The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Injuries made Deron Williams hate basketball. Boxing has filled the void.

Former NBA star Deron Williams has trained extensively at the Fortis MMA gym in Dallas, Texas, to prepare for his boxing debut against former NFL star Frank Gore. (Cooper Neill/Showtime)
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Basketball ended abruptly and painfully for Deron Williams.

The steady rise that marked the first half of his 12-year career — an NCAA title game berth with Illinois, the third selection in the 2005 draft lottery, constant comparisons to Chris Paul, three all-star selections and two Olympic gold medals — gave way to a free fall. After he signed a five-year, $98 million maximum contract with the Brooklyn Nets in 2012, persistent injuries limited Williams’s effectiveness and availability. The Nets’ title ambitions crumbled, and Williams was bought out in 2015. Two years later, following brief stops with the Dallas Mavericks and Cleveland Cavaliers, he retired at age 32.

“I used to say that I hate basketball [after I retired],” Williams told The Washington Post by telephone Monday. “That was the furthest thing from the truth, but it was one of those things I had to tell myself because I missed it so much. [I had regrets] for sure. I don’t love how it ended, shooting [2 for 16] in the [2017] Finals and going out like that. I had more to give.

“Mentally, I wasn’t in a good spot. Physically, I felt like I kept having these injuries that messed me up mentally even more. At that point, what do I do? Keep putting myself through the pain and disappointment of letting people down? As I had time to process, I realized that this doesn’t define me as a person. There’s more to life.”

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A father of four, Williams looked forward to family time. But the Texan had been a competitive junkie since childhood, when he won two state titles as a youth wrestler and briefly dreamed of playing hockey after watching “The Mighty Ducks.” Throughout his basketball career, he dabbled in everything from golf to paintball to charity dodgeball matches, and the bruising, wide-shouldered point guard eventually turned to jujitsu and boxing as a way to limit the wear and tear on his troublesome knees and aching joints.

Thus began Williams’s second sporting act. He opened the Fortis MMA gym in Dallas in 2015 and ramped up his own training with an eye toward competing in his first MMA fight in 2020. While the covid-19 pandemic scuttled those plans, Williams will make his boxing debut against former NFL star Frank Gore on Saturday. The four-round, pay-per-view event will be held in Tampa and broadcast by Showtime as part of the undercard of a fight between Jake Paul and Tyron Woodley.

“Fighting is the hardest thing you can do, mentally and physically,” Williams said. “It’s a grind. It takes a lot out of you. There’s a certain level of fear of getting embarrassed and waking up not knowing what the hell just happened. At the same time, you’re still making that walk. You’re still doing something that a lot of people don’t have the [guts] to do.”

Williams, 37, has drawn inspiration from fond memories of watching 1990s-era heavyweight boxers such as Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, and he’s received pointers from more than a dozen UFC fighters who train at his gym. To physically prepare for his bout against Gore, Williams has tightened his diet for the 215-pound weigh-in, sparred extensively and completed a rigorous strength and conditioning program, though he admitted that it’s still “impossible for me to run on my knees.” To mentally prepare, he has accompanied other fighters backstage before and after their bouts.

“I respect Deron and his game in the NBA,” Gore, 38, said at a news conference last month. “Any guy who is willing to get in the ring has got to be tough. I don’t care what sport he played. He’s been doing MMA for six years. I’ve got to respect that. He’s been wrestling since he was a kid.”

Online oddsmakers have installed Williams as the favorite in what will be the first fight for both men, in part because the 6-foot-3 Williams is six inches taller than Gore and boasts a 78-inch reach, nine inches longer than his opponent. Williams is prepared for Gore to “come at me like a football player” to offset their physical differences.

Gore, a 16-year NFL veteran who spent last season with the New York Jets and was disappointed he didn’t receive a training camp invite, has embraced the underdog role, noting that he overcame a tough childhood in Florida and serious knee injuries to rank third all-time in NFL rushing yards. While he “played the angles” on the football field to avoid taking direct hits, Gore said that he has found it much harder to dodge blows in the ring.

Similarly, Williams said that hardwood tussles — such as last month’s memorable confrontation between Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and Detroit Pistons center Isaiah Stewart — are irrelevant to real boxers.

“If you ever watch most of the NBA fights, nobody connects because they can’t fight,” he said. “They can’t punch and have no clue what they’re doing. It’s pointless. [The James and Stewart incident] was way too much. It’s one thing to get mad in the moment, but once you start doing the other stuff, I feel like it’s just for show. Guys will say, ‘Let’s go to the back.’ If you’re serious, go see him in the summer. Call me up. I’ve got a gym. Put gloves on. I’ve got eight-ounce gloves and 16-ounce gloves if you really want to.”

As his own fight night approaches, Williams said that he has heard from former NBA colleagues who question whether boxing Gore is a good idea. Saturday’s bout is taking place in the shadow of former NBA guard Nate Robinson’s disastrous November 2020 fight with Jake Paul, which ended with a second-round knockout that prompted merciless mocking on social media. Williams said Robinson was “in a little over his head” because of a lack of formal training and was guilty of overlooking his opponent, something he pledged not to do against Gore.

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Most important to Williams is that his fight doesn’t devolve into a similar “spectacle.” The celebrity fight world, he argued, has improved dramatically in recent years, with Logan Paul surprising pundits with a plucky performance against Floyd Mayweather in June. Williams earned $157 million in NBA salary and said that viewers who assume that he is fighting because he needs money are mistaken. After all, he was still receiving NBA paychecks as recently as 2020 because of his buyout terms with the Nets.

“When I got the last payment last year, they made this big thing out of it [online],” he said. “This s--- has been going on. It’s not new. People are telling me congrats. It was my money! I should have gotten it five years before that. They just stretched it out. How do you go from getting $5 million last year to now I’m broke and need money so I’m doing these fights? That’s ignorant, but it is what it is. The [boxing] money is good, I’m not going to lie, but that’s not why I did it.”

Back in his NBA days, Williams hit the ground running with 18 points in his debut as a 21-year-old rookie for the Utah Jazz. But he knows that entering the ring for the first time will be a different story. Despite his clear passion for his new sport, his considerable training and his status as the betting favorite, a cautious Williams had no interest in making a Muhammad Ali-like guarantee.

“I’m not into talking trash,” he said. “We’re going to fight, and there’s going to be an outcome. Why talk about it? I might come out looking like Nate Robinson. We don’t know.”

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