Former British, Commonwealth, and European heavyweight champion Derek Williams had some career – and not all of it played out on the world stage. Famously sparring a peak Mike Tyson, “Sweet D” also sparred Larry Holmes, Gerry Cooney, Frank Bruno, and others. Trained for a while by the great Angelo Dundee, Williams had a short amateur career, and he was very much fending for himself as he began his pro career.
Later, having proven himself, Williams got some big-name players backing him. But early on, it was Williams and his 6’5” frame alone, this along with his ability at boxing, punching, and navigating his way across the ring that saw him through.
Here, the 58-year-old who now devotes a good amount of his time to motivational speaking, kindly recalls moments from his career for the benefit of ESB readers:
Q: Thanks so much for speaking with Eastside Boxing. I, of course, remember you back in the day, as do the fans – there were a lot of UK heavyweights back then, late ’80s and early ’90s.
Derek Williams: “Yeah, there were a lot of heavyweights. I was talking about it yesterday. There were a lot of good heavyweights in the ’90s,’ where I think that anyone in the top-10 or top-20 could be a world champion today. I know I could be a bit biased, but I do think that.”
Q: I agree with you. It was a great era; there was you, Lennon Lewis, Gary Mason, and Bruno.
D.W: “There was a few guys in England alone. You had Lennox, who was an outstanding fighter. Then you had Frank Bruno, me, Gary Mason, Horace Notice….all guys who could handle themselves. With me, I stay around boxing now, advising guys, and I’ve got the column with Boxing News. I also write freelance for other papers and magazines. For me, it’s about writing the truth, not just things to please people. And sometimes the truth hurts.”
Q: Of course, and as you know, there’s a lot of controversial stuff going on right now, with failed drugs tests and things like that. But that’s a whole other interview!
D.W: “Yeah. You think about it, the problem we have with boxing is, there’s no world governing body. You have the various governing bodies that put the world titles on. But there’s no world governing body. So people will do their own thing. You know, if someone ….I dunno, the PEDS, for instance. If someone abuses that, they can get banned for six months and they’re back in boxing again. Or they will go fight for another organisation and there’s no problem. We need to stamp out those things, and boxing needs more order. But until then, it’s gonna be running like a free for all. If they don’t like it, they just set up a new governing body.”
Q: You’re so right. But let’s talk about your great career! You only had a dozen amateur fights?
D.W: “ I had ten amateur fights. That’s the whole thing….I came up with ten amateur fights, I never had no backing behind me. I never had no big promoter or training team behind me, or sponsor. What I had was desire. I loved watching the old [fight] tapes – George Foreman, Muhammad Ali. I watched those guys for a long time, learning, and I inherited the belief. And this is what I tell people: you can achieve a goal. Because to become European champion, and the Commonwealth champion and the British champion, and to become a top-10 fighter in the world, without any backing from anyone, that says a lot. Because I was fighting at a time when you had to be able to fight to get into it.”
Q: Yours was a rapid progress, too…. You beat Hughroy Currie to become three-belt champ in, what, your 15th fight?
D.W: “That was my 14th fight.”
Q: Wow. And you’re right, fighters like Bruno and Mason, they had people like Terry Lawless and Mickey Duff looking after them….
D.W: “In the end, after becoming champion, I started getting promoted by those guys. But up until that point, I was just trying to get through. But the key is, Jim, you have the belief and train, and have a bit of luck and talent. But I tell people, I came up without complaining that I had no people behind me, no-one pushing me. So for me to mix at that level, to come out of the game, to be able to still communicate and correspond with people…..I do a lot of talks now, motivational talks. The whole thing is, I enjoyed my boxing career, I tried not to get hurt. Would I do anything different? I don’t think I would. My journey was my journey. I came out okay. Some of the guys I see, at meetings of fighters, I see some from my time that are dishevelled and hurt, and unable to talk. And I feel sorry for them. A lot of them were abused. People take advantage of boxers, if you don’t know. Sometimes they are over-matched, or they would fight at the last minute, just to save a promoter. And a lot of them, they didn’t get great money. If you’re not fighting on the main event, then there’s no great money. It wasn’t great. I broke that mould, by becoming a champion and being able to demand what I wanted.”
Q: Nothing was given to you, that’s for sure. Looking at your record, you fought a whole lot of names. Your win over a dangerous Jimmy Thunder was a good win for you….
