Published: July 29, 2004
This story comes from the UK. It’s already the 30th their.
Ever since Danny Williams knew he had to fight Mike Tyson in the Freedom Hall here tonight and, just maybe, redeem a career that has been crippled by the fear of failure, he has delved into the most vital question of his life. It asks what happens to your mind – and your heart – when you look across the ring and see the glowering, tattooed face of the man who trademarked intimidation.
In his case, he swears it means a lifting of all pressure, a wonderful release. He has nothing to lose except those misgivings which in the past have brought tears to his eyes and sent him running out of the pre-fight dressing-room and into the street, sick with apprehension.
He says: “Tyson’s people have handpicked me as a knock-over opponent. They couldn’t have given me a greater gift. All the pressure has lifted. I’ve felt good since the moment I stepped off the plane here in the home town of my idol Muhammad Ali. I will refuse to be bullied.”
Williams, a 31-year-old from Brixton, watched in awe when Tyson invaded his own parish before the fight with Julius Francis four years ago. He saw his neighbours rise up to greet not a convicted rapist whose presence in England had created huge controversy and debate in Parliament but a hero of the ethnic minority, part warrior, part martyr.
“It was an incredible thing to see, and I’ll never forget it,” Williams was saying earlier this week. “But what my people in Brixton were celebrating, I knew it then and I know it even more now, was an image of somebody, not the reality. They had a certain idea of him that hadn’t been true for a long time. Even then Tyson was so far past his best he was more an opportunity than a threat to anyone who could take their chance.”
So far, so promising for Williams, who has been described by Tyson’s trainer, Freddie Roach, as “maybe not the bravest fighter out there”. However, there was always going to be that moment when Danny Williams met Mike Tyson, not as a fighter to be dissected on film, but a real presence, up close and calling up his last reserves of menace, and when it happened students of the man from south London felt more than a twitch of familiar concern.
Williams and Tyson were sitting a few yards apart as Nelson Dieppa, the World Boxing Organisation junior lightweight champion from Puerto Rico and one of those diminutive Hispanics who can fill a whole banqueting suite with the force of their aggression, was telling the big room that while the heavyweights bring power and the big money it is the little men who show you all the finest points of pugilism. Tyson’s intervention might have been fired from a gun. He said: “Heavyweights bring brain damage.”
For a long moment it was as though Williams had been slapped across his face. He looked at the floor. Then, a few minutes later, he was obliged to stand face to face with Tyson for a swarm of photographers. He smiled and held out his hand. Tyson, his hand unproffered, gave a stony glance and turned away. Williams seemed a little stunned by the brutality of the gesture. He stood utterly alone.
Later, his confidence restored, he was again doing something that his critics say is one of his most striking characteristics. He was talking a good fight, a rational fight, a fight that when you listened to it and saw it unfolding in his mind’s eye might just be possible.
“It’s all to do with how you handle the pressure,” Williams said. “Michael Spinks was a great fighter but he lost to Tyson before he went into the ring. He ran to Tyson, as though he wanted to get it all over with – and of course he was beaten. I’ll absorb his pressure and then I will take the fight to him. He will see that I can fight – and then he will feel old.
“I talked to Frank Bruno and he said that the most important thing for me was to fight my fight and not be intimidated.”
Bruno would have had to say that. In his first fight with Tyson in 1989, he caught the reigning world champion with a left hook in the second round and for a moment there seemed to be the possibility that he might exploit Tyson’s already badly eroded conditioning. Seven years later, in the second fight, it was Bruno’s nerve that was shot through. After a pre-fight build-up filled with bravado, he was a demoralised figure, crossing himself 17 times on his walk from the dressing-room to the Las Vegas ring. “A lot of guys lose to Tyson on the steps of the ring,” says Roach, deadpan.
More advice has come from Francis, who was pulverised in the second round of his fight with Tyson after selling advertising space on the soles of his boots, and Williams’ sparring partner Cliff Etienne, who was left draped on the canvas of the Pyramid Arena in Memphis after just 49 seconds a year last February. A devastating right hand from Tyson poleaxed “the Black Rhino”, who charged out of his corner at the sound of the first bell. “That was the great mistake,” Williams said. “He knows he got it wrong. He came rushing out of his corner – and he lost his chance.”
It was pointed out to the engaging Williams that his advice had come exclusively from men who had been beaten in their own minds before they stepped into the ring and he gave a quick smile and said, “I know, it’s crazy isn’t it?”
He says that he will stick religiously to his own fight plan and his trainer, Jim McDonnell, adds: “I’ve always believed in Danny’s ability and this is his great chance. Mike Tyson was a great fighter but that belongs in the past. Boxing shouldn’t be shocked when Danny Williams graduates here on Friday night.”
But boxing will be shocked, even devastated, because Tyson’s seven-fight campaign to remove $40m (£22m) worth of debt and perhaps again challenge for the world title he first won as a 20-year-old 18 years ago, is the heavyweight division’s last point of genuine public interest.
Williams, by his own admission, is one of boxing’s most dogged underachievers. It is not that he trembles before the challenge of boxing, or that he is untalented. The problem is the unshakeable insecurities of his own nature. “I want to win so badly,” he says, “that the tears can come while I’m driving the car. It is not about fear in the normal sense. The fear is only of failure.”
Yet it is also true that his lack of appetite for boxing as a teenager once required his father, Augustus, to force him into the gym. One of his most aggressive performances came in Madison Square Garden in 1997, when he knocked out Derek Amos in the fourth round after exploding into the most concentrated fury of his career.
Amos, ahead and confident, had begun to bait his opponent. Three years later, question marks against Williams’ courage were removed when he defeated Mark Potter, one-handed, after dislocating his right shoulder. His handlers, and his supporters, begged him to quit, but he worked his jab and delivered a crushing left hand in the sixth round.
Contrasting with those heroics, he threw away the British title earlier this year against Michael Sprott in an eccentric performance which, however, was still adjudged by some critics to have been harshly scored. Now, he says he will seize the greatest moment of his career and reward the unprecedented trip of his mother, Beverley, who normally only watches her son on video when she knows he has won. “She has shown a lot of bottle in coming over,” Williams says.
His wife, Zoe, remains in London, with his daughters Nubiah and Maliajh. Since leaving for training camp in Brooklyn and Long Island, he has made the occasional call home. “I’ve been in the tunnel, fighting for a better future for all of us and I just call home every few days to see that everything is all right.”
Reassurance will be less available tonight, you have to believe. “I’ll break him down and put him away,” says Tyson. Trainer Roach agrees: “I would like it to go at least four or five rounds, but we’re not going to carry Williams. We do need some activity. We need some rounds in the ring to make real progress towards the goal of winning back the title. I’ve told Mike he’s got to use the jab. He could go 10 rounds if necessary. He’s done the road work and the sparring and he is in much better condition than when he blew away Etienne.”
Williams insists that if the fight goes beyond four rounds it belongs to him. A harsher reality is hard to avoid. It is that in essence the fight will be over before the first bell. Formalities will take a little longer – but no more than three rounds.
Tyson, no doubt, is a planet away from what he was, but he remains something that all instinct says Danny Williams can never be. Williams, whose record of 31 wins and three defeats shows no opponent who could have profitably dreamed of sharing a ring with the man he faces tonight, cries before fights. Tyson still paws the ground.
By James Lawton