Ex-Illini hoops hero Deron Williams still has a whole lot of fight left in him

Williams, 37, will enter the ring Saturday night for a professional boxing match against 38-year-old football star Frank Gore.

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Williams training at his MMA gym in Dallas.

Courtesy of Showtime

Deron Williams played in NBA All-Star Games, won Olympic gold medals and put his John Hancock on a $98.7 million max contract with the Nets in 2012. This is a man who more than made his mark in professional basketball.

But nothing was ever going to eclipse what he did in March of 2005, when he put Illinois on his back and led the greatest comeback in NCAA Tournament history.

It was an Elite Eight game at Allstate Arena in Rosemont, and Williams’ three-pointer with 3:52 to go cut a seemingly insurmountable Arizona lead to 12. It was still a seven-point game — the season all but over — after the point guard’s layup with just over a minute left, and it was a straight-up miracle when the Illini found themselves with the ball down three in the waning moments of regulation. Williams hit the shot to tie it up, then sank two more long balls in overtime.

Magic. Incredible. Unforgettable.

“We just kept fighting,” he said after it was over. “We never gave up.”

Better-known teammate Dee Brown called him the “best guard in America” that night. Coach Bruce Weber called him the team’s MVP.

Goodness, he was something.

“The best game ever,” he said, going on 16 years later.

Anyway, nothing that happens Saturday night in a heavyweight boxing match — Williams vs. NFL star Frank Gore — is going to change that.

But into the ring Williams goes. He is 37. Gore, a running back for 16 seasons and the third-leading rusher in NFL history — with 16,000 yards on the button — is 38. They’ll just keep fighting, this time on Showtime pay-per-view on the Jake Paul-Tyron Woodley undercard in Tampa, Florida.

Anyone else remember what Paul did last year to former NBA point guard Nate Robinson? It was a second-round knockout that inspired a cavalcade of ruthless memes at the ex-Bull’s expense.

Does a hooper really have any business fighting a boxer (such that social-media star Paul is)? For that matter, does a hooper really have any business fighting a football player like Gore, a workout warrior who is revered as one of the toughest dudes of his era?

“Nobody knows what to expect,” Williams said. “You have no clue what’s going to happen. He’s a strong guy. He’s durable. He’s tough. Maybe he’s going to beat me. I don’t know. But this is something I just feel like I have to do.”

Jake Paul v Tyron Woodley - Media Workout

Frank Gore

Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

Williams does have six inches on Gore and the reach advantage to go with it. They’re both in the neighborhood of 215 pounds, the contracted limit for this match, and Williams isn’t exactly a total amateur. He won two state championships as a youth wrestler in Texas. He became a huge MMA fan more than a decade ago — Ken Shamrock was his favorite — and opened an MMA gym in Dallas in 2015. It has blown up into something big: Upward of 20 men and women at Williams’ gym are UFC fighters, and these are among the people with whom he spars.

“I’ve always been drawn to combat sports,” he said. “Wrestling was my first sport. I’ve always been a big boxing fan, a big MMA fan. I’ve always wanted to do a fight since I retired [from the NBA].”

Gore wasn’t supposed to be his first professional opponent. Williams had an MMA debut lined up for early 2020, but his opponent backed out. Then the pandemic hit. And now here we are.

“Look, I’ve been training for years,” he said. “Part of MMA is, of course, boxing. This opportunity came and I just felt like if it was here and I passed it up, that I’d kick myself for it.”

For whatever it’s worth, Williams — whose best-honed skills are in jujitsu and boxing — actually is a slight betting favorite to win this match. It’s a wonder given the injuries that derailed his NBA career, the bad ankles and the balky knees that limit his ability to run in his workouts. Then again, Gore tore both ACLs, had serious shoulder ailments and, well, suffice it to say a ball-carrier who plays 16 years in the NFL is going to absorb more punishment than any man should.

So what’s this really about? They both made plenty of money. Maybe these are just two past-their-prime jocks going at it because the alternative — embracing the athlete’s afterlife — makes no sense at all.

“For sure,” Williams said. “I miss the hell out of competing. I miss being out there, having something to be ready for, training for. This is a totally different feeling, but at the same time it’s competing, right? It’s competing, it’s training, it’s having a goal and a task. That’s why I want to do it.”

If he could come back from 15 down in four minutes in 2005, if he could build on that with all those years of NBA success, if he could run a gym and train, if he could choose not to belong to the past, who’s to say he can’t slug it out in the ring and finish with gloves held high?

Ding, ding. Let’s do this thing.

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