered after someone has apologized, or said a kind word to flush it from memory. Others are of a more corrosive nature, imbued with the power to change the very fiber of who we are. Or do they have that power? As with most things in human experience, perception is the key to how we survive. As one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, one man’s calamity can become another man’s inconvenience. At the end of the day, everything is just something that has happened in the near or distant past. As such, all accidents can be something other than that thing that controls us and defines us. If we believe, the tornado that has crashed through our lives can be tamed once we decide to become the king of our own tides.
One does not have to be a boxing fan to know that by almost any account Paul Williams’ brand of accident was the latter. In the beginning of 2012, Williams was well situated. A three time world champion and boxing fan favorite, he was set in September to fight one of the most anticipated fights of his career versus Canelo Alvarez. The contest was expected to be spectacular. Williams was also set to receive one of the biggest paydays of his career. In short, it was going to be a highly entertaining and satisfying night for many people. So, then when on May 27, 2012 during a break from training camp to attend his brother’s wedding, Paul was thrown 60 feet in the air from his motorcycle and paralyzed from the waist down it was a truly terrible twist of fate. That he hadn’t died was a blessing and a miracle. Williams’ longtime manager, trainer and ubiquitous father figure, George Peterson, learned this firsthand when he arrived at the hospital in Atlanta hours after the accident. It was only Williams’ condition as a professional athlete that saved his life after landing in a nearby ditch on his shoulder and hip:
Peterson: “ The doctor told me he’s in excellent condition because this guy would not have survived had he not been.”
The gravity of the accident saddened and shocked many in the fight community. Much like the tragic motorcycle accident death of champion Diego Chico Corrales only a few years earlier in 2007, it seemed too much. Jim Gray, in his televised interview with Williams on the day he had originally been scheduled to fight Alavarez, September 15, 2012, was visibly emotional as he conducted the interview. Paul Williams’ demeanor however, was an entirely different animal. As upbeat as Jim Gray was downcast, William’s attitude was Hakuna Matata – no worries. His affect seemed completely genuine and more than just skin deep:
Williams: “I’m like Hakuna Matata. I ain’t gonna worry about it. That’s my way of dealing with all this. If I was depressed mad and sad about it I’d have two problems going on. I’m going to be happy, man. I’m going to be me. This is temporary.”
Incredibly, Williams seemed okay with his situation even though most of us watching weren’t. And somehow, wrong or right, this made it a little easier for the rest of us. This taking of the reins by Williams during the aftermath of the catastrophe was almost immediate. Paul never lost consciousness during the event and was fully conscious as they extracted him from the ditch where he had landed. Indeed, in the early hours in the hospital in Atlanta it was Williams who firmly took over the paternal role of comforting Peterson once he arrived on the scene:
Peterson: “He (Williams) said, ‘P I’m gonna be alright. I’m gonna be up and out of here.’ We were going to have that surgery on Tuesday, so he said, ‘yeah man, right after surgery, I’ll be back at camp. P, I’ll be back in the gym on Thursday.’ I said, ‘Paul, what are you talking about?’ He said, ‘have the rest of my team there. I’ll be back to work out. This ain’t nothing.’ He had two of his lungs punctured at that time. We didn’t know about the spinal cord.”
Williams did not return to the gym on Thursday, as we now know two years later. When Williams gave his televised interview to Jim Gray, it was common knowledge that while Williams’ spinal cord was not severed it was severely bruised. If he did recover to walk again, it would be after at least two years time and only once the swelling had gone down from the initial trauma. For the present, Williams was effectively out of boxing as he had known it intimately and intensely since the age of eight.
So was it just a brave face or one set in some strange embodiment of denial in September 2012 when Paul Williams gave that interview? Could that positive attitude be anything but temporary, certain to erode with the weight of time and the cold hard steel of a wheelchair? Two years later, we contacted Paul Williams as well as his manager George Peterson to find out. What we discovered is stranger than fiction.
Two years later, Paul Williams is a busy guy and hard the pin down for casual conversation. No, he is not walking. That hasn’t happened yet. To hear him tell it, he prefers to sit. But he is anything but still. He is hunting and bagging 10-point bucks with the help of a wheel barrel (more on that later), fishing, scuba diving and going to the gym. This is just a small part of Paul’s days and Paul just being Paul and having fun. However, it would be wrong to assume that Paul is just a man of leisure. He is very involved with his community, having given sizeable donations to many causes and groups that are near and dear to him, such as the county sheriff’s department, the scuba diving team and the battered women’s shelter. He is also up for an award or two. Work seems to be fun for Paul Williams in his reinvention as the manager of the group of properties that he owns (8 apartments, three houses and 2 trailers to date). This is all when he is not cruising around in his personally refurbished customized car. Again, this is just a regular day of Paul Williams being low key versus the intense training camp phenomenon that was Paul the Punisher Williams from his ring days. And what kind of landlord is Paul Williams you might ask?
