Everything in Paul Williams’ life changed in the instant his motorcycle crashed Sunday morning on an embankment in the Atlanta suburbs.
And in some ways, nothing changed at all.
Williams, the three-time world champion boxer from Aiken, was left paralyzed below his chest when he was thrown more than 100 feet from his motorcycle after losing control on a curve. Instead of resuming training for a junior middleweight title fight on Sept. 15 in Las Vegas against Saul Alvarez, he’ll start rehabilitating after Friday morning’s surgery to stabilize the 10 percent of his spinal cord that remained intact.
Doctors told Williams he’d never walk again. But Williams is approaching this like a title shot with the ultimate goal of proving the experts wrong, the same way he’s quieted his critics throughout his career.
“It’s like we’re training for a fight,” said George Peterson, Williams’ trainer since he turned professional 14 years ago. “He’s ready to get this rehab started. Anxious. Like Paul has been so many times before, he likes proving people wrong. And he’s been doubted so many times and proven people wrong so many times, he made a believer out of me. And if he says he’s going to fight again, I can’t do anything but believe him.”
Peterson said Williams has never wavered from a positive outlook since waking up to his new reality in an Atlanta hospital. He certainly sounded that way in a phone interview with an Atlanta television station on Tuesday night. The 30-year-old sounded like a boxer advancing the biggest fight of his life with the obligatory optimistic rhetoric.
“They told me, you know what I’m saying, there’s a very slim chance of walking, because the spine was, like, crushed, or whatever,” Williams told 11 Alive. “I should be able to sit up on my own. But as far as me walking and all that, it’s all on me. I’m going to be walking, I know that – that’s how I feel. If I can’t walk, then, oh well, hakuna matata. I’ll be on a boat, fishing.”
Peterson sees the fighting instinct still burning in Williams. The boxer was making swinging motions in his sleep Wednesday night. He’s been asking for his mitt man – who catches punches during practice – to stop by for upper body workouts.
“The thing we’re going through as far as motivation and keeping his focus and mind on it, that doesn’t take very much from me,” said Peterson. “He’s at that point himself now on his own. That’s not surprising to me.
“There’s so many instances that have taken place where people have overcome paralysis. He maintains that if they did and I’m an athlete, there’s no reason why I can’t do it. I’ve got to be the exception to the rule because of my conditioning.”
Williams’ conditioning regimen is epic and built up an endurance that defined his career as “The Punisher.” He routinely threw 100 punches per round and outlasted any opponents willing to enter the ring against him.
During his training camp in Puerto Rico before his breakout welterweight championship victory against Antonio Margarito in 2007, we got a first-hand glimpse into the exhaustive lengths Williams went to live up to his nickname. He ran miles and miles through the hills of Guaynabo in the pre-dawn darkness. Then he’d spend hours in a sweltering Wilfredo Gomez Boxing Gym sparring, working the heavy and speed bags, jumping rope until the mirrors in front of him were covered from floor to ceiling in his own sweat and finally bracing his ripped stomach on the canvas as Peterson repeatedly dropped a medicine ball on his gut.
It was excruciating just watching him endure his typical daily routine even from the bleachers sipping warm Coke and eating melted Snickers bars from the gym vending machine.
“It’s what a champion’s got to pay,” Williams said then. “The training is the hard part. The fighting is the easy part. Some days I want to quit, but I can’t do it. I just suck it up and keep doing what Mr. Peterson tells me to do.”
Mr. Peterson has been the driving force behind Williams’ career for 14 years. He’s been the champion’s one-man entourage, filling the role of the father that Williams and his three siblings never had.
The trainer’s role hasn’t changed just because his fighter will never box again.
“We’ve got a father-son relationship and it’s going to always be that way,” said Peterson. “We’re always going to have that bond because it’s more than boxing.”
Peterson has been in Atlanta for four days and had to return to Aiken on Thursday to restock on clothes and return for the long haul. He’s arranged to eventually move Williams to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, one of the top rehabilitative hospitals in the nation for treatment of spinal cord injuries.
“We’ve found a team that this is all they do and they’ve done it for more than 2,000 people with this type of injury,” said Peterson.
But the trainer will remain on constant call to push Williams as always.
“As long as I’m inhaling and exhaling, I’m going to be around,” said Peterson. “I don’t know how long that is, but you can believe that as long as I’m breathing I’m going to be in place such as I have been for 14 years. Everything is still the same.”
With support pouring in from all over the globe for Williams, Peterson has exhaustively fielded phone calls from every continent and tried to shield Williams and his three children as the family gets ready for his surgery and the rehab that will follow.
“He has all the support he needs,” Peterson said. “You’ve never seen anything like it.”
It all lifts Williams. Despite suffering a cruel blow in the prime of his career, he is taking it on like a champion. Everything has changed, and nothing has at the same time.
“Adversity is what he’s overcome so many times before,” Peterson said. “It doesn’t scare him. He’s ready.”