A Touch of Sleep

Fighting family man DaVarryl Williamson takes his last shot at greatness.
February 2006
Within two years, DaVarryl was too much for his mother to handle and he moved in with his father, who had finished his jail time and was living with a new girlfriend and her son. The girlfriend didn't last long, but DaVarryl stuck it out with his father. They were happy, but poor. They lived in the type of neighborhood where if you weren't using drugs you were probably selling them, as many of DaVarryl's friends were.

Despite the allure of easy money, DaVarryl avoided the drug scene, focusing instead on sports. Although he didn't have the best grades, he got a football scholarship to Rochester Community College in Minnesota, before getting another scholarship to Wayne State College in Nebraska. Graduating in 1993, he tried out as a walk-on for the Indianapolis Colts and a few arena-football teams. He also started boxing as an amateur-by the end of the year, he was named Arizona state champion. DaVarryl had his first taste of success. In January 1995, he received an offer to join the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Michigan-a graduate education at Northern Michigan University and a shot at the 1996 Atlanta Games. DaVarryl narrowly missed the cut and was named an alternate, the first of many almosts. He considered turning professional, but after the USOEC offered him a chance to finish his schooling he decided to stick around, receiving a master's degree in administrative services in 1998. With only two years until the 2000 games, he decided to take another shot, this time losing in the gold medal match of the U.S. Olympic trials.

After falling short again, he had two choices: turn pro or quit. Looking around, he saw plenty of guys doing well on the pro circuit-the same guys he had beaten on the amateur circuit. But DaVarryl was older than most of those guys. Already 31, he was nearly a decade older than many boxers starting their pro careers. He was living in Denver, supporting his pregnant fiancée and his 2-year-old son. He turned pro.

DaVarryl has his back against the ropes.

Derek Bryant, his sparring partner, is swinging away, and it's all DaVarryl can do to keep his hands in front of his face. Although he's wearing protective headgear, the little piece of padding doesn't do much to soften a blow. DaVarryl takes a step to a right, then another, and he's back in the center of the ring, away from the danger. A buzzer pierces the air. Round's over. "Good job," says his trainer, George Durbin, who's on the side of the ring dancing and juking along with the boxers. "You gotta shorten everything up and be quicker. We ain't gonna win unless we're quicker."

Coach George, a skinny, weasely-looking man in his mid-40s, grabs a water bottle off the makeshift table-a small piece of plywood on a garbage can-and squirts it into DaVarryl's mouth.

"One more round."

DaVarryl nods. He's already gone seven rounds with his three sparring partners, who are taking two-round shifts to wear him down. Sweat is pouring through the headgear, and a half-oval of sweat hangs down from the collar of his gray sleeveless T-shirt. He looks solid in the ring today, although a little rusty. He's not throwing his haymaker, his moneymaker, his right fist. It's the fist that's given him his boxing nickname-"Touch of Sleep"-because if he connects with it, his opponent falls to the canvas. Today, though, DaVarryl looks a little hesitant to throw it, like he doesn't want to hurt his sparring partners.

On the wall by the door behind DaVarryl is an old poster where he's dubbed as "Dangerous Jab," out of respect for his long left arm, which often snakes in between an opponent's gloves for a shot to the face. No friends call DaVarryl these names. They're just for the ring, a named threat to future opponents. DaVarryl's close friends actually call him "Ju-ju," short for "Juicy Lips," a name his mother gave him when he was an infant with a drooling problem. DaVarryl refers to himself as "The Champ." The champ, however, he is not. Not yet, anyway. Chris Byrd is still the champ, and because of this DaVarryl plods back into the center of the ring, ready for his last round.

A screen door slams and in walk a few Hispanic men in aprons, who're on break from a tortilla factory. It wasn't a far walk, since DaVarryl's gym is actually tucked into the back corner of the tortilla warehouse. Jose Rangel, owner of the company, gave the tiny gym to DaVarryl and Coach George in 1999. Rangel's youngest son, Jimmy, used to train at DaVarryl's old gym, and when that gym closed Rangel offered space in the back of the factory. DaVarryl and Coach George gladly accepted, and one Saturday a few years ago Coach George came in with some friends and built the gym. They hung speed bags off to the left and a heavy bag training circuit to the right, and built a ring that's no more than 6 inches off the ground, near the back wall. It's a boxer's gym.

Although the gym has a name-Touch 'Em Up Gym-you won't find a sign outside the door. Even if you know which alley off Santa Fe to walk down, you still need to know which trash bin to look for. Next to it is a small metal ladder leading up to a loading dock, and there a simple door. It's the type of place where you'd turn the knob and expect to find boxes of bootleg CDs or a backroom game of poker. Instead, you're slammed with a wall of sweat and a stereo thumping with Tupac. The room is hot-near 100 degrees-and feels like a rain forest. Even the sloppily painted drywall is dripping with sweat.

The tortilla workers fall behind a group of a dozen lawyers, paunchy white men in their 50s and 60s. Clad in business suits, they look like someone's just snuck them into a stable to sneak a peek at a prize-winning horse. Which isn't far off. DaVarryl's lawyer has brought his coworkers down to catch a glimpse of DaVarryl working out.

Oddly enough, the lawyers and the boxers, different as they might be, are at the peaks of their careers. The lawyers have probably made partner-the peak of money, power, and influence. They can ride partnership slowly to the end of their working days and ease into a privileged retirement. They've chosen a difficult path, but it's been laid out before them ever since they stepped into their first law class.

DaVarryl is also at the peak of his career. In a little more than two weeks, the referee could lift DaVarryl's hand in the air and name him the heavyweight champion of the world. If that belt is wrapped around his waist, he's an instant hero and legend.

If not, he won't even be a has-been. He'll be a never-was.