Williams: “I’m the kind of landlord where if you don’t pay your rent, you gotta get out.”
With that attitude of making people pay, it almost feels like he never left the ring. Indeed, Paul by his own admission isn’t very different from that guy from before his accident in 2012:
Williams: “ Basically everything is like it’s always been. I guess in a way it’s like I’m still walking cause everything is still the same.”
One thing that is potentially shockingly, but nevertheless the same is the bombshell that Williams and Peterson kept private until now. The Canelo fight was never in the cards. Canelo was a bonus fight that popped up after well-laid plans for Paul’s immediate retirement after the Nobuhiro Ishida victory. Originally, Williams’ last win versus Nobuhiro Ishida was to be Williams’ last professional fight. Approaching thirty years of age and wanting to leave the game fresh and discontinue the practice of living his life in training camp away from his family consisting of his wife and three children, two boys and a girl ages six, ten and eight respectively, Williams was tiring of the grind of training camp and yearning for a life lived beyond being Paul The Punisher. It was only when immediately after the Ishida win they were offered Canelo for an unprecedented purse that Peterson and Williams decided that it was something that they could not pass up. As such, the retirement plan was put on pause and delayed for Canelo:
Peterson: “ We had decided that we were at the end of his boxing career when the accident took place. We took a fight that we were not did not make plans for. We were contacted like hey man, we can get you this good fight with Canelo. So we said okay. I said, ‘Paul, when you retire I want you to go out with an exciting win.’ We got that exciting win which was Ishida. It’s not that his career was cut short, because that was another fight longer than we anticipated.”
Paul Williams quickly corroborates this account with regard to his overall fight career plan:
Williams: “After I fought Alvarez, I wouldn’t have done interviews or nothing. I would have been out. I was always a low-key dude. I didn’t want to be on TV or doing interviews and stuff. I did it when I got hurt because my homeboys made me, but other than that, I’m good just being low-key just being me. That’s why I was going to retire. Don’t get me wrong, I love boxing. I was the king of my sport but when I ain’t gotta fight and I’m at home, I’m Paul Williams. I’m not Paul the Punisher. I’m not Floyd Mayweather or Bernard Hopkins. I call them gym rats. All they do is stay in the gym, but they love that. That wasn’t me. I just wanted to get me a little money and get up out of there.”
With regard to his successful monetary transition from Paul the Punisher Williams to Paul Williams the landlord and businessman, Williams’ gives all credit to Peterson for success inside and outside of the ring starting from the moment that they met and partnered up when he was just sixteen:
Williams: “ He (Peterson) taught me how to find properties and basically how to survive in life. I kept winning and I became world champion. He told me, ‘everybody love you now cause you’re Paul the Punisher. But one day you’re going to go back to being Paul Williams and when you go back to being Paul Williams you need to have something to fall back on.’ So I really thank him for that. He showed me basically how to be a man. He made me a millionaire. So, you know, I can’t complain.”
The one rare thing that Williams will complain about is how truly exhausted he was by the necessary routine of training and conversely how little he misses it. Anyone who thinks that he is secretly in mourning for this part of his past life would be sorely mistaken:
Williams: “ Do you think I loved going to the gym? I mean I did it from when I was eight years old till I got to the point that I was thirty-one, thirty-two years old. I don’t live for that. I’ve got money and property and stuff. So why would I want to keep going to the gym missing my friends, my family and my girl? I can’t see my kids for a month at a time. I live basically in a box with me and a man and a couple of fighters. I got to a point where I was tired of all of that. I was like three more fights and I want to retire.”
In an eerie turn, both Williams and Peterson concede that it would almost appear that the rules that they both broke in Paul’s last training camp by allowing him to leave camp for his brother’s wedding would seem to be part of the perfect storm that created the events that had to be in place for Paul’s accident to have ever been a possibility. While neither man regrets retirement as the goal in 2012, both admit that the way the retirement came still to this day carries it’s own chilly irony:
Peterson: “ Paul found out his brother was getting married in Atlanta. And religiously, we do not break camp. For years there were reasons why we should. But we stood firm. He knew it and I knew it. But this particular time I said okay, Paul. I’ll let you go for a few days. Just come right on back to camp. So he left that Friday and he was supposed to be back that Monday. We went against my rules.”
Williams: “That was the first time ever that I came up with all kinds of excuses like my brother’s wedding. I really wanted to stay because my homeboys, my bike riders were going out to Myrtle Beach that same weekend as the fight week. So that would have been my first time riding on a bike with a group. So I just made all kind of excuses and he was like okay, I’ll let you make the call. I didn’t go to the bike week. I decided I was going to go to my brother’s wedding, so I rode my bike up to Atlanta.”
