Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly transposed the sequence of Williams’ criminal charges and his final professional fight; he was charged not long before his final boxing match.
In his mind, the cheers still come. He can hear them sometimes, but most days he listens hard for the faint sound.
A man asked him in a parking lot recently about boxing; he took a break from packing his car, telling the stranger about the time Thomas “Top Dawg” Williams left his native Washington and sparred with former world heavyweight champions Lennox Lewis and Riddick Bowe, about being on the U.S. national amateur team and the time he . . .
But then, as Williams often does, he stopped. The most interesting parts of those stories are the most difficult to tell, so it’s easier to end there. Here is a part Williams has left out for so long, the ending to a story he rarely offers to the gym owner or the youngster or the man in the parking lot: Nine years ago, he became the first and only American boxer to go to prison for fixing boxing matches. His career had faded, and the money was good. It was as simple as that.
He had once been a promising heavyweight with a devastating jab and a powerful frame. But he lacked the work ethic of boxing’s great contenders, and soon he was accepting easy money to lose on purpose.
“Thomas was a great fighter, man,” says William Joppy, another boxer from the Washington area who went on to hold three world middleweight titles. “He could’ve been a champion.”
Instead, the FBI began trailing him in 2000, and five years later he was convicted of two felonies, handed a 15-month sentence in a New Jersey prison. He was released in 2006, and in the years since, the money ran out and his name has come to stand for all that’s corrupt and untrustworthy about boxing.
He returned to the Washington area to find an unfamiliar landscape. Williams’s marriage had dissolved years earlier, and Williams tried to re-enter his two sons’ lives. These days, the elder son he once introduced to boxing, Thomas “Top Dog” Williams Jr., is a 26-year-old light heavyweight with a 16-0 professional record. He has in his corner the same manager, George Peterson, who trained the elder Williams and later testified against him. Peterson has urged the young boxer to keep his distance from his father.
“That name,” Peterson says of the elder Williams, “makes me want to throw up.”
Williams and his current wife, Alesia, were recently made to vacate their house in Bowie. They have since slept in their car or gathered enough money for a few nights on the third floor of the Country Inn and Suites near Oxon Hill. Williams’s short-term memory is fading; he often forgets recent conversations and relies on Alesia to remind him of the simplest things.
Williams, now 43, has truncated the old stories for so long because the hope for bygone cheers is all he has left. But he says it’s time to fill in the final details, telling the best parts for the first time. He believes that if he once sold his soul for easy cash, maybe he can buy it back with honesty.
“I was a man one time signing multimillion-dollar contracts: Thomas ‘Top Dawg’ Williams,” he announces, the sound bouncing off the walls of the hotel’s empty breakfast room. “And my whole life collapsed because of choices.”
Williams and other young boxers used to pretend to knock each other out: the punches coming softly, their jaws and heads cocking, their shoulders tumbling to the canvas the way they would if a real knockout punch landed. “We made it look real,” Williams recalls with a smile.
The young men, climbing the amateur ranks in the early 1990s, laughed as they came to their feet — vowing that the real thing would never happen. “We always thought we were going to be champions,” Joppy says.
Williams shared dreams with future legends, and when he left the amateur training facility, the stories were so good — Williams sparring with Shannon Briggs, leading workouts with Oscar de la Hoya — few bothered to ask too many questions. Williams’s two young sons made it simple, too; they wanted only to live like their father, the elder boy pleading with his dad to take him to the gym. “Fight fight, Daddy!” Thomas Jr.said as he raised his fists. “Fight fight!”
Williams took Thomas Jr. and his younger brother, Tavaughn, with him sometimes, sliding on gloves and watching as a 5-year-old Thomas Jr. worked the speed bag. Williams’s first professional coach, Robert Crawford, wished the father showed the same enthusiasm as the son. Instead, Williams preferred to train as little as possible, relying only on talent.
After Williams had won his first nine pro bouts, his opponent backed out of a card in Reno; Williams’s friend and roommate, Marion Wilson, filled in. Crawford says Williams expected to cruise to his 10th victory, backing off his training. Wilson, who had fought many of the heavyweight division’s greats, made up for limited talent with relentless effort, and when the judges scored the six-round fight, it was Wilson’s arm the referee raised.
“I don’t think he understood that hard work is what gets you there,” Crawford says now.
More than a year later, Crawford says, Williams vacationed in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for a family reunion two weeks before a fight for the International Boxing Federation’s inter-continental heavyweight championship. By the fourth round, Williams was “dead tired,” Crawford recalls, barely able to stand, and the fight was stopped for Top Dawg’s second loss. His chances for a big-money, world-title fight were fading, and Williams knew it.
