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Viewpoint It’s the last chance or a mighty first step for New Haven’s Tramaine Williams

February 21, 2019

This isn’t his second chance. This is his third chance. At least his third chance.

When Tramaine Williams steps into ring on Saturday night at Best Western Plus Genetti in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., he also knows it could be his last chance. Or, let’s hope, it’s the first step back to something special.

That’s the way it is in boxing. The path could end either way.

The New Haven kid, dubbed Mighty Midget years ago, had all the tools to be champion of the world. Swift. Skilled. Explosive. A 10-time amateur national champion. He is 26 now and still unbeaten as a professional at 15-0. Yet as Williams returns from a second jail term to fight Jose Alfredo Rodriguez in a six-round featherweight bout, there stands a great fork in that path.

Which way are you going to go, Mighty Midget? Will it be a Mighty Comeback? Or a midget performance that leads to more trouble?

“My training has gone great,” Williams said earlier in the week. “I’m actually on weight right now. Everything is on schedule. Being back, you never know how much you love it or miss it until it’s taken away from you. I cherish it more.”

Rodriguez (32-8) held the WBA light flyweight interim title from 2011-12. He challenged for the WBA world title in 2012 and the IBF super flyweight title in 2017. The 29-year-old Mexican also has lost his past four fights.

“In a lot of people’s eyes, this is a comeback fight for me,” Williams said. “But if you look at the guy’s record, he’s an ex-world champion contender. He’s durable and has been in there with a lot of big guys. I’m looking to get him out of there early.

“I just want to fight for a title, to be honest with you. I want to become world champion this year or next year.”

He cherishes it more, he says. Does he cherish it enough? There still is time for Tramaine Williams to be a great redemption story.

“There was no fighter I’ve ever seen who was as talented as that kid is,” said his former trainer and mentor Brian Shaw. “Five years ago, 10 years ago, I saw us being wealthy and comfortable. But because of the idiots around him, he’s allowed himself to be sidelined. He could have been the best. There’s no other way to put it.”

Williams was arrested on Jan. 23, 2014, a few days before he was scheduled to fight at Madison Square Garden. He was asleep at his grandmother’s when police raided the home. They found drugs and a Tec-9 semiautomatic pistol. Williams pleaded guilty of possession of an assault weapon and narcotics. He was sentenced to 21/2 years and served about a year between Cheshire Correctional Institution and a halfway house.

He got his GED during that time. He returned to boxing, stayed with Shaw above the gym where he worked out. He said a lot of the right things. He regained momentum. He had started as a 9-year-old, a boxing wunderkind, amassing a 97-10 amateur record. He had turned pro at 19, fought in a number of big venues. When he got out of jail, he reeled off a half-dozen more victories, fighting again in Vegas and on the Queen Mary. He was gone from Top Rank but hooked on with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation. His last victory in Philadelphia came on March 30, 2018.

And then …

“It was violation of probation, failure to report to the program, four days after I fought,” Williams said. “Rather than say, ‘Man, you missed things, we’ll put it more like 30 days’ or something, I guess they thought jail time was the best thing for me.”

Williams said he was given 18 months, but was released after serving six.

“There was no crime at all,” Williams said. “There have been people who have done way worse than me and they’ve been way more lenient. They banged the gavel on me. I’m responsible for my actions, but it was kind of weird.

“It hurt more than the time I did a year. Coming into jail, they know me. They’re telling me I’m messing up, get back out there and put the city back on the map. I’m like, I’m trying to do the right thing.”

Shaw said missing probation meetings is a familiar story.

“We were coming back from Jersey one time,” he said. “The phone rings. This lady asked me if I’d seen Tramaine. I said he’s sitting 3 feet away from me. She goes, ‘He hasn’t been to his probation meetings.’ I said, ‘You’ll see him in two hours.’ I brought him.”

Williams has been through plenty in a quarter-century. I ask him if I could look to his heart, would I find an angry man? A bitter man? A happy one?

“A hungry one,” he answered. “I’ve got a team behind me that’s pushing me and everything is out of the way in two months. I’ll be a free man. I’ll have liberty. I’ll have freedom.

“I’m 26. I feel better than ever.”

Williams has been working in recent years with trainer Mike Conroy and strength and conditioning coach Tina Murray. He continues with Roc Nation. He no longer works with Shaw, the man who once trained Chad Dawson and nurtured Williams from a young age.

“There is only one person in his life who he very truly loved and that was his grandmother Mary Williams (who raised him and died in 2015),” Shaw said. “A wonderful woman, but she was an enabler, too.

“People don’t understand he was the best fighter in the country, as a kid from 11 to 14 years old. It was like having a son, a little brother and a best friend. And then the struggles started. As soon as someone gets some notoriety, people I’d never seen in my life are coming around. Where were you before? I paid for all the trips. Who did all the stuff? Me. Now you show up. You really hit a nerve, man.”

Williams said he talked to Shaw last week after Shaw got out of the hospital following surgery.

“Our separation was due to us butting heads,” Williams said. “I don’t want to do anyone dirty. We still talk.”

The path from New Haven to Wilkes-Barre is nearly 200 miles. He had time Thursday to think where it may lead.

“The last time I saw him sparring about three weeks ago I was not impressed,” Shaw said. “If he loses the fight, he’s done. It’s all over. Amateur boxing is a sport. Professional boxing is a business. If you can sell tickets, fine. He hasn’t put himself in a position to be in demand.”

How’s that for a challenge?

“I can’t wait,” Williams said. “This is the one where I’ve got to show people I’ve still got it. This might be the last time. The one where they say, ‘He’s just a mess-up.’ Who knows if they’ll give me another chance.”

And then the Mighty Midget catches himself.

“Nah,” he said. “I’m going to prove myself to the world.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; @jeffjacobs