Derek ‘Sweet D’ Williams ponders sparring Mike Tyson, Andrew Golota, and Jerry Cooney and the mindset required to succeed in a dangerous environment
It seemed to me in October 1997 that the heavyweight division had been restored to normal. Lennox Lewis And the Evander Holyfield They were champions again. They beat Oliver McCall, Mike Tyson and Michael Moore among themselves to emerge as the dominant heavy force in the world. The only real threat remaining to their supremacy was Riddick Bowe, and he had been fortunate to escape with two disqualification victories against Andrew Golota the previous year. The “Big Daddy” seemed to be completely off the hook in the rematch, being hit the whole time and sustaining permanent damage. He wouldn’t fight again for another 18 years.
But what about Julota? His reward for his moralistic “ victory ” was a shot at Lewis and a bewildering prospect for the heavyweight superstar. In August 1997 I got a call from Lou Duva’s representatives to explore if I was interested in helping Golota prepare for his confrontation with Louis. I was 32 years old and struggled with early calls to retire, but I definitely hadn’t seen myself as a sparring partner.
Ironically, I spent the summer of 1997 in the best condition of my life, preparing to revive my career. Seizing the opportunity to compete with Golota is a new importance to me in the top fifteen, not a job or a paycheck. I answered the call!
By the time I joined the Golota Camp in Vero Beach, Florida, it was already being marketed as a natural successor to Lewis and Holyfield. The attractiveness of a six-foot-four-inch white European man who could rival his black elite counterparts, with a bit of an aversion to the dark arts of sport, was just too sexy to sell too much. There was an element of Ivan Drago in the marketing of Golota: an Eastern European monster ravaged by cutting the crew, coming to America to wreak havoc and tear the heavyweight title away from Mecca. Golota looked like a fight or two out of the big time.
We had a global company in camp in the form of a fearsome one, David Toa. He just lost an incredible fight to Ike Ibeabuchi, where they got together to throw the most punches ever in a heavyweight fight. He was there to once again get into the mix of things, and sparring with a high-ranking competitor like Golota was akin to having a real fight at that point. I understood early on that we were all there to stand up for each other, as competitors. There was no salary relationship between master and employee, only direct war. Each debate session was a contest of skill, will and strength.
I was baptized with the nickname “pressure cooker” by onlookers in our sparring sessions, apparently because of the “heat” I brought into every session with Julota. I was more aggressive than usual in those sessions because I didn’t really take Jolota. His energy was dark and discrete. He is often surrounded in gym sections, interacting only with a gang of men from Poland. He communicated mainly through nods and grunts. I tried hard to soften up on Lewis, who didn’t need help derailing the hype train Julota in one brutal run.
My prize for this camp was knowing that I could still participate in a world-class competition and be signed by the late, great Lou Duva.
After that, I thought I’d taken my talents on the road for a large part of my career. I’ve been a boxer in America nine times and spent years preparing there. I really believed that the level of sparring and boxing learning that could be discovered there just couldn’t get it in the UK. It also helped me bridge the gap between some of my local competitors, who had greater promotional opportunities than me, but who were sometimes not exposed to the harsh environment and competitiveness of American boxing halls. It was all about getting an edge.
Every trip was different. Another location, new cultures of learning, new gym, new team, sparring partners and coaches. To succeed there requires constant tweaking of your psychological and physical approach. Example: Jerry Coney defended his fight against George Foreman. She’s had advantages in youth, athletics and fighting readiness that Jerry has been out of the ring for more than two years, and he’s played that way throughout most of the camp with his measure. Jerry was so polite and humble that my respect for the process and for him was absolute. He also made sure that there was no tension during our sessions. I was learning and did not prove myself.
On the other hand, working with someone like Mike Tyson, with whom I had a quarrel a few months before Connie, was the complete opposite. It was like an organized street fight, a fight not to be shattered. I was in his camp to defend his title against Carl Williams “The Truth” and it was like something I’d never seen before. Tyson was at the end of his brutal 1986-89 career that captivated the world. Intimidation was a tool for him like his speed and power. Once activated at that gym in The Trump Plaza, New Jersey, he seemed to be sleeping his competing partners, coaches and the public alike.
Many sparring partners only hoped that they would survive or not be seriously harmed. On the contrary, I was really excited by the chance I had to prove that I endure the best of the world and against the beast of all monsters. I don’t usually call the gym violent even if boxing often is that way, but Tyson did violence against most men who came to duel at the end of five weeks and a revolving door for fallen sparring partners, only Greg Page and I remained. We didn’t just survive. We’ve got Tyson’s respect. Violence begets violence.
Sparring Tyson gave me a taste of wanting to travel and train with fighters who were potential competitors and some of the best heavyweights in the world. There have been personal sacrifices every time I travel to these places, but I have constantly learned, taking some of my strengths and weaknesses to the next stage.
There weren’t as many boxers from the UK who ventured abroad to train and fight in the 1980s and 1990s like there is now. Joe Egan joined Tyson’s training camp in the Catskill Mountains and fought many battles in the United States, rebuilding his reputation there and feuding with Tyson before that. But the criticism that was being heard a lot was that the British Boxers were much softer and more enthusiastic; They were rough and straightforward as amateurs, and are mainly easy choices for the more subtle and comfortable “American style”. Of course, there have been better fighters in America, but I attribute that to the prevalence of boxers there and the competitiveness of the amateur system. Not forgetting, for some there was a basic need to fight: to survive. The sport was truly a way out and there’s no question that gutter has built many more champions than any franchise.
When I quarreled in the gyms of America, I was always pleased to see initial expressions of self-confidence and cynicism transform into expressions of shock and disorientation, as they slowly realized that there were British fighters who could relax, use timing, slip, slide, and get the best of their own. I remember young Errol Christi being Thomas Hearn’s main partner in his fight against Roberto Duran in 1984 and pushing him hard despite his inexperience. Hearns coach, Emmanuel Steward, raised how “ natural and relaxed ” Christie was and described him as the most talented boxer he had worked with – up until that point – which are some observations when thinking about what Hearns achieved under his tutelage. The steward’s admiration led Kristi to fill in a spot on the bottom card of the Hearns-Doran show and wear the iconic red and gold Kronek colors.
Sometimes in boxing, turning promotional frustrations in your home country into an opportunity to go far and work your way to success is the only real option on the table. It is not the route most people choose to travel, but it is a sign of naked ambition, extreme self-confidence. You are betting yourself!
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