Sonny Bill Williams: Knuckling down

by The Listener / 14 February, 2013
Those who have sneered at SBW’s boxing aspirations owe him a re-evaluation.
Sonny Bill Williams and Frans Botha
If Williams is serious about boxing, he will have to start taking on accomplished fighters who are in their prime, rather than their twilight. Photo/Getty Images.

Last week’s Sonny Bill Williams-Frans Botha fight was boxing at its best and worst: a riveting contest bookended by farce. It began with the sort of low-level weirdness we’ve come to associate with these evenings. Ring announcers make a living from being preposterous (a handsome one in the case of American Michael Buffer, who parlayed his catchphrase “Let’s get ready to rumble” into a $400 million fortune), but one still expects them to get fighters’ names right.

The announcer at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre contradicted his insistence that SBW needed no introduction by calling him Sonny Boy. Like those whose standard tactic when losing an argument is to repeat themselves only more stridently, he later bellowed, “He is the pride of New Zealand, he is Sonny Boy Williams.”

Botha made a bizarre entrance, boogieing from his dressing room to the ring to the accompaniment of Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier. Botha’s nom de guerre is the White Buffalo, but there’s something slightly jarring about an Afrikaner adopting a song about Afro-Americans (“stolen from Africa, brought to America”) serving in all-black regiments in the US Army.

Although the 44-year-old’s belly entered the ring well before the rest of him, his prolonged jig suggested he was fitter than he appeared. Botha’s face soon looked as if he’d had an uncomfortably close encounter with a weedeater, but he finished the bout more strongly than his sculpted, much-younger opponent. The reported presence, not for the first time, of banned substances in his system might have had something to do with it.

The refereeing was inept. Botha has fought professionally for 22 years, taking on the best heavy weights of recent times – Tyson, Holyfield, Lewis, Klitschko – and showcased every dirty trick he has picked up along the way. He hit on the break and after the bell; in the clinches, he attacked the back of Williams’s head as if it were a paper bag he desperately wanted to burst.

It eventually cost him a point. Then in a display of moral equivalence not seen since the end of the Cold War, the referee promptly deducted a point from the gentlemanly Williams for holding.

This will be remembered as the Incredible Shrinking Fight: what was billed as a 12-round contest was declared done and dusted after 10. That wouldn’t have been an issue if SBW had maintained his serene dominance of the earlier rounds, but he was in serious trouble in the 10th and may well have failed to go the distance if the distance had been as advertised.

The media happily played up the Botha camp’s “we wuz robbed” routine (and played down the unanimous points decision in Williams’s favour), but it seems the South African knew it was a 10-round fight all along.

Ironically, earlier in the week Williams tweeted about corruption in boxing after his friend Anthony Mundine was on the wrong end of an otherwise uncontroversial points decision. The comment was swiftly withdrawn; the threat of legal action wasn’t.

None of which should detract from Williams’s achievement. This was his sixth professional fight, Botha’s 60th; beforehand Botha admitted that at the corresponding stage of his career, “I wouldn’t have fought me”. Those who have sneered at SBW’s boxing aspirations and questioned his character owe him a re-evaluation.

But if Williams is serious about boxing, he will have to start taking on accomplished fighters who are in their prime, rather than their twilight. After butting heads with the White Buffalo, he will know it would be folly to believe he could do that on a part-time basis.
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