I once considered myself a boxing historian first, and a fan second. This was especially true in the 1980s, when Muhammad Ali wound down, Mike Tyson fired up, and Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns and Roberto Duran were dominating the various middleweight-plus and minus divisions.
In reality, I knew the sport from a distance, and nowhere near as well as I thought. I was reminded of that fact last weekend when the city of Mansfield honored Prince Charles Williams with his own street name -- something long overdue.
GALLERY: Prince Charles Williams Street Dedication
More than 100 people gathered at the New Community Temple Church of God in Christ on Sunday for the dedication of Prince Charles Williams Street. The section of Harker Street between Springmill Street and Bowman Street was renamed after Williams, the Mansfield boxer and former International Boxing Federation world champ. (photos by Curt Conrad, staff reporter)
My ignorance crystallized upon accepting a job at the News Journal in the summer of 1990. I knew Mansfield's Prince Charles Williams was the world light heavyweight champion, but had never seen him in action. At the time, Williams, Hearns, Virgil Hill, Iran Barkley and others were swapping belts in the wake of Michael Spinks moving up to become heavyweight champion.
No one could unite the various alphabet soup titles in the division he left behind. Hearns was the big name, and to get the most lucrative fights he would bob up and down in class for the biggest payday, where Leonard, Hagler and Duran were doing the same thing.
The landscape was unsettled to say the least, but Williams was in the thick of it. True boxing fans knew his abilities, and The Ring magazine just offered a fine retrospective piece on him in May.
Prince became champion by upsetting Bobby Czyz in 1987, a fight with a twist at the end. I was in college at the time, but watched the bout several years later with the Mansfielder.
He was knocked down in the second round and again in the third. But the tide slowly turned and Czyz, best known for being a member of the genius society Mensa, discovered what future foes would learn: Williams had raw courage and determination in abundance.
Finally, Czyz could take no more and didn't answer the bell after the ninth round. The belt would belong to Williams for the next 5 1/2 years.
The network TV guys rushed into the ring to interview Prince, then interviewed Czyz. At that point, Williams came out of his fog and asked his corner why Czyz was being interviewed, "I won the fight!" His corner told Prince he had already been interviewed. He just didn't remember it -- and he didn't.
Unfortunately, although he was a champion, Prince was unable to bust through that celebrity group for one of those multi-million-dollar paydays. The reason became quite clear the first time I saw him in person.
In the late summer of 1991, former News Journal sports reporter T.E. McHale ran into a conflict. A hardcore baseball fan, T.E. was taking vacation the week of the World Series (as he always did), when Prince had a title defense in Williamson, West Virginia. I was to fill in for McHale on Oct. 19, 1991 when Prince met second-ranked challenger Freddie Delgado in the heart of Hatfield-McCoy country.
T.E. patiently painted a background picture for me when I peppered him with questions about Williams. In one succinct sentence, he summed up Prince's career to that point:
"There's a reason Tommy Hearns wants no part of this guy."
Man was that true. T.E. didn't mean Hearns was afraid of Williams. He wasn't. He meant Prince was far too threatening for Hearns to risk a 7- or 8-figure fight with one of the glamour boys by challenging Prince. There was no reason to mess with Williams, a guy who could not be intimidated and someone who could beat The Hitman.
Prince was a nightmare foe. A boxer-puncher with a veteran's chin, a pro's savvy, world-class skills and, most important of all, the heart of a true champion. In the words of Burgess Meredith in Rocky, Williams was "a very dangrous person."
So, the week of the fight, I called Puerto Rico to speak with the challenger. In essence, the 19-1-1 fighter confidently boasted he was going to knock out Williams and take his title belt.
Prince was incensed. Not so much at Delgado, one expects a fighter to think he's going to win. Instead, Charles was mad at me for publishing the comment. Remember, this was in the pre-internet days. The comment appeared in his hometown newspaper. His family read it. His neighborhood read it. He was seething.
In turn, that was not an ideal scenario for Freddie Delgado.
When Williams entered the ring inside the fieldhouse that night, the crowd erupted. Prince barely noticed them. He had the glare of a man on a mission. When the opening bell rang, it was like someone tossed a lamb chop in front of a wolf.
