Welcome back to TGIFighting, where we talk to top fighters, preview the weekend's combat sports action and make crotchety observations about the combat sports news of the day. Ready? Let's proceed.
Deron Williams: 12-year NBA veteran, three-time All-Star, two-time Olympic gold medalist.
Saturday, he adds a new line item to his resume: pro boxer.
It happens on the Showtime pay-per-view card headlined by Jake Paul vs. Tyron Woodley II from Tampa, Florida.
His opponent? Longtime NFL standout running back Frank Gore. It's celebrity boxing at its finest, featuring two athletes not terribly far removed from their athletic primes. Williams, whose basketball career ended after a litany of injuries, is 37 years old, while Gore, a five-time Pro Bowler, is 38.
Neither has fought professionally before, but Williams has an apparent experience edge, having trained for years at the well-regarded Fortis MMA gym, which Williams co-owns, in his hometown of Dallas.
I recently spoke with Williams in an exclusive interview in advance of Saturday's matchup. The exchange has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Bleacher Report: Obviously people know you for basketball, but you have pretty deep roots in combat sports too.
Williams: Well, my uncle was a wrestler in high school and in the Army. My mom asked me if I wanted to wrestle when I was four, almost five. I wrestled from when I was five all the way up until high school. I won two state championships in Texas as a youth. I only stopped because the wrestling season was over the same time frame as basketball.
And I was always a boxing fan. I watched a lot of boxing. And when the UFC started, I was really drawn to that, with my wrestling background and all the grappling you see in MMA.
So fighting has always been kind of a passion. I've always loved to watch it, and I've always loved to train, and that's why I love it so much.
B/R: How long have you been training in MMA?
Williams: I was doing a lot of training off and on when I was playing [basketball], going as far back as 2009 or 2010. But I really got serious when I came to Dallas in 2015 and became a part of Fortis MMA.
B/R: Since you watch the UFC regularly, you know what a banner year 2021 has been for MMA. We've had some amazing fights. Do you have a favorite?
Williams: Yeah, there's been a lot of great fights. That Max Holloway-Yair Rodriguez fight [from November] that just happened is up there. The Michael Chandler vs. Justin Gaethje fight was up there as well, but it was shorter, only three rounds compared to the five-round decision they went to with Yair-Holloway.
It's tough to pick! Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington in November was a fun fight too.
B/R: How would you compare the training and preparation in boxing to basketball?
Williams: They're definitely different. First and foremost, one's a team sport and the other one's an individual sport, so that right there is totally different.
You don't get punched in the face much in basketball. If you get whacked, you go down, the game stops. Maybe you go sit down, you take some time out, the trainers come over and check you out. You can't do that in boxing.
In boxing, you're training to get hit in the face, punched to the body and to keep going right through it.
B/R: Learning how to get punched in the face. Was that difficult for you?
Williams: It took some time to get comfortable with it. It took a couple years, really, through sparring, just constant sparring, and getting punched in the face and kicked in the face, having your head smashed against the cage, having a forearm land across your nose. Getting punched in the face definitely takes some getting used to.
B/R: Do you have any insights whatsoever into Frank Gore as a boxing opponent?
Williams: I don't. But I can't really worry about him. I have to worry about myself. I've just got to prepare, get in the best shape of my life and prepare for a war.
B/R: To be completely candid, there are plenty of people who see this as just a novelty. They see two guys with big names who made their names in other sports and they don't want to take it seriously. How do you respond to that?
Williams: They don't have to watch. Nobody's making them watch; nobody's making them comment on Instagram. But they do because they're interested. If I'm not interested in something, I turn the channel, or I just swipe to the next post.
B/R: So that mindset doesn't bother you?
Williams: They're not getting in there, I guarantee you that.
B/R: What do you see for yourself in terms of your future in fighting? Do you see yourself ever trying MMA?
Williams: No. I'm 37. It would be hard to train for an MMA fight. There's just so much that goes into it, with the grappling and the wrestling. So I'm going into this like it's my last one. If I get in there and I like it, who knows? But really I just wanted to check this box. It's been something I've always wanted to do.
The Squeamish Bettor
Record to date: 26-8
As predicted right in this very space, Ryan Hall earned the decision win last Saturday at UFC 269. This week, let's look to the main card of Saturday's UFC Fight Night 199, where bantamweight Raphael Assuncao is a substantial +220 underdog, per DraftKings, to upset the younger, higher-octane Ricky Simon.
True, Assuncao has dropped three straight, but all three were to elite competitors, including former champ Cody Garbrandt and current contenders Cory Sandhagen and Marlon Moraes. The 29-year-old Simon is riding a three-fight win streak, but against much lesser competition.
The scales will rebalance Saturday, with the longtime contender showing he still has plenty left in the tank and putting concerns over his chin to rest, at least for now. It will be a classic, plodding Assuncao performance, but he'll get it done at age 39 to remain relevant in the division. Lock it in.
One last thing…
On a bittersweet note, this is the final edition of TGIFighting. Bitter in that I enjoyed writing the column, sweet in that I'm moving into new frontiers in the new year. I'll continue to provide the post-fight columns, exclusive interviews and other content you've come to expect of me over my approximately 7,000 years here at Bleacher Report. In the meantime, here's wishing everyone a safe and happy holiday season.
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