Story of a Boxer : Gary Williams Has Gone From Street Fights to the Ring; Now He Has a Chance to Be a Champ

Times Staff Writer

With its cracked and decaying walls, worn hardwood floors and torn and beaten boxing equipment, the dimly lit Pomona Athletic League Gym doesn't conjure up a view of paradise.

Except maybe to boxer Gary Williams of Pomona.

For Williams, a 21-year-old lightweight (5-9 and 135 pounds), it has been a bridge between the painful memories of a troublesome past and his dreams of a successful career as a professional boxer.

The dreams edge closer to reality every day.

Williams, who has a 12-0 record with eight knockouts, is preparing for the most important fight of his pro career. He will meet Edwin Curet (17-4) for the ESPN national lightweight championship Sept. 11 in Atlantic City, N.J.

Not an easy task, especially considering that his opponent's defeats have been to top-ranked boxers such as Livingstone Bramble, Robin Blake and Ken Bogner.

No more difficult, however, than the life that Williams is trying to leave behind him.

His problems started early.

"I was struggling from the time I was born because my mom had 13 kids to raise," Williams said.

The 11th of the 13, Williams was born in Tucson, Ariz., and lived there until his family moved to Pomona in 1971.

After the 13th child was born, Williams said, his father and mother were divorced.

Despite the crowded surroundings and the never-ending struggle to survive, Williams says it was not his uncertain home life that led to his problems.

"It wasn't family problems," he said. "I was raised with a good family and my mother tried hard. But when you get away from family surroundings you get into peer pressure. That's what started it."

By the time Williams was 12, he was already spending a lot of his free time with a gang in Pomona.

Soon after he joined the gang he began to experiment with drugs.

"When I was about 12, I started using drugs, mostly marijuana," Williams recalled. "I was drinking beer for a while before that. I always told myself that I'd try anything once. I was a young kid and I didn't want to do anything the right way. I was a hardhead so I had to learn the hard way."

Street fighting led to his first brush with police. Williams was 15 when he was arrested for assault and sent to juvenile hall.

"I did not think for myself," Williams said. "I let others think for me. I also went to jail because of drugs. I had friends who said, 'Come on, let's get high.' Those friends were there when I was getting high. But when the man came to take me to jail, they were nowhere to be found."

Williams also did time at a Los Angeles County detention camp.

That was not the last stay in jail for Williams, but it did signal the end of his days as a gang member.

"Even before I got out, I decided that was it," Williams recalled. "I stopped hanging around the gangs when I got out of camp. I was 17."

That is when things started to change for the better for Williams.

Shortly after his release, Williams had a chance meeting at a bowling alley with Leroy Cato, a coach at the Pomona Athletic League gym.

"I had seen him hanging around there a lot and I thought to myself that this guy was wasting his time," Cato remembered. "So I walked over to him and said, 'You can't hang out here forever. Isn't there anything you want to do with yourself?' Then he told me he wanted to be a fighter.

"I told him I knew Tony Cerda (a trainer who is director of the gym) and I talked to Gary for 30 minutes about what he would have to do to be a fighter."

"When he told me he was interested I took him out to the gym to meet Tony. I didn't want to take a chance on losing him," Cato said.

When Cerda and Williams met, it was hardly a perfect match.

"He told me he wanted to be a fighter and I told him to get out of here," Cerda said. "He was kind of outspoken and I thought he was a loudmouth. It's one thing to talk and it's another to do something."

After watching Williams work out, though, Cerda changed his mind, and he is glad he did.

"I think he has matured a lot by finding out what you can achieve through boxing," said Cerda, who also trains World Boxing Assn. bantamweight champion Richard Sandoval. "Boxing is a sport where you can achieve a lot by being dedicated. He's not the same loudmouth he was when he first came here to train. Gary's dedicated. He has trained hard and is really progressing."

Williams had an outstanding career as an amateur, winning the Arizona Golden Gloves and U.S. Boxing Federation Southern Pacific lightweight championships.

Like most promising amateurs, Williams said he was hoping to make it to the 1984 U.S. Olympic trials. But his hopes were dashed when he lost a close decision to Zachary Padilla of Azusa in a qualifying match. "He lost a fight that I thought he had won, and that cost him a trip to the trials," Cerda said.

That is when Williams, who had a 26-2 record as an amateur, decided to abandon his amateur career and turn professional in late 1983.

Williams had a promising beginning as a pro, winning his first six bouts easily before another problem surfaced.

He was arrested and charged with assault again after being involved in another street fight in the summer of 1984. At age 20 he spent four months at the Wayside Honor Ranch for adults in Castaic.

"I think that really woke me up," Williams said. "It was the first time I was locked up with adults and I told myself I wasn't going back again."

Williams resumed his pro career with a second round knockout of Rafael Espinoza in March in San Diego and says he thinks the worst of his problems are behind him.

He mentions changes in his personality since meeting Tony Cerda and Leroy Cato.

"I'm willing to take orders now, to do what Tony and Leroy say to do," Williams said. "I don't want to be a hardhead. I don't deal with drugs anymore. I deal with reality. And I'm going to the top."

The 48-year-old Cerda, who has had his share of outstanding boxers in more than 20 years as a trainer and manager, thinks that Williams has the ability to be a world champion.

"He still has a lot of room for improvement," Cerda says. "But I think someday he's going to be a great fighter. I think he's another Aaron Pryor (world junior welterweight champion)."

It is Williams' strong knockout punch that has enabled him to make short work of most of his opponents.

"He punches well with both hands," Cerda said. "He's actually left-handed but he's fast with both hands. A lot of guys who are left-handers don't have a good right, but not Gary."

Cato, 49, who works for the gas company and has a video production business, also thinks Williams has a bright future as a boxer. He says that is why he is his personal manager without receiving any financial benefits.

"I think he has the ability to be a world champ but I don't want him to be a world champ and a personal chump," Cato said. "I want him to learn to invest his money wisely, to learn to save what he gets. He's not going to retire from the ring broke like a lot of fighters. Not if I can help it."

Williams doesn't get into street fights or take drugs anymore. Since his release from the Wayside Honor Ranch, he has been speaking to children at local schools and churches about the virtues of staying out of trouble.

"I was once called a menace to society but now I'm becoming an asset," Williams said. "Now I represent Pomona and I'm proving that I can be somebody. I tell kids about where I've been and to stay in school and get an education."

Even with a victory over Curet in their upcoming 12-round title bout, Williams still will have a long way to go in his quest for a world championship.

"If I get this title, I'll be ranked in the top 10," he said. "That should get me a shot soon. I'm undefeated. I can take a punch. I don't have a glass jaw."

Williams said he will be disappointed if he loses to Curet.

But not discouraged.

He has come too far for that kind of thinking.

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