THE FORMER MIDDLEWEIGHT TITLEHOLDER HAS ENDURED MANY DARK MOMENTS SINCE HE WAS PARALYZED IN A MOTORCYCLE ACCIDENT BUT HAS BUILT A NEW LIFE AND DREAMS BIG
Megafight weekends in Las Vegas are ideal for the want-to-be-seen crowd. Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Marcos Maidana I was no different. It attracted the movie stars, who smiled, waved and settled into seats near the ring. Popular old fighters came in, providing nostalgic moments. Faux celebrities loitered about, looking for face time in front of anyone aiming a phone. They all wanted to be noticed.
Except for Paul Williams.
Cooped up in a cramped, dim hotel room, too self-conscious to be wrenched away, Williams sat with his chin on his chest glaring out at the riot of Las Vegas lights splayed before him. He didn’t want any part of the hustle and bustle going on below. Peering down was fine. If it were up to him, though, he would’ve snapped his fingers and vanished rather than endure those stares of pity as he wheeled through the horde in the MGM Grand Casino lobby last May.
The former WBO welterweight world champ refused to go anywhere unless he was summoned for an obligatory appearance. One was the Mayweather-Maidana weigh-in at the MGM Grand Arena. If he hadn’t been in Vegas to be honored that weekend by the Boxing Writers Association of America with the “Bill Crawford Award for Courage in Overcoming Adversity,” Williams would have been home in Aiken, South Carolina.
That outlook changed. Quickly.
Uneasy, Williams gripped the rubber wheels of his wheelchair to ease the tension. His insides churning with anxiety, he put on that everything-is-all-right face as soon as the ping sounded with the opening of the elevator doors. He could never have imagined what he would encounter next.
What normally would have taken 20 minutes, going back and forth from the arena to Williams’ room, took hours. Flanked by his manager, Corey Robinson, and his wife, Shuchinda “Chinda” Williams, “The Punisher” signed everything put in front of him and hammed it up for the cameras. He and the dozens of well-wishers were all grins as they descended upon him. One was so enthralled to see Williams that he lifted his shirt and asked him to sign his stomach.
But it wasn’t until Williams arrived back in his room that he realized what had happened.
He rolled in, took a contemplative moment, then twirled around in his wheelchair to face Robinson and Chinda and said, “You know, I thought they forgot about me.”
Robinson asked, “Who, Paul?”
“Everyone in the fight game; the fans, the fighters. I thought they forgot me,” Williams responded.
Robinson froze. Tears rolled down his face.
The moment transformed The Punisher. He mattered. For however brief a moment in time it was, he was whole again. They didn’t forget.
“I couldn’t say anything after that,” Robinson recalled. “I’m emotional. His wife is in tears too. Paul had been so uncomfortable about being in the wheelchair that whole weekend and, after that, he wanted to go out everywhere – ‘Let’s go back out to the casino. Let’s go out on the strip,’ he told me. Paul wanted to reconnect with his fans.”
He wanted to reconnect with the world.
Williams felt he had lost his identity overnight after he was paralyzed in a motorcycle accident on the morning of May 27, 2012, in Atlanta. He was a world champion fighting on TV one moment, having people butt in front of him in restaurants because they didn’t see him the next.
But a story that has been seen as tragic by those familiar with Williams and the fire he brought into the ring every time he fought isn’t over. Williams is intent on defying the odds to claim one more victory: He wants to walk again.
I HAVE MY BAD DAYS AND MY GOOD DAYS. I DO FEEL THERE ARE TWO SIDES TO ME, WHO I WAS AND WHO I AM.
– PAUL WILLIAMS
Williams, 33, looks like he always did – lanky, but strong. In fact, if not for the wheelchair, he appears to be in fighting shape. And, in a way, he has to be. There’s an internal battle raging, one between “The Punisher,” the 6-foot-1 warrior who had no problem taking a punch to deliver one, and “Wheelchair Paul,” who occasionally feels sorry for himself and struggles to cope.
News of Williams’ accident sent ripples of shock across every tier of the boxing community. He was home that last weekend in May to celebrate his brother’s wedding, taking a break from training for the biggest fight of his life against Canelo Alvarez in September. Then everything changed.
May 27, 2012.
“I know I can’t change time, but I do think about that day a lot,” said Williams, speaking to THE RING in one of former trainer George Peterson’s offices in Aiken. “What if I was going a little slower? What if that car in front of me wasn’t there? There’s a million of them, all of those ‘What ifs, what ifs.’ I’ve seen both worlds, being a world champion and now being paralyzed. If I could change time, I would. But I can’t, so I have to deal with it. If I wasn’t able to deal with it, I probably would have committed suicide by now or would be angry and depressed all of the time.
