The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Martin Newman Headshot

The Boxing Sideshow of Rugby Star Sonny Bill Williams Takes a Surprise Twist - He Can Fight!

Posted: Updated:
Print Article

There was a moment in last week's WBA international heavyweight bout when the golden boy of New Zealand contact sport Sonny Bill Williams was almost handed a harsh sparking out by veteran boxer Francois Botha.

Clouted with a concussing shot to the left temple a minute out from the end of the last round Williams' legs buckled and he clung on for dear life. Deeply in trouble he hugged and obfuscated to get through the final seconds but was still almost downed by a pole-axing left hook from the South African before the salvation of the final bell.

Undoubtedly Botha would have had him if it had gone on another round, but that barely mattered when Williams' UD win on points was announced, and not for long are these things mulled over in the fight game.

What surprised many was that Sonny Bill was even in the fight after just a handful of professional bouts - the first five against over-matched tomato cans and club fighters - and already looks a prospect.

And putting aside the many controversies (bribe allegations, drug allegations and the shortened number of rounds) it was a competitive fight at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre, with Williams fast hands and ring savvy giving him a decisive points advantage.

Botha, though never regarded as a heavyweight great, occupied a second tier in the division that saw him fight most of the champions in his era. His clashes with Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis and Wladimir Klitschko were dogged but ended in clear-cut losses.

Despite that the evergreen warrior - still fit for 12 rounds aged 44 - should have beaten Williams, who has no amateur pedigree, had never fought past six rounds, hadn't had a fight for a year and had never been pitted against anyone ranked by even the loosest world standards.

Williams, 27, began his sporting career in rugby league in Australia and represented New Zealand before switching codes and winning the rugby World Cup with the All-Blacks in 2011 (He has since switched back and plays for the Sydney Roosters).

After taking up boxing four years ago he has fought sporadically, fitting in bouts around his rugby and league commitments.

Some have hailed him as the perfect athlete, big, muscular, fast and with a brain for reading the game - a useful skill in boxing if he can convert it.

But his previous fights had been wild affairs, displaying little discipline and less skills, and he was unable to put away two of his poor opponents. He seemed like the typical rugby league brawler who fancies himself as a fighter, soon to be found out.

The Botha fight exposed new faults but also new positives.

One thing it made clear is that Williams is being brought on too fast and with too many short cuts for him to succeed for long.

His much vaunted stamina all but disappeared within five rounds.

From round six you could see he had run out of puff with his mouth hanging open and his movement diminished. At the same time Botha began to land more consistently and if he'd stepped it up quicker might have had Williams out of there.

It was reminiscent of David Haye's startling loss to Carl 'The Cat' Thompson back in 2004 at the Wembley Arena. Haye came in looking the fitter man but quickly ran out of steam and was virtually defenceless when stopped by the wily veteran Thompson in five rounds.

The same could easily have happened to Williams against Botha and almost did.

He had enough, by a squeak, to get past him with all the luck running his way. Against an active top heavyweight it will see him fall well short.

Another failing revealed by the fight is Williams lack of a knock-out punch or for that matter any real power punch.

When he occasionally loaded up on Botha he barely shifted him, and while he has impressive biceps his compact deltoid muscle definition betrays a lack of heavy bag work, the source of a boxer's power.

While he has learnt to grapple when in trouble his lack of experience shows in how he holds his head in these situations, leaving it vulnerable to both uppercuts and the hook.

More worrying is the unseemly haste from his management to involve him in whatever ill-advised money-spinner that can be thought up, when the current indicators are that he may have the potential to develop into a genuine heavyweight contender.

While not among the very big beasts of the division, at 6' 3" and 106kg Williams sits comfortably above the cruiserweight division.

His hand and foot speed are quick and he displayed surprising ring generalship and lateral movement against the White Buffalo.

If anything he fights like a middleweight, an influence perhaps of his friend and sometime trainer, former middleweight champion Anthony Mundine.

In fact Williams seems to have adopted much of Mundine's style, fighting with a straight back, his chin up and both fists held low. It's an attitude few heavyweights, David Haye aside, adopt because of the additional danger at the top weight of being KO'd.

A more sensible approach by his manager Khoder Nasser, one almost every boxer must take, is to build up Williams' fitness and stamina to fight 12 rounds by matching him against good but less dangerous opponents who will take him the distance.

And if the bribery allegations are true it suggests Nasser has too little faith in his charge's talents - it's another shortcut Williams could do without.

Without that ring time he will not progress into the serious realms of heavyweight boxing, but given it he just may make a mark at the top echelons of yet another sport.