Two years ago this month, Julian Williams laced up the gloves, climbed up the steps and slipped through the ropes—just as he’d done countless times since he first started boxing at age 12.
Business as usual.
Except it was anything but.
As Williams prepared to take on Hugo Centeno Jr. in the biggest fight of his career, there was an important piece missing from his corner—someone who had been there from the very first punch he ever threw: Williams’ mother, June, who died from heart failure at age 53 in August 2013, a month before the bout against Centeno.
Williams, who would end up fighting the unbeaten Centeno to a no-contest after both were cut by an accidental headbutt, is just now opening up about his mother’s passing and the affect it had on him.
“Within a short span, my mom passed, we had the funeral and the biggest fight of my life,” says Williams, 25, of Philadelphia. “She’d gone to stay with my sister in South Carolina. We knew she was sick, but you never want to think your Mom is going to die.”
Gone was the woman who, Williams says, “meant everything to me. She was my best friend and someone who would give you the shirt off her back.”
As if preparing for a big fight wasn’t difficult enough, Williams had to deal with devastating grief, along with the heartbreaking process of planning for his mother’s services, which he did along with his siblings.
“She passed literally a week-and-a-half after I signed to fight Hugo,” he recalls. “That morning, at about 6 a.m., I trained and ran about three miles. I remember crying that whole three miles.
“I thought about pulling out of the fight, but I kept on training. Going to the gym, having sisters and brothers grieving as I was, it was hard to stay focused.”
But Williams (20-0-1, 12 KOs) has done just that. Against Centeno, he had won the first three rounds on all the judges’ scorecards when the bout was halted in the fourth. Since then, he’s ripped off seven consecutive victories, including five by knockout.
In fact, Julian Williams heads into his 154-pound September 22 clash with veteran Luciano Cuello (35-3, 17 KOs) in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (Fox Sports 1, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT), having won 14 consecutive fights since his six-round draw against Francisco Santana in May 2011. Of the last 11 victims, only three have taken “J Rock” the distance.
“Julian continues to overcome the obstacles,” says Stephen Edwards, who trains Williams out of the Philadelphia-based James Shuler Memorial Gym. “He’s never had the luxury of being babied; [he’s] always taken the good with the bad. I think he’s building an inner strength needed to overcome certain things that he’ll encounter later in his career. He’s constantly having to prove himself, and that fuels him.”
Naazim Richardson, Philadelphia’s dean of trainers, was among those who provided soothing counsel to Williams before the Centeno contest.
"J Rock is the truth,” says Richardson, who handles legendary Philadelphia-born champion Bernard Hopkins. “He has talent, a ferocious determination and the intangibles to be a champion—not just speed and power, but he’s a real student of the game who takes it very seriously.”
The brief fight against Centeno—which was held at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on the eve of Floyd Mayweather’s unanimous-decision win over Canelo Alvarez—remains a defining moment and a motivational source for Williams.
“Even though I didn’t get the win, I won every second of every round in that fight and received a lot of exposure from fighting on the same weekend as Floyd Mayweather,” Williams says. “Given what had happened leading up to what was at the time the biggest fight of my life, it was initially hard to move on [afterward]. But I think it’s actually helped my career, because I haven’t had a bad performance since then.”
Actually, that’s an understatement: Including the three rounds versus Centeno, Williams hasn’t so much as lost a round on a single judges’ scorecard in his last eight trips to the ring.
“What I didn't want was for him to try too hard in the fight,” Richardson recalls of the Centeno bout. “I just reminded him that his mother was an integral factor in him becoming the man he is today.
“Julian has a professional approach to the game. It’s his job, and he’s always on top of it. He’s one of the top prospects—not just in the [154-pound] division, but in the sport. I’m a big fan.”
As is the case for anybody who loses a loved one, life indeed has moved on for Julian Williams, who five months ago welcomed his daughter, Zara. Suffice it to say, she’s been her father’s biggest inspiration.
“Zara looks just like my mother,” Williams says. “It’s crazy. I still think about her a lot.”
For complete coverage of Williams vs Cuello, visit our fight page.