“I have my bad days and my good days. I do feel there are two sides to me, who I was and who I am. I had all this money, all this fame, I was on top of the world. This preacher told me that one day I was going to go back to being Paul ‘The Punisher’ Williams again. Everyone loved me. Until that day comes, I have something to fall back on.”
Williams punches his own clock these days. He has no set schedule. He has also taken care of himself financially. He owns eight properties that he rents out.
“I’m my own boss, able to move at my own pace,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about bills because I own my house. Mr. Peterson set me up real well. Everything is paid for. I started thinking ahead before my career ended, knowing that one day it will end and I better be ready when it does. I just didn’t think it would end as quickly as it did.”
He shoots his guns. He fishes. His three children, Paul, 11, daughter Corey, 10, and son Chance, 6, occupy a lot of his time. And he’s lucky to have Chinda in his life. He says everything is just the way it was when he was able to walk, except that he’s “sitting down.”
“I am blessed. That’s how I try to think about it all of the time,” Williams said. “After I got hurt, I have the same mentality than when I was walking. I drive on my own (using hand controls). If God gave me back my strength, and I could pop up right now, I’d call my girl and we’d get back on that bike again. I’ll get my legs back; it will just take a minute.”
As Williams’ paydays grew, he invested in properties in the Aiken and Augusta, Georgia, areas. The first was purchased after he beat Antonio Margarito to win his first of two welterweight titles in July 2007. Following each subsequent fight, he’d spot another prime location and purchase more properties.
He handles the mundane daily chores of tracking tenants’ rent and scheduling repairs himself.
“As long as I keep paying my taxes on what I own and keep upgrading the properties, I’ll keep a higher level of renters,” Williams said. “I live off of that. I don’t mind doing a lot of the work. I obviously can’t stand up to do a lot of the work. And some buildings I can’t get into because they have stairs.”
There are times realities such as that get frustrating. For example, he’ll dress to go out and suddenly have “an accident.”
“I’ll get depressed over that,” he said. “Like one day, I’m riding in my car, and then, ugh, it happens. There’s a mess. Those are the hard times people don’t see or want to hear about. It’s like when you’re in a wheelchair, you’re doing double the work. I’ve learned to joke about it, how I need diapers. I can’t control when I go to the bathroom. I’m a baby now that someone has to clean me up. I pee on myself, I do something else on myself. I know that I’m not doing it on purpose. But I do want to feel things again. I want to be with my wife again. That’s what hurts the most.”
Williams has received many offers to appear at fights or speaking engagements but, until recently, he never responded. He wanted nothing to do with the public as “Wheelchair Paul,” as described earlier when he arrived in Las Vegas for the Mayweather-Maidana fight. It was too embarrassing.
It’s more than that, though. He also feels he let down those who care about him – his family, his friends, his team, his fans – after he was paralyzed. That might not seem rational but it’s what he believes.
“People loved watching me fight. I know it. And that’s all gone after the accident,” Williams said. “That’s been hard to deal with too but I’m getting better.”
Those closest to Williams would attest to that, particularly after the trip to Las Vegas. The interaction with the fans seemed to shake him out of his lethargy and give him hope.
“It’s hard to see loved ones go through that pain,” Chinda said. “I had to go through some hell. Everyone around Paul did. There were a lot of times I didn’t want him seeing me cry and I’m sure there were plenty of times Paul didn’t want me seeing him cry. Vegas had a lot to do with Paul’s healing. A lot of your manhood goes out of the window; it’s gone when you’re paralyzed. He’s faced with asking for help in situations that he didn’t before. He does almost everything on his own. He operates the car with a cane. I’ve driven in the car with Paul when he’s driven with the cane. It’s something he can do on his own. Above everything, I want to see Paul walk again. I would do anything to see Paul walk again.”
PEOPLE LOVED WATCHING ME FIGHT. I KNOW IT. AND THAT’S ALL GONE AFTER THE ACCIDENT. THAT’S BEEN HARD TO DEAL WITH TOO BUT I’M GETTING BETTER.
– PAUL WILLIAMS
Chinda can envision it. So can Peterson. So can Robinson. So can everyone in Williams’ life.
But can he?
The crash was so severe that it catapulted Williams about 60 feet through the air. The way bystanders described it, his body was folded in half “like a suitcase.” It caused catastrophic damage.
“Paul had what’s called a fractured dislocation, where the vertebrae is not only broken but the spine has dislocated. So the spinal cord [was] severely injured as the result of his motorcycle accident,” said Dr. John M. Rhee, a renowned spinal surgeon who operated on Williams and is an associate professor of orthopedic surgery at Emory University in Atlanta. “There’s always hope but the reality is it’s highly unlikely he will walk again. There’s always a chance and I wouldn’t want to dash Paul’s hopes but his injury was really that bad.