“Everything else goes out the window,” he says. “I used to be a good boxer. But now I’m like: ‘What’s the use?’ ”
Crawford gave up on his protege, introducing him to Peterson, a former District police officer who managed boxers. Peterson faced many of the same hurdles with Williams, who during the final 31 / 2 years of the 1990s went 8-5 — several of the wins coming not at grand casinos or crowded arenas but rather at small gyms and a livestock pavilion.
In March 2000, Williams was offered a contract to travel to Denmark and fight Brian Nielsen, a heavyweight contender with a 55-1 record. The day before the match, Williams says, he was summoned to a hotel room — and told to come alone. Williams says someone slid a briefcase containing about $25,000 — nearly doubling what his fight contract called for, he says — toward him under a table.
The instructions brought him back to simpler times as an amateur: Make it look real.
Williams had agreed to let Nielsen beat him, but it wasn’t as easy as it sounded. He felt sick. He heard noises. He couldn’t sleep. “The worst feeling I ever felt,” he says.
What would he tell Peterson or Crawford, the coaches who believed in him? What would he tell his sons? Nothing, he told himself; he wouldn’t tell a soul.
Williams’s then-wife, Carla, had left him, but he remained hopeful that better days were ahead. “If I got all this money,” he says, “maybe she’ll come back.”
On the night of March 31, 2000, in an arena near the Danish coast, Williams entered the ring against Nielsen, whowould later face Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield. All Nielsen had to do beforehand was keep winning.
Williams exchanged punches for two rounds, but in the third, it was time. Williams dropped to a knee without being punched, and after standing, he threw no more punches. The seconds passed, and Williams dropped his hands near the ropes; Nielsen punched him in the side and then grazed Williams’s face. Down he went, as he had been hired to do, lying on the mat with his eyes closed as the referee counted to 10.
Five months later, Williams says, he was told to lose to Richie Melito, an up-and-coming heavyweight. Peterson had distanced himself from Williams, but before the fight, the men talked. Williams says now that he owed his manager the truth, finally sharing his secret and admitting he had agreed to lose to Melito. Peterson secretly recorded the conversation, and the FBI would later obtain the audio.
Before the match, Williams’s corner men were disdainful. “How much are they giving you?” Williams recalls one asking. On this night, he would make $10,000 to lose, according to Justice Department records.
Williams entered the ring at the Paris Las Vegas and faced Melito, a stocky boxer nicknamed “The Bull.” Late in the first round, Williams took a weak punch to the chin, sending him into the ropes for a knockout. Crawford, his former coach, was watching on television. “I was embarrassed,” he says. “It looked like: That’s what took him out?”
Federal agents watched the fight, and afterward, they found Williams in the locker room. They played Peterson’s tape, Williams says, and revealed they had been monitoring his phone calls. Williams remembers one of the agents’ words: “We’ve got you, Top Dawg.”
But that didn’t stop him. Williams kept taking dives, kept pocketing the cash. The confrontation with the FBI had scared him, but he read about boxers who threw fights; many had been outed, but none had been jailed.
Williams says now that, of his final 12 professional fights, many of which were held in Europe, half were fixed. He improved his technique, taking pride in how authentic he made the knockouts look. He threw off-balance punches, targeting only the body, and when his opponent landed a decent shot to Williams’s chin, down he’d go. “I’m a good actor,” he says.
These fights were stories with controlled endings, the way Williams would always like them, and he could fashion the narrative as he saw fit. Even now, he insists he could’ve beaten most of his opponents.
The FBI kept watching. Williams says federal agents asked that he wear a wiretap to record others involved in fight fixing, but he refused. He says a man has to have principles.
“I’m not a rat,” he says. “I’m not going to do none of that. Yeah, I fixed fights, but who did I hurt? Whose life did I take? The only life changed for losing is me.”
In 2004, he was charged with sports bribery and two other crimes, not long before his final boxing match — a legitimate loss, he says, though he has trouble remembering. During the trial, seven boxers and three matchmakers testified, with Peterson among them, and Williams’s recorded conversation with Peterson was key evidence. “It was clear to the jury that he was going to take a dive,” says Kathleen Bliss, one of the trial’s prosecutors.
Williams and promoter Robert Mitchell were convicted of sports bribery and conspiracy, and they were each later sentenced to prison terms.
“I never thought, of all people, he could go out like that,” says Joppy, the former middleweight champion. “We’re out here trying to earn our keep, and I don’t know why. He needed money that bad?”
