Julian Williams, who overcame being homeless as a teenager, is closing in on his first world title. On Saturday, “J-Rock” challenges IBF junior middleweight champion Jermall Charlo in a compelling, 50-50 match-up between two of boxing’s most talented young fighters (December 10, 10:00 p.m. ET, Showtime).
You could forgive Julian Williams if the Philadelphia native and top contender for the IBF 154-pound title thought the championship fight he deserved — that he earned — seemed perpetually out of reach. Williams (22-0-1, 14 KOs), for well over a year has been viewed as a supremely dangerous challenger in a talent-laden division, but he’s watched as a showdown with belt-holder Jermall Charlo has fallen through or been postponed multiple times.
There have been some legitimate reasons for the Charlo-Williams delay, such as a voluntary procedure the champion underwent to correct the vision in both his eyes, which Charlo (24-0, 18 KOs) mentioned on a recent conference call. However, for one reason or another, Williams has been frustratingly relegated to the sidelines just as fans were clamoring to see more.
And yet, with the Charlo fight finally in his crosshairs, Julian Williams maintains an air of stoicism as December 10 approaches. While he’s obviously feeling confident and relishing the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream, he made sure to emphasize that he put his time in boxing limbo to productive use.
“Everybody’s flawed, you know?” Williams said. “There’s no such thing as a perfect fighter. You can always work to get better, and I used the time to get better. I didn’t just lie around, abuse my body – just wasting time. I used the time.”
Indeed, Williams had to be proactive in the gym and get by on heavy doses of self-motivation. Because of the uncertainty surrounding his title challenge, Williams has only been able to fight once thus far in 2016 — a dominant stoppage of Marcello Matano. This after a 2015 campaign that saw him go 3-0 (2 KOs) to firmly establish himself as a major threat at junior middleweight.
But for Julian Williams, having supreme confidence in his own decisions is nothing new, nor is a relatively minor stumbling block like a fight falling through. Such matters, when compared to what he went through in his youth, seem trivial.
Williams’ mother was addicted to crack cocaine, and around 2001-02 they were evicted from their home — a traumatic process only heightened by Williams’ younger brother being put into foster care. With his mother unable to provide for him at such a crucial juncture, Williams went to live with his older sister, who soon decided to relocate to North Carolina. Conventional wisdom suggests that Williams, who was on the precipice of his teenage years at the time, would have dutifully followed.
Instead, Julian Williams was adamant about staying in Philadelphia.
“I just refused to go,” Williams said. “At first, you know, I actually went to stay with my mother, and she was staying at one of our friend’s houses who was also a drug addict, so you know what kind of environment that was.”
Despite once again being thrust into this fraught environment, Williams persevered and connected with a social worker — who remains close to Williams and attended his daughter’s first birthday party — allowing him to once again escape potentially damaging confines. From there, Williams moved to what he describes as a “hotel-like” shelter. It was while Williams was staying in this haven for the homeless that he met Kenny Mason, his trainer and eventual caretaker. Looking back now, these living circumstances seem somewhat surreal.
“It was real weird because I remember coming from the Silver Gloves – it was my first national tournament – and my coach was dropping me off,” Williams recalled. “And if you’ve ever been to Philadelphia, there’s a busy, busy highway called Roosevelt Boulevard, and that’s where the hotel/shelter was. And we’re driving down the boulevard, and he’s like, ‘Where’s your house?’ And I was a little embarrassed because I didn’t want to let him know I was staying in a shelter. So I’m just like, ‘Man, just let me off right here.’ So he let me off in the middle of the block.”
Somewhat ashamed, Williams waited until Mason had driven away before entering the shelter.
Eventually — after Williams lived in that shelter for nearly nine months, and following a brief transfer to another one — Mason did find out about Williams’ living arrangements. Williams would soon move in with Mason and stay for five years — until he graduated high school.
“Boxing is the main reason I didn’t want to move with my sister,” Williams adds, which is a startling level of conviction for someone so young. Sensing he had a future in the sport, living with Mason allowed Williams to focus on boxing and school while finally enjoying the benefits of a stable support system.
“I wasn’t as stressed out. I remember at times I was so stressed out.”
It’s because of having survived trauma most of us can only abstractly fathom that variables like a nine-month layoff between fights, or the pressure of a first world title challenge don’t register for Williams the way you would typically expect. “It’s a part of the process,” Williams said. “Pressure makes diamonds, so I’m all for it. I honestly don’t feel no pressure. I think the pressure should be on him [Charlo].”
That may indeed be so, but Julian Williams is also keenly aware of Jermall Charlo’s abilities. Charlo, who possesses excellent size and power for a 154-pounder, has a quality jab and knows how to “stay big”. He’s also coming off an impressive win over former champion Austin Trout. However, dating back to his amateur career, there’s nothing Charlo does that Williams hasn’t seen — in one form or another — before.
There’s also another sort of opportunity to be seized here, and that’s the potential to produce a star-making performance. Williams, however, isn’t getting ahead of himself. Winning the world title — at all costs — is his first priority, but he’s also aware of the fact that someone at 154 pounds is likely to break through into the broader sporting public’s consciousness — eventually. “A 50-50 fight is always the right step in the right direction.”
It’s exactly the kind of attitude you would expect from a Philly fighter. Whether it’s seeking out the sternest possible opposition, diligently working one’s way into title contention or humbly biding time to get what one deserves, Julian Williams has certainly proven worthy of representing his proud city’s storied boxing tradition, even if that’s something of greater concern to fans and pundits than to the fighters themselves.
“I don’t really think about it because I’m raised in it, I’m born in it. It’s not something you think about. It’s just something that you are.”