“Paul had what was a complete spinal cord injury. That’s the worst kind of spinal cord injury to have. Basically, the injury left him with no motor functions and no sensory functions below the level where he injured himself (mid-chest). It’s the injury that has the worst prognosis for any kind of recovery. Because Paul is so healthy and fit, he’s healed from the surgery, but that’s different from his nerves healing. … In cases like Paul’s, it’s again incredibly rare that they are able to walk again. He can lead a comfortable life. His surgery has healed. It’s always possible that things can wake up.”
It’s a possibility, however remote, to which everyone around Williams clings.
“It’s over two years and it’s been a battle accepting this,” Chinda said. “It shatters your future a little until you come to grips with it. In the beginning it wasn’t easy for Paul; he did feel sorry for himself. There were times when he was by himself when he was emotional. I think it bothered Paul that he felt he let everyone down. He says he’s sorry to me at least once a week. It was like he did something to the people closest to him, like he disappointed us by getting into the accident.
“The fighter is still inside him. I just want to see it. That first year, Paul was in some denial and he was told he had a chance, between him and God, that he might be able to walk again. With the research we’ve done on our own, and when we were told last June that Paul’s [surgery] was healed, that gave us hope. But this is where we butt heads all the time. I want him getting into the gym more and being more physical. He didn’t want to before the Vegas trip. Walking again should be Paul’s motivation.”
‘I’VE SEEN BOTH WORLDS, BEING A WORLD CHAMPION AND NOW BEING PARALYZED. IF I COULD CHANGE TIME, I WOULD. BUT I CAN’T, SO I HAVE TO DEAL WITH IT.’
– PAUL WILLIAMS
It was Peterson who once saw something in Williams. He introduced him to boxing. He watched as his protege battled his way with grim determination through many difficult trials in the ring, watched his life change. They are like a father and son.
Peterson is certain that Williams will get through this trial because of the man inside the damaged body.
“He’s just as strong-minded as when he was in the ring fighting. That’s still there,” Peterson said. “He stays as positive as he can. He always has that aggressiveness. He keeps track of his businesses; he goes hunting in his wheelchair in the woods. He even shot a buck last spring. He’s just as active as he was in the gym. He’s maintained a positive attitude around people, because he doesn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him.”
Then Peterson revealed something: “Paul never cared anything about boxing. Nothing at all. It just fell in his lap. It wasn’t something that he wanted to do. Boxing was dropped on him because he was very gifted at it. And after a while, Paul decided that he had to make that his job. It was lucrative, the money was good and he wasn’t doing anything else. He would go with (fellow Augusta fighter) Anthony Simpkins to the gym and that’s how he came around.
“If Paul would have had just a little bit of a concern for his occupation, his fame would have surpassed Sugar Ray Leonard, Tommy Hearns, some of those welterweight greats. Paul Williams was 147 pounds and with that height at 6-1, he would have beaten them all. That’s a compliment to Paul. My great regret for Paul is not the fights that he lost but the fighters that never fought Paul. Floyd Mayweather had a belt, Shane Mosley had a welterweight title, Kermit Cintron had a belt. None of them wanted to fight Paul. He got extremely frustrated about that.”
Peterson was there by his fighter’s bedside mere hours after the accident. He has been there throughout the whole process, willing to do anything within his powers just as he had helped Williams become a world-class boxer.
“If Paul can start working out again, and I’ve seen some of his workouts, he can walk again,” Peterson said. “Paul will admit he’s lazy. Paul is not a self-motivated person. That’s always been the great missing link. When he was fighting, I had to stay on him. When I wasn’t there 24/7, those were the times Paul would fall through the cracks. I want to see him walk again. It’s up to Paul.”
Chinda recounts a recurring dream Williams’ son Chance has about his dad. It goes something like this: Chance hears someone fall in his parents’ bedroom. He runs to see that it’s his dad on the floor. He goes to serve as a crutch for his father, who gently nudges Chance aside and begins taking stilted steps on his own.
That’s a dream they all share, to see Williams dip through the ropes, unassisted, and back into a ring again in a packed arena, waving to tearful fans whose eyes are fixated on him not out of sympathy but in awe. He is laboring to make that dream come true. He’s found the motivation to hit the gym again, pounding the speed bag locked into a contraption that enables him to stand. Three days a week he undergoes water therapy and electroshock therapy to coax leg movement. Strenuous stuff but nothing he can’t handle.
After all, we’re talking about Paul Williams, two-time welterweight champion.
“We would all like to see it happen,” Chinda said. “There has been a change. Paul saw people still do care about him in Vegas last May. That was very important.”
To rebuild his spirit, to help him feel like The Punisher again.