And then of course in Atlanta, on what should have been just another day with family and friends, the accident happened leaving Paul paralyzed from the chest down. Going back to that day, Peterson clearly gets great succor from the fact that Paul is still breathing and still a part of this life and not the next:
Peterson: “My policy was once we start camp, we don’t break. So when I found out about it, of course I was hurt but I felt good because I was able to talk to him and I knew he was still alive.”
Williams, with the benefit of hindsight is philosophically circumspect about the ultimate turn of events:
Williams: “If I would have did all the right stuff and wouldn’t have gotten on the bike who is to say if I would’ve gotten into the fight and that would have been my last fight? I could have gotten brain dead or I could have gotten hurt. It probably was my blessing to get hurt. Not to go fight. I look at two sides of the story. It could have been worse.”
While it is true that Williams is quite satisfied with his retirement, it still remains hard for him to watch boxing. His feelings about the current state of boxing, paired with his hands on ring knowledge create a very specific friction. To some extent, it’s almost like he wants to be in the ring to show them how it ought to be done:
Williams: “It’s hard for me to watch a couple of fights now because some of the guys that I see fighting now, they’re not fighting. They be like pussified. This guy’s got a got a good fan base, so they make him look good. You put opponents in front of him – guys they can slap around and look good on. You can’t say this dude is a killer if he’s doing that. If I get in there and I fight a Mayweather or a Pacquiao or a Cotto, I’ll beat them off. I’ll put on a good show. I want to be in a dogfight. I was going in close and fighting small. I like to get in there and mix it up.”
Today, Williams is still very focused on what he can do and ‘mixing it up’ to do it to the fullest manner possible. That these endeavors are now outside of the ring would seem to make no difference in his focus and tenacity. An excellent example is Paul’s continued love of hunting big game. How does a man in a wheelchair hunt and bag a10-point buck? To ask Paul Williams it would seem to be nothing that a little ingenuity and a wheel barrel can’t fix:
Williams: “ I’m always thinking about ways I can do stuff. (On the way to the woods) They had my chair but I said no – put me in the wheel barrel. We put the deer in the wheel barrel. But I said no cause if you put me in he wheel barrel I can go deep into the woods with y’all and catch a deer. People would be walking by and they’d be like, ‘you alright?’ and I’d be like, ‘yeah, I’m alright.’ They’d be like how in the hell did he get in the woods all by himself? But it’s fun.”
Peterson credits this unwavering can do nature to a warrior spirit that has not subsided with Paul’s injury but increased and reasserted itself tenfold:
Peterson: “Paul is a warrior still today. If you ever saw this guy and could talk to this guy and could watch this guy you say, how does he do that? Look like he would be bothered some kind of way but Paul’s not bothered at all. If anything he’ll make you feel like he’s gonna find something to shame you.”
However that warrior spirit may paradoxically be the real obstacle when it comes to Paul’s regaining the full use of his limbs once again. Never one to do what is expected versus what he feels to be right in any arena, he admits that his hard headedness might be the one very reason that he isn’t walking today:
Williams: “I feel like I’ve been playing myself short because my family, my brother and my girl, they tell me, ‘you could be doing more.’ I should be up out of the chair for therapy. I don’t go. I feel like if I would have been doing more of that I probably would be up out of this chair. But my therapy is being okay getting in and out, going to do my own thing like working out and stretching and all that. That’s probably what’s my downfall but I don’t know. I guess that’s just me being Paul. That’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. My way. That’s probably why I’m in this chair. I’m a Leo. I’m a top Lion. Even now if I was a shark, I’d be a great white. Even though I’m hurt right now, I’m still at the top. It don’t matter what situation I get in. I’m always gonna be the king of it.”
Peterson, while not always in direct agreement or even full understanding of Paul’s ways and life logic, seems to handle the enigma that is Paul Williams in the best manner of all:
Peterson: “He’s in a good frame of mind. I can’t understand him sometimes. I look at him and I say to myself, ‘ Paul, stand up. I know you can stand up. You’re just faking people out. You can stand up.’ I actually believe sometimes that he can do it. And I think it’s some sort of game that he’s playing. I know it’s wrong of me to say, because I saw the injury, I saw the bike, and saw the helmet. But when he stands, of course with some assistance you say, ‘man, I know you can step. If you can do these things, I know you can step. If you can get out of that van like that or in and out of that car like that, I know you can step. I know you are healthy and I know your qualifications. And I get carried away in that.”
Perhaps we do too.
To see more of Paul today by his own hand and his own words, see his youtube channel here.
Prince of Tides
by Kylie Krabbe
Credit: Chamber of Fear