By BERNARD FERNANDEZ
They are, or were, superbly conditioned athletes, adept at moving quickly, hitting hard and taking risks. For some, the risk-taking part is merely an occupational hazard, part of a job description that by definition entails some degree of personal peril. For others, those who know the exhilaration of staring into the face of disaster and making it blink, it might be easy to feel as if they are indestructible, somehow impervious to the possibility of instant tragedy. Courting danger, conquering one’s fear in the process, can almost be an aphrodisiac. Hurtling down a highway at a high rate of speed provides the kind of rush that not even participation in the most physically challenging of sports can furnish.
Boxers and motorcycles have always gone together, like a right cross off a left jab. But there is often a high price to be paid for the attraction certain fighters have for land rockets that offer them scant protection from the kind of horrific collisions that make bikers 25 times more likely to suffer death or serious injury than those involved in car crashes.
All of which makes former two-time world champion Paul “The Punisher” Williams one of those fortunate enough to have been involved in such a motorcycle accident and live to tell about it. Just a week after signing for an HBO Pay Per View fight with Canelo Alvarez that, had he won, might have made him incredibly rich and a certifiable superstar, Williams was in Atlanta, where he was to serve as best man at his brother Leon’s wedding. The date was May 27, 2012.
But Williams, who was more accustomed to dishing out punishment than receiving it in the ring, never made it to the nuptials. Driving a modified Suzuki 1300 Hayabusa, a recent gift to himself, Williams was going too fast (an estimated 75 mph) when he swerved up a steep roadside embankment to avoid a collision and was catapulted 60 feet into the air. His body landed with such force that his spinal cord was severely damaged, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Williams was later told by workers at Kennestone Hospital in Marietta, Ga., where he arrived by ambulance, that there had been three motorcycle accidents in the Atlanta metropolitan area that weekend, and that he was the only rider among them who had survived.
Initially clinging to the hope that he could be rehabilitated to a point where he could resume his boxing career, Williams understandably slipped into periods of depression when it became obvious that he would forever be confined to a wheelchair. But the Aiken, S.C., native is an optimist by nature, and he makes his much-anticipated return to the fight game, as a trainer, on Friday night at the Buffalo Run Casino in Miami, Okla., when his protégé, super welterweight Justin DeLoach (13-1, 7 KOs), takes on Dillon Cook (16-0, 6 KOs) in the opening eight-round bout of a ShoBox: The New Generation quadrupleheader, the 10-round main event of which pits super lightweight knockout artist Regis “Rolugarou” Prograis (16-0, 13 KOs) against Aaron “The Jewel” Herrera (29-4-1, 18 KOs).
“What’s happened has happened,” Williams said of his altered circumstances. “It is what it is. This is my first time stepping back into the world. I love boxing.
“What I don’t want to see is a fighter getting hurt. This is a hard sport. I know when I was in there I was always going for broke. But I want Justin – all fighters, actually – to come out of the ring the same way they came in. Win or lose, I don’t want to see anybody get hurt.”
But despite his fervent hope that those in his potentially damaging profession remain safe inside the ropes, there is a part of “The Punisher” that will always regret that he can never again know the joy of taking to the open road on his supercharged motorcycle and feeling the wind in his face. Like the character played by Tom Cruise in Top Gun, he wistfully still feels the need for speed, like other adrenaline junkies who weigh the benefits of that feeling of freedom against the sobering statistics and decide that the risk is worth taking.
“There’s nothing like being on a bike and it’s just you and the road,” Williams told writer Jason Langendorf of Vice Sports for an article that was posted in January 2015, 32 months after the accident that forever changed his life. “Peaceful. That was some of the best time, clearing my head. The fun. It’s a whole different world.
“Of course, you’ve got people who say, `Oh, he’s stupid. He should’ve never got on that bike.’ Hey, you know me. I don’t have no regrets. I don’t mean to be selfish, but if I had my legs again, I’d bike to the house right now.”
The allure of motorcycles to the adventurous and those who reject conformity is, of course, a matter of long-standing. The silver screen has romanticized the image of the biker as rebel. Think of a leather-jacketed Marlon Brandon in The Wild One, Peter Fonda in Easy Rider, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, Cruise as hotshot jet fighter pilot “Maverick” in Top Gun. It is one of the reasons milquetoast CPAs and librarians in Las Vegas pack the Harley-Davidson apparel store on the Strip, loading up on cool-looking gear, whether or not they actually ride bikes, that allows them to channel their inner Brando. It is also the reason thousands of spectators were drawn to the daredevil antics of the late Evel Knievel, who used to jump his chopper over long rows of parked buses and 18-wheelers. Sometimes he even made it all the way over. And when he didn’t … well, seeing him bounce off pavement like a rag doll on failed attempts was part of the show, too. We could not turn away because the constant possibility of death or grievous injury was as much of a reason for watching as Knievel’s chances for actually pulling off feats that seemed nearly impossible.
Williams is hardly the first fighter or noted athlete to have risked so much on a motorcycle, and lost, nor will he be the last. Perhaps the most notable example in recent years is former IBF super featherweight and WBC lightweight champion Diego “Chico” Corrales, winner of perhaps the most spectacularly action-packed fight of the 21st century, on May 7, 2005, at Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay, in which he somehow rallied from two 10th-round knockdowns at the hands of Jose Luis Castillo to win by a stoppage in the very round in which he appeared to be all but finished.
