- Dan Rafael, Boxing
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ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Whether you think Paul Williams won or not -- and many in the crowd and on press row at Boardwalk Hall's Adrian Phillips Ballroom on Saturday night most certainly did not -- one thing is clear: He is not the same fighter he once was.
Williams, trying to rebound from a massive knockout loss, claimed a controversial 12-round majority decision against Erislandy Lara in a junior middleweight bout, the crowd of 2,176 booing lustily when the decision was read.
Williams, a former two-time welterweight titlist, looked awfully shaky throughout the fight -- nowhere near the fighter who has long been ranked on pound-for-pound lists -- as Lara landed numerous straight left hands and busted him up.
Judge Al Bennett scored it 114-114, while judges Hilton Whitaker (115-114) and Don Givens (116-114) gave the fight to Williams. ESPN.com had it for Lara 116-112. Most writers on press row also had Lara winning, and HBO's Harold Lederman, the network's unofficial scorer, had Lara winning a wide decision.
"I don't know what the judges saw," Lara said.
Lara's left hand carried the fight for him in the eyes of most. The left hand is what middleweight champion Sergio Martinez used to knock Williams cold in the second round -- the 2010 knockout of the year -- of their rematch in November in Boardwalk Hall's main arena.
"I was being lazy in there, but no excuses," Williams said of getting caught with the left hand over and over.
Said Lara: "The Martinez fight showed me a lot of things. The judges saw what they saw, but for the people of Miami, I want a rematch."
Lara, 28, was a star amateur on the Cuban national team and won a 2005 world amateur championship. He would have been a medal favorite in the 2008 Olympics, but he defected and now lives in Miami.
Even though he was coming off a disappointing draw with Carlos Molina in March, Lara (15-0-1, 10 KOs) is considered a blue-chip prospect who has now crossed over into legitimate contender status with his performance against Williams, despite the questionable result.
Maybe after Williams was knocked out by Martinez and won a brutally tough majority decision against Martinez in their first fight in December 2009 -- not to mention his slugfest with a prime Antonio Margarito in 2007 -- the punches have taken their toll on the 29-year-old from Aiken, S.C.
"I thought it was close. I thought we had it," said Dan Goossen, Williams' promoter. "It's Paul's style, he gets hit. He's a fighter out there. Part of Paul Williams fighting is getting hit and making sure he comes forward and is hitting the other guy.
"Lara did a good job of mimicking Martinez, but you saw in the first six or seven rounds that he couldn't do it when Paul was feeling stronger and sharper. Paul lost three or four rounds after that and started taking some shots."
If there is a way to score the fight for Williams, it was obviously on the fact he was a lot busier, even though he did not land as many punches or as accurately.
According to CompuBox, Williams threw 1,047 punches but landed only 200 (19 percent). Lara was far more economical, landing 224 of 530 punches (42 percent).
In the fifth round, Williams wound up with a cut over his left eye that dripped blood and seemed to make him uncomfortable as he dabbed at it with his glove.
Lara, meanwhile, wound up with a giant knot on the left side of his head. But he kept tagging Williams with straight left hands that Williams often leaned into.
Lara, the slicker fighter, seemed to be in control and by the 11th round he was busting up Williams' face. Williams' face was swelling and his mouth and nose were bleeding.
Lara, despite being four inches shorter, continued to land thudding shots in the 12th, but he is not a big puncher and couldn't get Williams -- whose trunks were falling down -- off his feet.
Going into the final round, even Williams' corner thought he was losing. Trainer George Peterson told his fighter he needed a knockout in the 12th round.
"That's motivation," Williams said. "I kept picking it up, picking it up, picking it up. I know I won that fight. I know it was a close fight, but I know I won.
"He was a tough customer. He came to fight. He caught me with some pot shots, but I kept throwing combinations to his body. Those punches were adding up. Bottom line is, I outworked him. I started mixing it up and pressing the fight. I'm looking forward to bigger and better things. When you fight a guy at his level, you're not going to rise. I got a little lazy letting him get his shots in because I didn't feel I was in danger."
Except that he was, obviously, in danger and managed to escape with one. Now Lara wants a rematch.
And he deserves one.
"Of course I want a rematch," Lara said. "I want to show the world I'm better than Paul Williams."
"I thought we won the fight and it was a hell of a fight," said Luis DeCubas Jr., Lara's manager. "Lara showed he's a fighter. I thought he won the fight. HBO had him winning, you all had him winning. He came here to prove himself. He proved himself.
"He showed he is an elite fighter. He wants the rematch, and I think he definitely deserves a chance to be back on HBO."
Goossen said he would consider trying to arrange a rematch, even though he and Williams (40-2, 27 KOs) would prefer a rubber match with Martinez.
"[A Lara rematch] will be something we discuss," Goossen said. "It's a fight Paul wants. There's always a reason to do a rematch on a good fight, so it's something we would consider."
Williams has said he only wanted a couple of more fights before retiring. As diminished as he looked Saturday, that might be a good idea. But he, too, wants one of those fights to be another go with Martinez.
"We definitely want Martinez," Williams said. "I think the fans want to see it. I am going to fight until the end. I am not going to duck anybody, I'm not going to go down for anybody."
Dan Rafael is the boxing writer for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @danrafaelespn.
In the eyes of most observers, Erislandy Lara had the blueprint to beat Paul Williams on Saturday -- and executed it to the letter. Trouble is, the Boardwalk Hall judges didn't see it the same way.