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Williams works his way up

Times Staff Writer

When he looked in his rearview mirror, Lee Wells saw trouble.

Not serious trouble. Nothing he couldn’t handle. Just an 8-year-old rampaging through Wells’ school bus as he drove the youngster and his fellow passengers along the streets of Aiken, S.C., to their homes.

“I’d pull girls’ legs,” Paul Williams sheepishly recalled, “jump up and down on the seats and maybe get in a few fights.”

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Williams, who will be in the fight of his life tonight at the Home Depot Center when he takes on World Boxing Organization welterweight champion Antonio Margarito, credits Wells with launching his boxing career.

One day, after pulling up in front of Williams’ home, Wells told Nancy, Paul’s mother, “Your son has all this energy. Why not put it to good use in boxing?”

Oh, and by the way, Wells said, I coach amateur boxers.

For five years, Wells coached Williams. But then Wells died, and Williams drifted from the gym.

“It wasn’t the same no more,” Williams said. “Some days I’d come to the gym and some days I would duck out and go do teenage things.”

Over a 10-year period, Williams fought an average of less than three times a year, perfectly acceptable for a champion making millions, totally unacceptable for an amateur trying to advance in his sport.

Enter George Peterson.

Involved in the fight game for nearly four decades, Peterson met Williams after Williams, then 18, had lost a decision to James Webb. Peterson and Williams spoke at Peterson’s Final Round Gym in Aiken.

“He gave me a sob story about how he wanted to learn to box better,” Peterson said.

After Williams left, Sallie McCain, an office worker in the complex that houses both the gym and an insurance office, watched the tall, thin Williams stride out onto the street and then said to Peterson, “He doesn’t have a muscle in his body. What are you going to do with that boy?”

Responded Peterson: “If he listens to me, I’m going to make him a champion.”

What followed is a routine familiar to even the most casual of boxing fans: the vigorous workouts, the punishing sparring sessions, the calculated opponents.

But Peterson also had an unorthodox idea. If Williams were to truly become a champion, Peterson figured, he needed to experience the skill level he would need to attain.

So Peterson and Williams embarked on an arduous journey consisting of 11 months, 11 states, 11 champions. Peterson got his novice work as a sparring partner in the camps of 11 champions, including Margarito.

Asked about their sparring session, which took place in 2001, the 29-year-old Margarito, four years older than Williams, shrugged it off.

“He was just another guy,” Margarito said through an interpreter.

Peterson, however, refuses to shrug off the experience his fighter gained.

“Show me another guy who has sparred with 11 world champions,” Peterson said.

Williams has done more than just spar under Peterson. Since turning professional in July 2000, Williams has amassed a record of 32-0 with 24 knockouts.

Williams’ biggest-name opponent to this point was Sharmba Mitchell, hardly prime-time material but still a bona fide test. Williams beat him on a fourth-round knockout last year.

Tonight, Williams will be taking a considerable step upward in class in facing Margarito (34-4, one no-contest, 24 knockouts), who lives in Tijuana but was born in Torrance, a couple of off-ramps from the Home Depot Center.

Title matches are nothing new for Margarito, whose first experience with a world belt on the line left him bloody and frustrated. That was in 2001, when his fight against Daniel Santos was stopped in the first round because of a bad cut over Margarito’s right eye, the result of an accidental head butt. The fight was ruled a no-contest.

Margarito’s next title shot was much more satisfying. He beat Antonio Diaz on a 10th-round TKO in 2002 to win the WBO welterweight championship and successfully defended it three times before moving up to 154 pounds to face Santos in a rematch.

Again heads collided, again Margarito was cut and again he left the ring in frustration, this time after being given a loss by technical decision.

Margarito went back to 147 pounds, going on to successfully defend his WBO title four more times, most recently last December with a tough but unanimous decision over Joshua Clottey.

Now comes Williams, who weighed in at 145 1/2 pounds Friday, hoping to beat Margarito (145 3/4 ) to reach the peak of a journey begun so long ago on a wild bus ride in Aiken.

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steve.springer@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Fight card

* What: Antonio Margarito (34-4) vs. Paul Williams (32-0), 12 rounds for Margarito’s WBO welterweight title.

* Where: Home Depot Center.

* When: Today, 5:30 p.m.

* Undercard: Andre Ward (12-0) vs. Francisco Diaz (16-1) super-middleweights, eight rounds; Chris Arreola (20-0) vs. Derek Berry (12-8-2), heavyweights, 10 rounds.


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