“You can vote now,” Gary Shaw, Corrales’ promoter, excitedly said at the postfight press conference after his guy had staged the comeback to end all comebacks. “This is Fight of the Year, Fight of Next Year, Fight of the Decade. I don’t believe you’ll ever see anything like this again.”
Added Joe Goossen, Corrales’ trainer: “In my 35 years (in boxing), that was the greatest fight I’ve ever seen.”
Exactly two years to the day after registering the victory that forever shall be the cornerstone of his boxing legacy, Corrales died on a Las Vegas highway when the 29-year-old, depressed over a downturn in his fistic fortunes and aboard his newly purchased racing bike, ran into the back of a car and was then struck by another from behind. Corrales – who police said had been “traveling at a high rate of speed,” estimated at 100 mph – was pronounced dead at the scene. The driver of one of the two cars involved sustained minor injuries.
“The guy was a true warrior. Simply by the way he fought he should be in the (International Boxing) Hall of Fame,” a somber Shaw said of Corrales, a father of five, who left behind a wife who was six months pregnant. “Believe me, if he could’ve got off that cold pavement, he would.”
Ironically, Corrales had discussed his motorcycle riding the previous summer in a Las Vegas Review-Journal story.
“I’m only young once and, unless someone hasn’t told me something yet, I only get to live once,” he said. “If I couldn’t do this stuff now, stuff I always wanted to do, I would never get a chance to do it.”
Corrales’ cautionary tale is very similar to that of heavyweight Young Stribling, a 1996 inductee into the IBHOF who posted a 224-13-14 record, with 129 victories inside the distance, in a career that spanned from 1921 to ’33. Sometimes criticized for being overly cautious in the ring, Stribling was famously reckless outside of it. He was obsessed at traveling at breakneck speeds, whether it was behind the wheel of a car or on a motorcycle. But it was on his bike that Stribling’s life was cut short, at 28, when he was involved in a terrible crash that left him with internal injuries that ultimately proved fatal. He was rushed to a hospital in Macon, Ga., where he died on Oct. 3, 1933.
The list of fighters killed or seriously injured in motorcycle-related accidents has continued to mount. Former WBO light heavyweight champion Julio Cesar Gonzalez, 35, was killed in a motorbike accident in Mexico on March 10, 2012, following a hit-and-run involving a drunk driver. Australian women’s amateur titlist Donna Pepper was 30 when she died in a crash on Feb. 13, 2012, in Cambodia while on a five-month Asian holiday. Former WBC super middleweight champ Anthony Dirrell, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2006, not only overcame cancer but a 2012 motorcycle crash that resulted in a broken leg and a four-hour surgical procedure to repair the damage. Dirrell again was able to resume his career and is set to take on Caleb Truax on April 29 at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.
The Philadelphia metropolitan area has been especially hard-hit by fatal incidents involving fighters on motorcycles. Middleweight contender James “Black Gold” Shuler was only 26 when, on March 20, 1986, his red Kawasaki collided with a tractor-trailer and he died at the scene. Undefeated light heavyweight prospect Andre “Thee” Prophet – who will be posthumously inducted into the Pennsylvania Boxing Hall of Fame on May 15 was even younger, 20, when he and a woman companion, 19-year-old Tres Kelly, both succumbed from massive injuries suffered on Aug. 13, 1988, when the borrowed bike Prophet was driving was struck by a hit-and-run driver. Former super middleweight contender Tony “The Punching Postman” Thornton, of Glassboro, N.J., who fought three times for world titles with losses to Chris Eubank, James Toney and Roy Jones Jr., was retired and 49 when he died on Sept. 10, 2009, 11 days after he was involved in a bad collision.
But boxing is not the only sport, or occupation, that has lost members to motorcycle accidents. Baltimore Ravens cornerback Tray Walker, 23, died on March 18 of this year, the day after he was critically injured in a dirt bike crash in Liberty City, Fla. Other famous people who met their end on cycles include T.E. Lawrence, better known as “Lawrence of Arabia,” rock star Duane Allman and 69-year-old retired astronaut Pete Conrad, the third person to walk on the moon.
It should be stipulated here that hundreds of thousands of individuals drive or ride safely on motorcycles, which can be legally operated in every state and throughout the world. There also are no laws prohibiting usage of tobacco products and alcoholic beverages by those who meet age requirements, or for those who choose to join the military, skydive, swim in the ocean with sharks and barracudas or bungee-jump off high bridges. Acceptance of risk is a part of everyday life, and there can be no faulting those who voluntarily enter the danger zone if they are cognizant of the possible consequences.
The chips always fall where they may.
“I know I can’t change time, but I do think about that day (of his accident),” said Williams in an interview with Joseph Santoliquito of The Ring magazine in January 2015. “What if I was going a little slower? What if that car in front of me wasn’t there? There’s a million of the, all of those `What ifs.’ I’ve seen both worlds, being a world champion and now being paralyzed.
“If I could change time, I would. But I can’t, so I have to deal with it. If I wasn’t able to deal with it, I probably would have committed suicide by now or would be angry and depressed all of the time.
“I have my bad days and my good days. I do feel there are two sides of me: who I was and who I am. I had all this money, all this fame, I was on top of the world. Everyone loved me.”
Williams received the Bill Crawford Award for Courage in Overcoming Adversity at the 89th annual Boxing Writers Association of America Awards Dinner in Las Vegas in 2014, at which time he received a standing ovation and the realization that, while he had lost so much, he had not lost everything.