There are two things Philadelphia sports fans have become accustomed to in recent decades: their professional football team letting them down and their professional boxers lifting them back up.
Where the Eagles have been a constant source of heartache for Philly fans, the pugilists produced by the City of Brotherly Love have been a frequent source of pride.
Among the champions the Philadelphia area has spawned include Joe Frazier, Bernard Hopkins, Danny Garcia and—for good measure—Rocky Balboa.
Julian Williams is determined to join that distinguished list.
“There are so many legacies being from Philadelphia,” Williams says. “I’m not trying to live up to them as much as trying to add to them.”
Williams (20-0-1, 12 KOs) looks to take another step closer to fulfilling that goal when he battles 154-pound veteran Luciano Cuello (35-3, 17 KOs) on Tuesday in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (Fox Sports 1, 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT). At Monday's weigh-in, Williams tipped the scales at 153.5 pounds, while Cuello came in at 154. (For the 122-pound co-main event, Moises Flores weighed 121.7 pounds and Luis Emanuel Cusolito was 121.9.)
Recently, none other than legendary Philadelphia trainer—and Hopkins’ longtime cornerman—Naazim Richardson called Williams “one of the top prospects in the sport.” Also quick to offer props to “J Rock” is another Philly icon, Eugene “Cyclone” Hart, father of unbeaten 168-pound contender Jesse Hart.
“He’s a good, up-and-coming fighter with all the tools to become a champion,” says the 64-year-old Hart, who is known for his 160-pound wars with Bennie Briscoe, Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts, Willie “The Worm” Monroe and Stanley “Kitten” Hayward. “I’m from an era when great boxers stepped up and fought each other. I like that [Williams] takes on anybody. It’s rare, nowadays, for young guys to do that.”
The undefeated Williams will enter the ring Tuesday having won 14 fights in a row (including eight knockouts) since his six-round draw against Francisco Santana in May 2011. What’s more, the 25-year-old also will be looking to extend an incredible streak in which he’s won 49 consecutive rounds.
To do so, though, he’ll have to get past the experienced Cuello, who has won three consecutive fights and nine of his last 10, the only setback being a close unanimous-decision loss to Willie Nelson in June 2013.
Cuello’s only other blemishes came against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in March 2009 (unanimous decision) and Canelo Alvarez in July 2010 (TKO).
“Cuello’s a solid veteran with a good skill set,” Williams says. “I have to beat him to get to that top level.”
In racing out to a 5-0 start to his career, Williams scored four first-round knockouts. His sixth opponent was veteran Marteze Logan, who had 72 pro fights under his belt at the time, and Williams walked away from that March 2011 bout with a unanimous-decision win.
From there, Williams had his draw against Santana, then continued taking on opponents who (like him) were rising through the ranks and/or had been in the ring against some of the top guys in the division.
One such opponent was Dashon Johnson, who was just 14-10-3 when he faced Williams in April 2013. However, Johnson’s résumé was filled with strong names such as Jermell Charlo, Glen Tapia and Daquan Arnett. Williams defeated Johnson by third-round TKO.
“Johnson had fought every killer you can name and pulled upsets,” says Stephen Edwards, who trains Williams at the Philadelphia-based James Shuler Memorial Gym. “He was in camp to help Manny Pacquiao prepare for Floyd Mayweather.”
Two months after taking out Johnson, Williams scored three knockdowns during a unanimous-decision victory over former titleholder Joachim Alcine, who was two fights removed from a majority-decision win against current 160-pound champ David Lemieux. The victory over Alcine was Williams’ last fight before his mother died in August 2013.
“That’s the first fight where I saw Julian nervous,” Edwards says of the Alcine contest. “Along with his mom dying, it made Julian grow up. I call him ‘The Violent Scientist.’ He’s scored body-shot knockouts, uses his left hand as well as his right, and he’s an effective counter-puncher.
“Buster Drayton and Robert Hines are two ex-154-pound world champions training in our gym. I tease them that Julian would have beaten them in their prime.”
As he keeps one eye on the Philly fighting legends of the past, Williams has the other focused clearly on the present, mindful that if he is to someday be considered in their company, he must continue racking up victories against opponents like Cuello.
“He’s at 85 percent of his full potential, growing with every fight and developing perfectly,” Edwards says of Williams. “Legacy is important to Julian, not just in Philadelphia, but in the sport. But he must deliver against Cuello, or he won’t get those big fights.”
Williams understands as much, but as quick as he is to pay respect to Cuello, he’s also quick to insist he’s more than confident that he’ll take care of his business.
“I don’t take anybody lightly, but it’s a test I’ve already passed,” he says. “I’ve been here before.”