It's been eight months since Paul Williams fell face-first onto the canvas in Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall and temporarily vanished from the boxing scene.
He'll return Saturday night to the same ring with a mission to silence the critics who have written off the Aiken native since his brutal knockout at the hand of middleweight champion Sergio Martinez last November.
"I can't wait to get back in there to show everybody that I'm not washed up and that the knockout did not overcome me," Williams said in a news conference leading up to the fight with Cuban exile Erislandy Lara. "This is what I do."
Until his last fight, Williams did it better than most. He was rated one of the pound-for-pound best fighters in the world, with the running commentary that nobody wanted to step in the ring to face his unusual gifts of size, stamina and a solid chin.
But then came the punch from Martinez that turned out his lights and changed the dialog regarding the Punisher. Suddenly there were young and impudent boxers like Lara who were pleading to get in the ring with the seemingly diminished three-time world champion.
"I will finish where Martinez left off," chirped Lara as he sought a shot at Williams. "After I'm done with him, there won't be any further returns because I'll end his career."
It's enough to inspire the Williams camp to come out of hibernation and resume the kind of training that made him one of the most feared and avoided fighters of his era.
"Paul has been fighting everybody that no one has wanted to fight," said George Peterson, Williams' trainer. "That has happened and he got stopped in his last fight and now you are nailing this guy to the cross. He can't wait and I can't wait until this is resolved."
There was never a question that Williams would return to the ring after his knockout, but the only question was who he'd fight. Lara presented him a hungry young fighter that might prove to be the right fit. He was a two-time world amateur champion with 300 fights under his belt and brings a pro record of 15-0-1 into Saturday's bout. His last fight was a controversial draw against Carlos Molina that some believed should have gone Molina's way.
All that matters in Atlantic City is that Williams showcases what he is still capable of against a capable challenger.
"We just needed somebody in the ring to come back with -- somebody that we can make a statement on," Peterson said. "This guy is supposed to be an outstanding fighter."
"The key is to get Paul back into the ring and show that the reputation he built up was well-deserved and I believe he'll go out there on (Saturday) and accomplish that," promoter Dan Goossen said. "I believe we are going to be right back to where we were. We all believe Paul is going to come back stronger and better than ever because there is something about great champions coming back from adversity that makes them a better champion."
Williams left people wondering about his future after the Martinez fight. He took the longest vacation of his career, getting away from the training that has defined his adult life for the entire winter. He conducted no interviews for seven months until last week's news conference.
Too much is read into his silence, he said.
"The way I look at it, I took some time off to have some fun. Now it's back to business," he said. "Now, why I never said anything? If I did say something, people would still have their opinions. I have to prove to them again, when I get in the ring, to do my best. People just may be wondering what's going on."
While Lara is hoping to make a statement against a three-time world champ that could earn him a title shot, Williams intends to make a statement of his own.
"I am going to make a statement regardless," he said. "I'm going to show him when I get in there and show my true greatness"
Williams wants to fight just twice more after Saturday before retiring. His trainer believes he only needs one more fight.
"My business is going pretty good and I've got all my ducks in a row," Williams said. "Mr. Peterson said I 'don't need this anymore. You became a three-time world champion. You've got your money and your business. Do two more fights and give it up.' "
Williams' preference would be to get another shot at Martinez, whom he beat in their first encounter in 2009 that many considered the fight of the year before Martinez registered the knockout of the year in the rematch.
"It's up to the fans and everybody," Williams said. "I'm down for it. ... Once we get by Lara and the fans want it and HBO wants it -- I want it."
Though Williams will only turn 30 at the end of July, he believes he's done enough to secure his legacy.
"When I retire, I want my kids to say, 'He never ducked anybody,'" he said. "That's what I am building my legacy on. When people look at me, I want to remind them of a throwback fighter. I want to fight the best guys that no one else will fight. 'You put on a great show, whether you win or lose.' I am making my own history."
In Atlantic City, he's hoping his history doesn't repeat itself.