When Williams was released in 2006, he returned home to find that most everyone in boxing had turned their backs on him. The money that had paid for his losses was gone, and much of what he’d bought with it had been seized. He had trouble finding work, bouncing between jobs as a security guard. His ex-wife had remarried, and his two sons sometimes avoided speaking with him. When they did, they often changed the subject when the conversation turned to boxing – because chances were, they weren’t getting the full story.
He met Alesia not long after his release from prison. They stood together in a restaurant, and Williams told her his story — parts of it, anyway. He had been a famous boxer, he told her, who had been on the national amateur boxing team and . . .
She stopped him. He was leaving out the details, as he so often did, and if it continued, their conversation — and any hope of a relationship — was finished.
“As long as you’re true and honest, what can anybody say?” Alesia says now. “That’s what saves you, to me.”
Williams, who preferred convenient truths for so long, conceded. Yes, he had been on the amateur team, but he had been suspended two years for drawing a knife on a coach. Yes, he shared a ring with Bowe, but the two-time world champion, tired of Williams trying to outshine him during a training session, punched Williams so hard that he cracked his jaw and knocked five teeth from their holsters. Yes, he once sparred with Lewis, but only because Crawford wanted to measure his talented but lazy student against a world-class fighter; Lewis pounded Williams, knocking him out in the second round.
And, yes, he was paid to lose — but not just for the money. He wanted to hear the cheers again; to be in matches that mattered. He wasn’t the confident showman he pretended to be. He was a man now filled with regret.
“My whole life,” Williams says, “has been horrible because of that.”
Alesia, who’s now Williams’s wife, took him to church and encouraged him to hold nothing back, at least to those he cared for. “I lost it all,” he says, “and now it’s about being honest and rebuilding.”
Williams, who says he’s a born-again Christian, is trying to reconnect with his sons, though this has come slowly. Thomas Jr. is an undefeated boxer now, and in January he won a mid-level light heavyweight championship. In a peculiar twist of fate, Peterson is his manager. Peterson believes Williams wants only to ride his son’s rise to fame and fortune, though Williams insists he wants only to support Thomas Jr.
“I’m going to make sure I take care of you. I’m going to protect you. I’m going to cover you. I’m going to pray for you,” Williams says. “And I’m going to make sure your life will be better than mine.”
Sitting in a gym in Millersville, Thomas Jr. says he has occasionally invited his dad to work out with him, though Peterson only became aware of this recently and is uncomfortable with anything involving Williams. He wouldn’t allow Thomas Jr. to be quoted in this story.
Thomas Jr. says he wants to believe his dad’s words. But after what Peterson experienced years ago, the old manager just can’t be sure Williams isn’t faking it.
He stands in a small office at The Boulevard at Capital Centre, a shopping center in Prince George’s County, dialing numbers on a phone. Wearing a black coat and white shirt, Williams clocks in at 1:06 a.m., beginning his four-hour shift as a security guard.
This is his life now, far away from the cheers, and the only highlight better than getting to drive the sedan patrol car instead of the Jeep is when someone brings up boxing.
“I know some,” the dispatcher says, offering Williams a B12 tablet to help him stay awake. “But I want to know more.”
He smiles, chewing the vitamin and downing it without water.
“I didn’t know about the fixed fights,” she says.
“That’s good,” Williams says. “People usually talk about the bad first. They don’t talk about the good.”
A moment later, he smiles again.
“You heard about my son, though?” he says. “Won the belt?”
The woman nods, and Williams walks toward the door, heading toward the sedan. For the next 45 minutes, he strides through the outdoor mall’s interior, pulling on doors to make certain they’re locked. One by one, the movie theater and the shoe store, the mattress outlet and the gym, he pulls hard; in an hour, he’ll do it again.
Life is imperfect, he says, admitting that money is tight and that his short-term memory is failing, possibly because of repeated blows to his head. But he says he has Alesia to offer reminders, and he hopes they’ll soon move out of the hotel and into an apartment. Maybe he’ll visit Thomas Jr. at the gym in a few days, but he won’t know until later. All of the struggle and uncertainty, Williams says, is the cost of his sins.
“The only person that I have to blame for what happened to me is me,” he says. “I chose that destiny. I opened that door. I’ve got to live with it.”
After making his rounds, each of the doors locked, Williams drives back toward the office, humming along with the gospel music on the radio. Then he parks the sedan and exits, and in the glow of the stores’ lights, he walks for a moment before stopping to throw a few punches, hitting nothing but cold, silent air.