When word reached me that former world heavyweight title challenger Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams was in bad shape in a Westchester Medical Center in New York, my heart paused and my mind immediately rushed back five years to the moment I interviewed him.
I had followed the flagship weight class of boxing closely in the 80’s, an underrated period that produced a number of colorful and talented big men, but at the time, much maligned for the perceived inconsistency among its more notable names. In a position to pen pieces on the sport I had followed since I was a child, I wanted to follow-up on the fighter I had watched climb off the deck in his network television debut; a talented perennial contender that shared the ring with two all-time great heavyweight champions, who at one point, came within a heartbeat of rewriting the storyline we now know today as history.
I won’t forget the hour or so I spent talking with ‘The Truth’. When you are afforded the opportunity to sit down with somebody you’ve watched over the years come up through the ranks, the fan inside of you has all kinds of questions. It’s only natural. But my interview with Carl Williams was something a little more. We covered his accelerated start as a gifted amateur pugilist and the sudden notoriety it brought when he found himself on the international stage. It was clear from our talk he took far more from the experience than the understandable rush one would feel under the intense spotlight as a part of the United States boxing team. He counted his travels abroad to countries such as Japan, England and Sweden as a blessing and a grand opportunity, not forgetting his start on the street. I could hear it in his voice, well beyond his words.
As our talk continued, he related to me the transition of turning professional, something he did after little more than two years after first lacing up the gloves. Standing 6’4” and with an 83” reach, ‘The Truth’ was a fluid and mobile boxer that operated behind a busy left jab. Blessed with athleticism, ring acumen and composure well beyond his limited tenure in the paid ranks, Williams climbed off the deck twice in the 1st round against the vastly more experienced James ‘Quick’ Tillis before switching gears and comprehensively out-boxing the seasoned veteran on network television in October 1984. It was only his 16th professional fight. That win took him to a moment of destiny.
In May 1985 in front of the world, Williams challenged then undefeated World heavyweight champion Larry Holmes for his IBF title. It was a crucial episode in his life. Beyond any good work he did in that fifteen-round contest, others with perhaps conflicting outside interests determined a less glorious path for the man that had looked to have unseated Holmes, who at the time was the reigning and undefeated 47-0 king, who today is arguably ranked amongst the five greatest heavyweight champions of all-time. Looking back on that experience, Williams related to me the affect being on the short end of a highly dubious verdict had on him as a pro and more so the impact it had on his life; repercussions he would feel as the years went by.
The journey back was not easy or without setback. Williams had to climb off the canvas in both the ring and in life in order to regroup and reinvent himself as a deserving contender in a division, as I had related earlier, that was much tougher and more talented than given credit for in its day. The journey through that gauntlet lasted four long years and culminated with an all-eyes moment in the ring with ‘Iron’ Mike Tyson, then at the height of his notoriety and ability; an undefeated 36-0 and the Undisputed World heavyweight champion of that heady period. The record books today show that the matter had been waved off at 1:33 of the 1st round, but the hard and fast reality is that the referee called the match a little too soon. Once again, Williams’ destiny had been altered.
Our conversation started to take a different tone at that point. Carl spoke of the direction his career took after his last title fight, and how the inner fire began to dim. There was one last moment on the big stage in 1993 against Tommy “The Duke’ Morrison on HBO; a situation that essentially boiled down to misapplication at best and something a little more sinister at worst; there was no eight count in the rules for that fight though Morrison was given one after a knockdown and Williams was not. Looking back, that marked the end of ‘The Truth’ as a hungry, winning world-class fighter. He walked away from prizefighting in 1997 with a career total 30-10, 21 KO’s.
In the years after prizefighting, Carl found himself vanish into a virtual world of anonymity. He worked as an ambassador of sorts at the Taj Mahal, helping guests find their way through the vast façade of pomp and glitter. I can easily envision him being good at that, his amiable good nature and ability to articulate and communicate in a disarming manner come off as rare given where he has come from and his hard past. That ability to reach people and articulate led to other roles as a counselor and after that with a respected firm in security. As he told me of his updated role, a glimmer of pride bled through. His ability to communicate and his work ethic enabled him to move up the ladder from field supervisor, to supervisor, through account manager and beyond that to Fire Safety Director. As he related all of this to me he added “There’s an old saying. In order to get in you got to fit in. You can’t get in if you don’t fit in”.
Through our talk, he also related a couple of other personal points he lived through in the years after his last heavyweight title shot and through to his retirement, highly painful life altering events that I will stop short of repeating here, but of the sort that in a round-about way, underlined the strength of character and heart we saw play out under the hot lights and often painful reality of the prize ring. But life often holds its own painful reality. Those recollections stopped me in my tracks as his voice cracked and he revealed a reality and a part of his persona I was not aware of. Again, his ability to reach out and connect had taken hold, this time, with me.
Looking back at Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams the prizefighter, I am reminded of what fans so often lament having today; a vastly talented and highly competitive American heavyweight boxer with the skill and the fire, the courage to challenge the very best under whatever circumstance presented itself. If only there was a Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams on the scene today. If only.
As our conversation came to a close he thanked me. “Thank you. Sometimes I just want to sit back and let all of this stuff out. The average person, everyday, when I go to work, or when I go here or I go there, they weren’t a part of that world. They don’t know or understand. The average person would have no idea on the depth to boxing and what goes into it. I’ve had some really difficult struggles in my life, things that I haven’t even gone into here. If there’s one thing boxing and life has shown me it’s this; “When you fall, fall on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up”.
I never forgot the time I spent talking to Carl Williams, former two-time world heavyweight title challenger and perennial fixture in a colorful and competitive division of over a lifetime ago. Our talk went well beyond the mere questions of a fan on a compelling ring career of a bygone era. As it turned out, my talk was with a very well traveled and wise soul more so than with the relic of a bygone ring era. A very warm and real man created in The Maker’s image; somebody who had reached the highs very few ever realize and the lowest of the lows, so often traveled in a world of pain and despair.
Right now out there, Carl Williams is fighting the most crucial bout of his life against an opponent few have ever beaten, lying somewhere, hopefully not completely alone in a dimly lit hospital room surrounded by silence, with my prayers behind him and God’s hand upon him.
““When you fall, fall on your back, because if you can look up, you can get up” – Carl ‘The Truth’ Williams