The unified World Super Welterweight Champion has set his sights on becoming the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport as he prepares to face Jeison Rosario in a 154-pound world title showdown Saturday night on FOX.
The ring announcer hadn’t completed his sentence when Julian Williams dropped to his knees in the middle of the ring.
“And the new . . .”
Williams, better known to boxing fans as “J-Rock”, sobbed upon hearing Jimmy Lennon Jr.’s words, the very words he’d been waiting to hear since he started boxing at age 12.
Seconds later, Stephen Edwards, the longtime trainer who’d helped bring Williams to this watershed moment, joined his new unified 154-pound champion as they embraced in tears on the canvas at EagleBank Arena in Fairfax, Virginia.
That was last May 11 after the Philadelphian’s stunning upset victory against unified champion Jarrett Hurd – Williams was a 5-1 underdog – in Hurd’s back yard, outside Washington D.C. The fight-of-the-year-worthy slugfest was Hurd’s first career loss.
The tears flowed “because that’s been my dream since I was a little kid,” the 29-year-old Williams said. “I literally used to have dreams about that particular night. It was just a surreal moment.”
Was reality as good as his dreams? “Maybe even better, because of the circumstances, what I was up against,” says Williams. “My dreams didn’t have circumstances.”
Edwards was swept up in the moment as well, because, as Williams puts it, “he has a lot invested in this. So does my co-trainer (Aasim Beyah). Everybody has a lot invested in this, just the sweat equity throughout the years, the times when no one is watching. And it all came to fruition for one night – 36 minutes – and everyone was emotional.”
Edwards, who has known Williams since 2007 and trained him since 2010, added: “Even though I was confident he was going to win, to accomplish it physically is different. It was like a monkey was off our back. It was joy, relief, happiness, and your pride kicks in, the competitive spirit, to shut everybody up. I’ve had very few feelings like that in my life.”
Williams has not fought since that magical night, as Hurd exercised his rematch clause, then pulled out of a planned December fight for unspecified reasons.
Instead, “J-Rock” (27-1-1, 16 KOs) will return to his beloved hometown on Saturday night for his first title defense against hard-hitting, 24-year-old Dominican Jeison Rosario (19-1-1, 13 KOs) at Temple University’s Liacouras Center. Williams’ first fight in Philadelphia since 2011 will be telecast on FOX PBC Fight Night and Fox Deportes Saturday beginning at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT.
Life hasn’t changed too much for Williams since winning the WBA and IBF belts.
“Still going to the gym every day, still pretty much the same guy,” Williams said. “A few more media obligations. I've got a little more notoriety now.
“To be honest, I stopped thinking about it because I want to stay focused on the task at hand [which is] being pound-for-pound best in the world. I'm not satisfied with just being the best super welterweight in the world. Why sell myself short when I have the drive and the ability to be the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world? . . . I'd be leaving millions of dollars on the table."
Williams’ first shot at a title ended disastrously three years ago, when he was dropped three times en route to a fifth-round knockout by Jermall Charlo.
J-Rock was predictably criticized for having a susceptible chin, and the reaction of fickle fans and media angered him. Sure, Charlo was a big, strong, undefeated champion but Williams was caught by a punch he never even saw. It happens.
“I think people change like day and night,” he says. “It’s been said boxers are loved conditionally: That they win, they look good and they look dominant. You can’t shortchange anyone in boxing, because you’ll be considered exposed, or not that good, or all those other terms they come up with.
“ I want to stay focused on the task at hand [which is] being pound-for-pound best in the world. ” Unified World Super Welterweight Champion - Julian Williams
“It’s what have you done for me lately. Nobody cares about the (New England) Patriots now. They’re only the greatest team in (NFL) history but nobody cares because they’re not in the playoffs.”
What Williams has done since the Charlo debacle is put himself back in the pound-for-pound conversation, winning five consecutive fights, topped off with his finest career victory, the dethroning of Hurd.
If J-Rock knows anything, it’s how to overcome steep odds. It starts with a rough childhood in West Philadelphia that most people couldn’t begin to imagine. Homeless at age 13 and living in a shelter in North Philly, but still getting to school in West Philly every day. His father, Khalif Dingle, was in prison much of the time – though they have a good relationship these days. His mother, June, fought cocaine addiction before passing away in 2013, a time that Williams considers rock bottom.
Does he think about those hard times when he’s in the ring?
“Not at all. I’m thinking about winning, focusing and doing what my coaches tell me to do,” he says, matter-of-factly. “I will say my upbringing drives me in the gym. When I want to stay sleeping in my warm bed at 5:30-6 o’clock in the morning when I got to get up and run, that wakes me up. Everybody has to suffer from trials and tribulations, I don’t care how rich or poor you are. You just have to deal with it and move forward.”
Today, Williams lives in a beautiful home in suburban Blackwood, N.J. with his girlfriend and their two daughters, Zara and Jasrah. He’s financially savvy enough to buy properties in and around the city but still trains where it all began, in West Philly.
Williams keeps a tight team and avoids a large entourage that many boxers have around them. Being a champion hasn’t changed that.
“I didn’t need it before and I definitely don’t need it now. To keep the good things going, you got to keep the same things around,” he says, “the people who have your best interests at heart. You got to make sure everyone around you has a job, and that everyone is doing their job . . . Everybody has one goal and that’s to win by any means necessary. That’s how we approach every fight.”
Edwards, known as “Breadman,” a moniker he got as a high school basketball player, from the ‘70s basketball flick “Cornbread, Earl and Me,” agrees that hangers-on can negatively affect a tight team.
“We don’t need all of that,” Edwards says. “We don’t get along 100 percent of the time, but I know how to handle [J-Rock] close to a fight. it’s important to me not to have too many personalities because people make their problems your problems . . . So the least amount of people around, the better.”
For now, though, Williams’ mind is anchored on Rosario.
“You can never underestimate what a man has been through,” J-Rock says about his opponent. “How hungry he is, how hard he’s been training. I know I inspired a lot of people with that performance (against Hurd), and that made people believe they can do the unthinkable.”
Rosario apparently believes that, saying recently that when he defeats Williams, he’s going to be the next “Rocky” in Philadelphia.
“He’s been watching a little too much TV,” Williams laughs. “He’s a decent fighter and I respect him. But he needs to put the TV down and come back to reality.”
For a closer look at Julian Williams, check out his fighter page.