I didn't see all of Prince's fights, but this may very well have been his best bout. He was certainly at the peak of his powers.
Williams swarmed Delgado. It was one-sided from the start. Prince was everything T.E. told me and more. It was jawdropping, especially considering the caliber of opponent. Charles was so fast, and his punches packed power.
He had what his cornermen described as patient aggression, a rare quality even for a championship-caliber fighter, and his footwork was impeccable. Delgado had no chance. The great ones make it look easy, and Prince certainly did.
I was flabbergasted. How did I not know more about Prince Charles Williams? This guy was dynamite.
Mercifully, the referee stopped this particular mismatch at 2:24 of the second round. It was stunning stuff -- that the division's second-ranked contender was nowhere near Williams in class. For comparison's sake, just over two years later, Delgado went the distance with Hearns before losing a unanimous decision.
I wrote the fight story fairly quickly and rushed to the dressing rooms. Delgado was crushed, in tears. He had seen the peak, and it was simply too high for him to reach.
Williams was completely the opposite. In cramped quarters he calmly changed and recounted the destruction in an even-tempered tone. It was another day at the office for him. It was unforgettable for me.
I once walked 18 holes with Jack Nicklaus far past his prime at Muirfield -- yet he was still a master of his domain in the sport. This was like that. Prince Charles Williams was in complete control despite the chaos of a boxing ring where two guys are trying to tear each other apart.
From that point, I was hooked on Prince. He was a blast to cover. I got to know him and his family. Eventually, I traveled to Philadelphia and spent a week with him as he trained for a super middleweight title shot in Las Vegas against James Toney. Charles had to move down in weight class for that bout, unheard of for a fighter in his 30s, but that was the biggest payday he could get.
The fight was so big, Oscar De La Hoya was on the undercard, and a crowd of more than 8,000 at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas included a row of celebrities streaming into their ringside seats. This was in July, 1994, and O.J. Simpson attorney Robert Shapiro got a huge ovation when he came into the arena.
Toney, who would go on to win the heavyweight title later in his career, was also a world-class fighter. He finally caught Charles just 15 seconds before the bell in the final round. But it simply proved how incredible Williams was, to bounce down in weight at age 32, and take on one of the best fighters in the world through 12 tough rounds.
Five months later, Charles was part of a 7-round technical draw in Atlantic City with Mequi Sosa. The referee stopped the bout when he determined neither fighter could continue. Ring Magazine called it one of the most memorable fights in the history of the division, and a rematch was immediately set.
I covered that June 30, 1995 slugfest on a sweltering night at the Philadelphia Convention Center. Again a brutal battle ensued, with neither man backing down. Finally, age and the heat exhausted Williams, and Sosa stopped him in the 10th round. They carried Prince out of the ring on a stretcher, although it was just a precaution.
Charles fought one more time, knocking out Chris Vernon in the second round on March 24, 1996 in France. But he knew his title days were behind him, and had the good sense to get out with his faculties intact.
I hated to see his career end because Prince was so much fun to cover. But I was glad to see his career end because I cared about the guy, too.
I probably got too close to Charles from a journalist's perspective. I never cheered on press row, but it was impossible for me to cover him objectively. He was simply too nice a guy, too great a fighter, and far too underappreciated from his hometown to his home planet to feel otherwise.
Years later I wrote a column at the News Journal about the greatest athletes to ever come out of Richland County, and there have been some special ones. Larry Siegfried and Jamie Feick played in the NBA. Hugh Douglas was the NFL's rookie of the year. Francine Lewis and Jodi Roth were stellar women's basketball players who starred at Ohio State. Joy Holmes was the Big Ten player of the year at Purdue before playing pro ball. Al Hager competed in the U.S. Open golf tournament.
As great as they all were, Williams has only one peer in Richland County annals.
Pete Henry was a charter member of the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame, one of only eight men so honored. Henry was a superstar for the Canton Bulldogs NFL title teams in the early 1920s and Grantland Rice called him the sport's greatest two-way tackle. Today the Mansfield Senior High School gymnasium is named after Pete Henry.
Now Williams has a road in the city with his name on it. I hope others remember him as well as I always will. The guy was an unforgettable talent.