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West Philly’s Julian Williams, once homeless, became a boxing champion for himself, by himself

Williams won the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association light-middleweight titles in May. He is expected to defend his titles in January in Philadelphia.

At the Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym in West Philadelphia, Julian Williams, center, who is the light-middleweight boxing champion, trains with Stephen Edwards. A West Philly street kid, he began boxing as a 12-year-old
At the Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym in West Philadelphia, Julian Williams, center, who is the light-middleweight boxing champion, trains with Stephen Edwards. A West Philly street kid, he began boxing as a 12-year-oldRead moreMICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

As he loped up the steps to a second-floor West Philadelphia gym that appeared to have been transported there from the 1940s, Julian Williams’ footsteps sounded like fists tapping a punching bag.

The bearded boxer who holds the unified light-middleweight (154 pounds) title was alone for this routine training session at Shuler’s Gym. There was no one to park his car outside on tiny Brooklyn Street. No champion’s entourage. Nobody to tote his equipment or stroke his ego.

That’s how the West Philly native prefers it. To paraphrase Paul Simon, he is J-Rock, he is an island. He has learned to draw strength from solitude. As a youth, Williams’ mother battled substance abuse, his father was in prison. The youngster lived alone for a time in a Roosevelt Boulevard homeless shelter, commuting back and forth to school across the city, sometimes falling asleep on the Frankford El.

He survived, locating the strength and discipline inside himself, by himself. And now that he’s a successful professional boxer, nothing has changed.

“Ten dollars is worth more than a hundred pennies,” Williams said before a recent training session. “Less is more. I don’t need a bunch of people around me. I’ve learned from other people’s mistakes. I’ve seen fighters – the ones that didn’t make it – and they’d have 15 million people around them. Then as soon as one thing goes wrong, all the people are gone. I like to keep my circle tight.

“Everybody that’s on my team has a job. My co-trainer. My head trainer. My cut man. Nobody’s holding my bag. Nobody’s holding my belts. Nobody’s rubbing my shoulders. Nobody’s kissing my ass.”

Williams is 27-1-1 with 16 knockouts and one no-decision in 30 professional fights. Able to both brawl with or out-technique an opponent, he is a classic Philadelphia fighter. He won the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Association titles last May 11, scoring a unanimous decision over Jarrett Hurd in a spectacular fight in Fairfax, Va. Now he’s scheduled to defend on Jan. 18 at Temple’s Liacouras Center, though he’s still awaiting the identity of the opponent for what will be his first major Philadelphia bout.

Whoever that fighter is, he’ll be facing someone who, after 17 years of boxing, believes he’s at his peak.

“I’m 29, right there in my prime,” Williams said. “I just want to stay as healthy as possible and see how long this prime thing will last. I haven’t had any serious injuries. Last June I had surgery – arthroscopic – to take care of some buildup in my elbow. That’s about it.”

His Philadelphia fight will be nationally televised on either Fox or Showtime, but, according to trainer Stephen Edwards, that spotlight will neither alter Williams determination nor distract his focus.

“He can deal with whatever they throw at him,” said Williams. “He doesn’t get real emotional. J-Rock can shut everything out of his world. He’s always had a maturity. When he was in that shelter, his age said one thing, but he was already a man.”

'Homeless was my normal’

The Kirkbride Shelter was located in an old Boulevard motel. Williams was 12 when he was sent there and determined that, despite the distance, he was going to Shoemaker Middle School – and later Overbrook High – in his old West Philly neighborhood.

“I had to get up really early,” he said. “I’d catch the R bus to the El in Frankford. I’d get off at 56th Street and catch the G bus. It was tough. It took an hour and a half each way. The mornings weren’t so bad. But coming back at night, I’d be tired and I fell asleep a couple of times on the El. Sometimes you’d wake up and you’d be going back toward where you started.”

Not surprisingly, the shelter experience toughened him. During all the days and long nights he spent there, Williams said, he never once cried.

“Being homeless was my normal,” he said. “It wasn’t great but I know a lot of people who have gone through worse.”

Around that time, he got a job at a boxing gym and soon took up the sport. He discovered that he liked the combativeness. By the time he was 20, he was fighting as a top-level amateur. He compiled a record of 77-10 but, while once ranked fifth nationally in his weight class, was never an Olympic contender.

“I never won a national tournament,” he said.

Edwards said the amateur Williams lacked consistency, a shortcoming the fighter corrected when his focus hardened and he started fighting to support himself.

He was unbeaten, with one draw, as a pro when in 2013 he defeated former world champ Joachim Alcine. Williams’ only loss came three years later to IBF champ Jermall Charlo, a fifth-round TKO.

Fighter’s brain

Technically, in the byzantine world of boxing, he holds the World Boxing Association and International Boxing Federation belts. He’d like, of course, to capture the other two – the World Boxing Council and World Boxing Organization.

He hopes to fight into his mid-30s and move up a weight class or two, as long as he stays free of the fog that sometimes descends on a fighter’s brain. If that should ever change, the father of two daughters – 9-month-old Jasrah and 4-year-old Zara -- won’t hesitate to walk away.

“It’s definitely a tough sport, but I don’t really take too much punishment,” he said. “I know a lot of fighters who had long amateur and pro careers and are fine. I think it depends on who you are, how you take care of yourself outside the ring. But I have a family that I’ve got to take care of, so my health does come first.”

Williams lives in Blackwood now but does most of his training in Philadelphia. When not preparing for a fight, he does early-morning road work at Temple a few times a week. In the afternoon, he heads to the gym where he’ll sometimes box six or seven rounds to stay sharp and, more importantly, trim.

“I don’t want to get too far out of shape with my weight,” he said. “Training camp is hard and you don’t want to have to use it to make weight. So I have to maintain weight between fights, which is really hard. At 5-11, I’m not the smallest 154-pounder in the world. And as you get older, it gets harder to get the weight off. That’s a part of being a professional. It’s not the worst thing in the world.”

The goal, he said, is to enter every fight with a fit body and a clear head. And if things get complicated in the course of a fight, he retreats to simplicity.

“But sometimes fights aren’t real simple,” he said. “So I just try to keep to my fundamentals as far as boxing is concerned.

“And I’ve found that philosophy works pretty well in life too.”