154-pound contender talks about how recent loss to Jermall Charlo and tough upbringing in Philadelphia made him a better boxer, father and man.
Julian Williams began leaping the hurdles of adulthood as a homeless 13-year-old in North Philly. His mother, June Williams, wrestled substance abuse and his father, Khalif Dingle, was incarcerated.
“I was living in a shelter but going to school every day. Nobody really knew about it,” said Williams, 27, now a premiere 154-pound contender who began boxing as a 12-year-old.
“You just push through those tough times. I got a permit and started working when I was 14. It was rough. I knew shit wasn’t normal, but it wasn’t going to be that way forever.”
June died of congestive heart failure in 2013 a month prior to her son’s September clash with Hugo Centeno Jr. During training for Centeno, Williams made weekend visits from his native Philadelphia to his ailing mother in North Carolina.
“I was planning my mother’s funeral during training. She was living with my sister. My brothers and I would ride down knowing she was sick, but not to the point where she would die,” Williams said.
“After she passed, it was heart-wrenching. Trying to focus on boxing was extremely difficult. I started getting calls from [advisor Al Haymon] asking if I wanted to pull out, and I said, ‘No, I wanna fight.’”
Yet the iron-willed “J-Rock” rebounded from his mother’s passing and the Centeno disappointment with a third-round TKO of Orlando Lora that December. His 4-0 mark in 2013 was comprised of three knockouts and a unanimous decision over former champion Joachim Alcine.
Before suffering a fifth-round KO loss to then-154-pound champion Jermall Charlo last December, Williams had scored three straight knockouts, won 53 consecutive rounds and 16 fights in a row (10 by stoppage) since a six-round draw against Francisco Santana in May 2011.
“In boxing, when you fall down, you get back up and keep fighting. No need for panic mode. Hiccups happen. It’s behind me,” said Williams, a father of 2-year-old daughter, Zara.
“Life goes on, and so does my career. Taking a loss doesn’t mean you can’t be a world champion and a great fighter, and it’s certainly not bigger than the loss of my mother.”
“ Life goes on, and so does my career. Taking a loss doesn’t mean you can’t be a world champion and a great fighter, and it’s certainly not bigger than the loss of my mother. ” 154-pound contender Julian Williams
Williams (23-1-1, 15 KOs) leaves his native Philadelphia for Saturday night’s bout against 39-year-old Ishe Smith (29-8, 12 KOs), facing the resilient, savvy former world champion in his hometown at The Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas on Bounce TV (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
“I’m excited to be fighting in Las Vegas,” said Williams, who is 2-0 with a no-contest in the city known as the Fight Capital of the World , and is coming off a seventh-round TKO victory over hard-punching Joshua Conley in June. “Ishe’s a solid fighter who brings a lot of experience to the table, but I have some of my own experiences as well.”
Stephen Edwards met a 17-year-old Williams in his Philadelphia home through his amateur trainer in December 2007 while hosting a fight party for Floyd Mayweather’s knockout victory over Ricky Hatton.
“My initial impressions were of a determined, goal-driven kid,” said Edwards, 41, a relative to Williams’ amateur coach, Kenny Mason, who became his trainer in 2009 and professional coach a year later.
“As coach, you become a surrogate father and mentor, advising him beyond his abilities as a good fighter. Year’s later, Julian’s a good father doing well, financially, purchased properties, has a stock portfolio. He’s preparing for life after boxing.”
That includes a strong bond with Dingle.
“I’ve always had a tight relationship with my father,” said Williams. “There were some tough moments he went through that affected me as well. But when he came home, he got on his feet and we didn’t dwell on it. We moved on.”
Meanwhile, Zara’s the spitting image of June Williams.
“I definitely see a lot of my mother in Zara,” said Williams. “She looks so much like my Mom it’s scary.”
Williams was 11-0-1 with six knockouts after his Las Vegas debut in January 2013, a seventh-round TKO of Jeremiah Wiggins who dropped to 10-2-1 (five KOs).
Williams last Las Vegas appearance was a unanimous decision over Elezer Gonzalez in September 2014. The battle of unbeatens improved Williams to 17-0-1 with 10 KOs, ending Gonzalez’s streak of six consecutive knockouts.
In between was Centeno at the MGM in Las Vegas. Williams led Centeno, 30-27, on all three cards when a fourth-round clash of heads caused cuts over the left eye of both fighters, forcing the no-contest.
“Centeno would have been the biggest win of my career at the time. I was extremely pissed off that it didn’t happen. I thought the referee made a bad call. It was aggravating after training so hard, but you’re not going to always get the outcome you want,” said Williams.
“You fall off of a bicycle, dust yourself off and get back on. Kids don’t have to be athletes to be considered a success. If my story inspires them to get off their ass and get a high school diploma, that’s an achievement. What’s more important – my mother or a boxing match? If I can get through that, I can get through anything.”
For a complete look at Smith vs Williams, visit our fight page.