Down, but Not Out: The Story of Paralyzed Former Boxing Champion Paul Williams
It was after first light just outside Atlanta, and middleweight boxer Paul 'The Punisher" Williams was en route to his brother Leon's wedding. It was May 27, 2012 and Paul, the best man, had hopped on his bike to meet up with the wedding party and prepare for the day's events.
Big things were happening for Paul Williams, who only a week earlier had signed to fight in his first pay-per-view main event, against an up-and-coming Mexican slugger named Saul "Canelo" Alvarez. The bout was to be his biggest payday. It would help put a knockout loss at the hands of middleweight kingpin Sergio Martinez in his rear-view. It would erase the frustration of top fighters—Floyd Mayweather, Jr. and all the others—giving him the runaround.
Riding east down South Marietta Parkway on his modified Suzuki 1300 Hayabusa—a recent gift to himself, indulging his inner speed freak—he sensed the car to his right drifting toward him, into the passing lane. He swerved left to avoid being clipped, but another vehicle from oncoming traffic suddenly bore down on him. Williams had a choice: crash his crotch rocket into almost two tons of metal at a combined speed of well over 100 mph or take his chances navigating a steep road-side embankment.
Police said Williams was driving too fast—the consensus estimate was 75 mph—and Williams claimed the driver he had initially veered to avoid was fiddling on his cell phone at the time, oblivious. In the moment, the details didn't matter, save possibly for one: Williams was, in accordance with Georgia law, wearing his helmet. Even that would have been irrelevant if his body's trajectory had sent him toward the embankment's brick wall, but instead he careened into the more forgiving earth, was launched some 60 feet away, and came to rest flat on his back, motionless.
"I don't know if I was unconscious," Williams says of his first thoughts lying there on the asphalt. "I heard the ambulance, I hear them telling me to open my eyes. You know in an accident like that when they always tell you to wiggle your toes? It felt like, for some reason, I was still on my bike. I don't know why I feel like I'm still on my bike.
"I had dirt in my eyes, ears, for weeks after the accident. They were still pulling dirt out of my eyes. My head, when it hit the dirt, they said it was like somebody took a bowling ball and dropped it out of a plane and it hit to make that hole in the ground."
When Williams arrived by ambulance at Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, doctors stabilized him and assessed the damage. The diagnosis was grim: Paul was paralyzed below the waist. His spinal cord had been severely damaged and in all likelihood he would never walk again.
Williams says he was told by hospital workers that his was one of three motorcycle crashes in the Atlanta metro area that weekend, and that he was the only rider among them who survived.
"They were like, 'We do't know how you made it.'"
A stroke of luck landed Williams his first title fight. It was 2007, and Mexico's Antonio Margarito— tall, prolific, and seemingly unbreakable—was having all kinds of trouble convincing credible opponents to challenge him for the WBO welterweight title. Williams needed no convincing. He might have been a Plan B opponent facing a violent menace, but he eagerly accepted the opportunity.
Williams entered the ring under the lights of the Home Depot Center in Carson, California wrapped in an emerald satin robe and flashing an ear-to-ear smile that had been cranked to full wattage throughout fight week.
A lanky, 6-foot-1 southpaw with the reach of a heavyweight and the rapid-fire punch volume of a lightweight, Paul "The Punisher" Williams was a boxing unicorn—a beautiful anomaly. He wasn't a knockout artist in the traditional sense, and his technique wasn't the stuff training videos are made of, but his length—for a man who could comfortably dip to 147 pounds, Williams' height and reach defied belief—combined with his lefty stance and withering work rate made him a frustrating, fearsome puzzle for opponents.
From the opening bell, he was a coil of loose barbed wire wreaking havoc in a windstorm. His jabs set up angular combinations, followed by quick turns to dodge return fire. Pap-pap-papapapap. Turn. Pap-pap-thump. Turn. Margarito, an even more prolific volume puncher than Williams, could scarcely get blows off. In his first headline fight, the 25-year-old from Aiken, South Carolina was putting on a signature performance.
In the 11th round—the deepest waters Williams had ever waded into—the challenger's edge dulled. He was clutching more, and his left eye was messy from catching Margarito right hands. But in the 12th, Williams was transformed, back on the balls of his feet, his jab slicing through the night, and Margarito again unable to find more than a sliver of space to squeeze in his own assault. Williams threw 125 punches in the final round—more than in any round of any of his fights—to sway the judges for a unanimous decision.
Paul Williams, the new welterweight champion, had beaten the man many believed to be the most feared boxer alive.
With sweat still beading on Williams' brow as he stood in the center of the ring, HBO's Larry Merchant asked, "Who are you gonna call out tonight?"
"Well," Paul said, "I want [Miguel] Cotto. If I can't get Cotto, I want a shot at Mayweather."
The career Williams lost is on his mind as rides shotgun one unseasonably warm October evening last fall, en route to speak to a gathering of young fighters at a local Charleston, South Carolina gym. The conversation drifts before landing on his sensational rivalry with Argentina's Sergio Martinez.
The rematch of their first fight—which went to Williams via controversial majority decision—came off in November 2010, almost two years to the day after their first meeting, in the same venue: Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall. It was a stunner.
After a first round that saw Martinez tie up and score effectively inside, Williams appeared to find a suitable range in the second. And that's when, without warning, Martinez landed a career-defining punch, a stealth bomb that instantly separated Williams from his senses, dropping him face-first to the canvas, eyes still open but otherwise rendered hauntingly