Thirty-five years ago today a crime occurred. It went largely unnoticed outside the world of boxing, but that doesn’t change the fact that it happened. Or that nothing has ever been done about it. Of course there’s nothing extraordinary about this. Anyone who has followed the fight game for any length of time learns early on that the boxing ring is as much a place of heartbreak, disgrace and injustice as it is where glory and victory happen. Not that one ever really gets used to it.
Carl Williams is dead. Stricken with esophageal cancer, he died in 2013 in Valhalla, New York, sad news to fight fans who still recall the 1980’s and a heavyweight division that was largely ridiculed at the time but now looks like Murderers’ Row compared to the big men we have today. By just about any standard 53 is young to come to the end of one’s time on this planet, but this was not the only reason to feel regret at the news of the death of Carl “The Truth” Williams when it occurred.
For those old enough to recall his time near the top of the heavyweight division in the 80s and early 90s, Williams’ death brought to mind not merely memories of a game battler mixing it up with the likes of Tim Witherspoon, Mike Weaver and Bert Cooper, but also the bitterness that accompanies a remembered wrong that was never righted. But then, robberies in the boxing ring almost never are.
In 1985, Williams challenged an aging Larry Holmes for the heavyweight title. By this time Holmes had been on his own personal “Bum of the Month” trail for more than two years, avoiding the more dangerous contenders (ie. Greg Page) and facing strictly hand-picked opponents, proverbial tomato cans, whose lack of talent or experience made them easy prey for a gifted champion now in his twilight years.
With the exception of his life-and-death struggle against Witherspoon two years before, the plan had worked beautifully. Holmes, a former sparring partner of Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, still had loads of ring smarts and tenacity, plus one of the best jabs in boxing history, more than enough to handle guys like Marvis Frazier, Scott Frank and David Bey. And, despite his greater height and reach, Williams figured to fit in nicely with the rest of the no-hopers. How could a guy with only sixteen fights on his record compete with one of the great heavyweights in boxing history?
But in front of a prime-time national television audience, Holmes, heavyweight champ since 1978, found himself not in another routine title defense, but instead on the wrong end of a boxing lesson. To everyone’s surprise, the irrepressible Williams out-jabbed the jabber, utilizing his height, reach and youth to take round after round from the champion. The bout was so obviously going the challenger’s way that, with a few rounds still left to go, broadcaster NBC displayed a series of photos from past momentous upsets in ring history such as Braddock vs Baer and Spinks vs Ali.
But then the decision was announced and while the television commentators expressed astonishment, long-time watchers of the fight game were anything but surprised. Williams was supposed to lose; Holmes was supposed to win. And the judges followed the script. We’d seen it many times before and we’ve seen it many times since.
The eighties were arguably the high water mark for boxing in terms of mainstream popularity, certainly the best decade since the 1920’s. Championship fights were regular television fare and that same weekend there was another outrageous decision on the same network when Wilfredo Gomez somehow got the nod after being dominated by Rocky Lockridge. Two suspicious verdicts within 24 hours had boxing fans in an uproar, demanding investigations and inquiries. Sound familiar?
Nothing of substance was done then and nothing has been done in the decades which followed. Bad decisions are now, if anything, even more common and have done incalculable damage to the sport’s image. One of the cynical amusements of following boxing on twitter is counting how many people write variations of the same sentiment between the final bell of a competitive bout and the announcement of the scorecards: “Please, god, let the judges get it right.”
The point here is not to decry yet again the absurdity of a sport incapable of consistently separating winners from losers, but instead to focus for a moment on the human cost of these bad decisions. When the judges get it wrong, they don’t pay a price, but the victimized boxer does. Sometimes it’s crushingly steep. Imagine how different Carl Williams’ career and life would have been had his hand been raised that night in Reno. At the very least he would have been able to cash in on a million dollar rematch with Holmes. That might have helped him avoid the financial difficulties he faced after his time as a fighter ended and he then started up a second career as a security guard.
But more likely is that being the first man to defeat Holmes, by that time an acknowledged heavyweight great, would have led to a string of title bouts, with Williams earning big money. Instead he was conveniently pushed aside after the Holmes match, and while he went on to defeat guys like Jesse Ferguson and Trevor Berbick and eventually received another title shot against Tyson in 1989, he entered those fights not as the man who had schooled “The Easton Assassin,” but instead as the guy with the bad luck to lose a disputed decision to him. Big difference.
The simple fact is Williams’ whole life would have been different had the correct verdict been rendered and he became heavyweight champion of the world. And this is what we should think about each and every time the judges get it wrong. Not just about how the fans get cheated by bogus decisions or how these incidents damage the integrity of the sport. We should also reflect on how these injustices impact human lives.
Few remember Dave Tiberi but in 1992 he soundly defeated middleweight champ James Toney on national television. The verdict went to Toney. Commentator Alex Wallau called it “the most disgusting decision I’ve ever seen.” Tiberi never fought again. Or consider how different Axel Schulz’s life would be today had he been given the verdict he deserved over heavyweight champion George Foreman in 1995. More recently, Erislandy Lara, Gabriel Campillo, Steve Cunningham, Tyson Cave and Mauricio Herrera would all have higher profiles and fatter wallets had the judges done their jobs. And consider all those Olympic boxing hopefuls whose hearts and dreams were broken by either incompetence or corruption. This has got to stop. But it almost certainly won’t.
For all I know, Carl Williams had a satisfying and fulfilling life after his boxing career ended; I know next to nothing of his personal circumstances. But in his New York Times obituary his sister is quoted as saying that he “never really got over losing that fight to Holmes.”
That’s because he didn’t lose it. He won it. But then he was robbed. And there still exists no mechanism by which to right such wrongs.
There is no greater shame in the sport of boxing than this: men and women sacrifice themselves, work and train and develop their skill, perform to the best of their abilities and actually risk their lives in the process. And then the rest of us can’t even be bothered to ensure that their contests are properly officiated and fairly judged. We should never forget the injustice that occurred to Carl Williams. And we should find a way to finally put an end to what happened to him.
— Michael Carbert