D.W: “I remember those fights, where I was the outside guy coming in with no-one backing me. I went across to the US, to Mississippi, for one example, knocking down [Jose] Ribalta (this was in the 1993 ‘Peoples’ Choice Heavyweight Tournament’). Let me ask, you now, Jim, how is it that I knocked the guy down three times in a three-round fight, but he won (on points)!?”
Q: That was crazy, I remember that tournament….
D.W: “So I looked at that, right, I looked at guys that I beat…. When I fought Bert Cooper, Bert Cooper was looking like a mess and the referee was about to stop the fight, yet he got the decision (laughs). So I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m the away fighter, fighting in America.’ But that happens, and I don’t cry about it. No doubt, if you don’t have the right people looking out for you, you’re going to struggle. I think I got a break pushing through, because there weren’t that many heavyweights who could box and punch. If you could box as well as punch, you had a chance of beating the big, ponderous heavyweights, and I got through by that.”
Q: You could do both, and some would say you were stuck between two styles, that of boxer and big puncher. Is that fair?
D.W: “Yeah, I was a little. I liked the idea of boxing as entertainment, punching. I aways wanted to put on a show.”
Q: How was it you got to work with Angelo Dundee, I think for the Lennox fight?
D.W: “I’d been training in New York, some years before, and I met Angelo. He liked talking to me and he liked my style, so he came onboard. And I liked him being onboard. He was like a psychologist.”
Q: What would you say are the best things he taught you?
D.W: “What he did show me, was that you could win! He always told you to keep the right attitude, he was always motivating you, that’s his key. I do that with guys now; I never tell guys that they can’t do it. I always tell them they can do it if they put their mind to it. And don’t forget that he’s come from working with guys like Muhammad Ali. So just to be in his presence, it was great to hear how to overcome obstacles and challenges.”
Q: And famously, you sparred a lot of rounds with a peak Mike Tyson. And he couldn’t do anything to you!
D.W: “Mike, well, Mike (laughs)…. he never liked guys who could jab and move, and that’s what I could do, I could jab and move. So, Mike, he tried to set me up with shots, but I was smart enough to know now to stay around and get tagged by him! Mike was “Iron Mike” at the time. But you know, a lot of guys get beaten up in sparring. A lot of guys who get injured in boxing; it happens in sparring. Hard, hard sparring sessions that take a lot out of you. My mind has never been to go and get into gym wars, because gym wars so ruin a lot of guys. Gym wars…..you go to Philadelphia, you’d see some amazing fights, gym fights, but those guys never make it out of the gym. Fighting out of The Blue Horizon or wherever, a lot of them end up having too many wars in the gym. To me, boxing is about being able to protect yourself, move you head, protect your head.”
Q: Did you also spar Larry Holmes and Gerry Cooney?
D.W: “Yeah. I never had an amateur career, as I said. But what I did was, I went to any gym, I took it upon myself to really learn the game. I used to read the old Ring Magazine, and KO Magazine. They would have stories of fighters travelling around, sparring with everyone. The great Larry Holmes, everyone, they sparred with everyone, to learn the game. I tried to adopt that into my programme – to learn and spar. Even over here, I went and sparred Bruno, everyone, I travelled around. I travelled around New York, Philadelphia, everywhere, to spar and to learn. I practised what I preached – I went out there to learn and to work in an effort to become a champion, and it worked. Thankfully.”
Q: What did Larry Holmes think of your jab? He had perhaps the greatest jab in heavyweight history!
D.W: “Larry Holmes, he came out with me [on the ring walk], and after the fight [with Ribalta], he thought I won that fight as well. In my head, I was thinking, ‘wow, Larry Holmes is talking with me!’ He stayed with me in the dressing room after, and I went to go to Philadelphia to train after, because of his advice. He’s one of the greatest heavyweights ever.”
Q: I’ve got to ask you about the two utterly bizarre fights you had in France with Jean-Maurice Chanet. There was a massive riot after one of those two fights – was it the first or the second fight?
D.W: “The riot was the second fight. When you go to someone’s backyard to fight, you never know what’s in place. I went over as the [European] champion, but with no real protection. You know, boxing is a funny game. You have to be careful where you eat, if anyone can spike your drink. You never know. So we took our own team, our own chef, our own security team, for travelling around, you know? I don’t like to accuse anyone, but if you remember, I blew this guy away in the first minute-and-a-half. The referee was about to stop the fight. But he let the fight go on, to give the crowd a round. And the difference between one round and two rounds [for me] was like night and day. I just had no more desire to fight. It was just strange. I don’t know what happened.”
Fans can read Derek’s regular column over at UK Boxing News website.