A year ago, Paul “The Punisher” Williams was one of the most feared and respected boxers in the world. Then a motorcycle accident left the Aiken native paralyzed from the waist down, forever changing his world but not his outlook.
Today marks the one-year anniversary of the accident that severely damaged the former welterweight champion’s spinal cord. While Williams remains paralyzed, his longtime trainer/manager George Peterson said last Thursday that a recent examination offered hope that walking again is a possibility.
“He had his annual physical last week with the doctor who did the surgery,” Peterson said of the operation Williams had Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital following the accident that didn’t sever his spinal cord but fractured the bone of his spine, causing interference with the transmission of nerves from above to below. “The doctor said the bone is healing perfectly and was surprised to see how well the bones have healed.”
Because Williams’ spinal cord wasn’t severed, just damaged, hope remains he can continue to heal and one day walk again. Just two months shy of his 32nd birthday, he has a great medical team working with him. They’re at both the Shepherd Center in Atlanta – where Williams recovered from his surgery – as well at Walton Rehabilitation in Augusta, which is much closer to the boxer’s home in the CSRA.
Among Williams’ doctors and medical health professionals is the doctor who performed surgery on former “Superman” movie star Christopher Reeve. Peterson said a possible prognosis for Williams was that he could regain movement in his lower body – significant enough to possibly walk in the very near future.
“It could be anywhere from a year and a half to two years,” Peterson said. “He’s got stability in sitting up. He attempts to step up occasionally. … He’s not walking, but he’s very much active.”
In addition to his therapy, Williams is very busy. Peterson – who is still training fighters but speaks with Williams several times a week – said he just received photos of the former champion scuba diving and talked to him about a fishing trip he went on a week ago.
“He thinks he doesn’t have a handicap at all, and I expect big things from him,” Peterson said of Williams, who has spoken about an eventual return to the ring in spite of his dramatic injury. While Peterson isn’t willing to go that far, he won’t put anything beyond his protégés’ reach. “People have counted Paul out in the past and he would always say to me, ‘George, don’t worry. We got this.’ He was an underdog and won three championships. He’s saying the same thing now. I’ve got no choice but to believe him. He’s in the best of spirits.”
It’s Williams positive outlook that inspires the most hope in a recovery. While he was unavailable for comment for this story, he spoke to Showtime’s Jim Gray last September, when he was supposed to be taking one last shot at a title in a bout against Saul “Canelo” Alvarez. While the accident caused the fight to be cancelled, Williams still made an appearance in Las Vegas, where he spoke with Gray.
“I think I can come back,” Williams said in the interview. “Give it two or three years, and I’ll come back.”
Williams added inspiring words, saying how his interactions since the life-altering accident have inspired him.
“Sometimes I think, I accomplished a lot. I did a lot. But I wanna do one more. I feel sorry for my fans. I feel like I let them down, even though I’m pretty sure I didn’t let them down. But in my eyes, I feel like I let them down because, like, I’m in a wheelchair hurting right now, but they made me feel so good,” Williams said. “The little kids, how they come up to me – they really appreciate me, and I sit and talk to them, and it’s motivating me. And I’m like, you know what? This ain’t nothin’. I don’t want to be depressed about it or nothing. I’m like, you know what, hakuna matata, man. I ain’t even worried about it.
“I’m gonna be happy, man. I’m gonna be me. All this right here? This is just temporary. I’m on injured reserve right now. Don’t count me out.”
Peterson was adamant that any comeback would have nothing to do with money. He said Williams is set financially. And even if Williams never steps foot in the ring again to fight, he’s already remained active in the sport that brought him fame and fortune.
In addition to frequently speaking with Peterson, the former champ keeps in touch with his current boxers, many of whom he built a repoire with when they helped prepare him in the past.
“He knows the guys and is there for help and advice,” said Peterson, who has another top prospect in Thomas Williams, a light heavyweight who once lived in Aiken but now fights out of Washington D.C. “Everybody’s inspired by all the positive things he has to say.”
Thomas Williams recently improved his record to 14-0 and Peterson’s plan is to have him poised for a title shot if he can get to 20-0. As impressive as that mark might be, it’s not even half of what Paul Williams accomplished in the ring.
The Punisher went 41-2, with 27 wins by knockout and won three championships. Williams first won the welterweight title in 2007 with a win over Antonio Margarito, and lost the belt by decision about seven months later to Carlos Quintana. He avenged that loss with a June 2008 TKO of Quintana.
At 6-foot-2, and armed with great power, Williams was so feared he had trouble getting fights against many of the other top fighters of his era. That may have been a factor in his decision to vacate his welterweight title in order to fight Verno Phillips for the light middleweight title in Nov. 2008. Williams defeated Phillips by way of TKO after eight rounds after the doctor stopped the fight, securing Williams’ third title.
In the course of his career, Williams recorded notable victories over world champions such as Quintana, Margarito, Winky Wright, Kermit Cintron, Sharmba Mitchell and Sergio Martínez – who was the only other fighter to defeat Williams.
“He beat everybody he fought,” Peterson said of Williams, who bounced back from the Martinez loss with decisions over Erislandy Lara and Nobuhiro Ishida to set up the bout with Alvarez for a possible fourth title. “In his last fight, he won so impressively the sanctioning body gave him a championship fight.”
While it never happened, Williams continues to fight. He doesn’t sound like a man planning to stop anytime soon.
“My game ain’t over,” said Williams. “Whether I am walking or not walking, my game ain’t over until the Lord takes my life.”
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.