'Lucky to be alive': How boxing saved former NRL player Joe Williams

'Lucky to be alive': How boxing saved former NRL player Joe Williams

'Lucky to be alive': How boxing saved former NRL player Joe Williams

Updated 8 February 2018, 17:20 AEDT

In 2012, former NRL player and professional boxer Joe Williams found himself sitting in a Dubbo psychiatric unit, having just attempted suicide.

In 2012, Joe Williams found himself sitting in a Dubbo psychiatric unit, faced with a choice.

The former NRL player and professional boxer had just attempted suicide.

"Joe you're lucky to be alive," his doctor said.

"You've got a second chance at life now, what are you going to do with it?"

In the years prior, Williams had managed to kick his addictions to illicit drugs and alcohol. But he had fallen into a destructive pattern of prescription drug use, and was struggling with his recently-diagnosed bipolar disorder.

Williams says that day in Dubbo was one step in an ongoing journey to self-knowledge and recovery, but it marked a turning point.

"It was in that moment, I said to myself … 'I am so thankful to be alive, and every day I get to open my eyes, I'm going to treat that as a gift'," he said.

"I made a promise to make the best impact that I can … every day that I get the opportunity."

And he credits boxing and reconnecting with his Indigenous heritage as his shining lights.

A series of addictions

Williams's struggle with negative self-talk began in his early teens.

He had been scouted and signed by Sydney Roosters, who had recognised his natural talent on the football field.

He went on to play for the South Sydney Rabbitohs, Penrith Panthers and Canterbury Bulldogs. But the play-hard, party-hard lifestyle that came with the territory eventually took its toll.

"The times that I was really high on drugs or I drank far too much alcohol, it was to silence what was really going on inside my head, the chatter," he said.

Once Williams left football and gave up illicit drugs and alcohol, he was no longer able to ignore his underlying mental health problems.

"For me, taking away the alcohol and drugs … the sore was underneath," he said.

"The voices all of a sudden got a hell of a lot louder. It was time to identify, correctly, what it was that I was going through and address that as a mental health problem as well."

Boxing as a lifeline

Williams's journey toward better health, and a greater understanding of his illness and himself, was not a speedy one.

He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and in 2009 made the decision to become a professional boxer. Ultimately, he said, it was boxing that changed his life.

"Boxing taught me how to fight back against myself," he said.

"I liken my mental health problems … to my boxing journey. Because when I'm in the ring and I've got negative voice inside my head telling me … 'Get out of there because you're getting your head punched in'.

"You've got to make a decision. You've got to stand up …. you can't get out of the ring or give up because you can end up dead."

Armed with this new attitude, Williams moved back to Wagga Wagga and started his own boxing gym.

"I wanted to train people's mindsets, because I knew what it did to me," he said.

Unlike the world NRL, Williams said, drugs and alcohol are frowned upon in boxing. And the characters that inhabit boxing gyms aren't always what people expect.

"A lot of people think boxers are big, aggressive sort of guys … but you walk into a boxing gym and you'll find the most humble people you could ever meet, because there's always somebody better. You can always get smartened up in the boxing ring," he said.

Reconnecting with Indigenous roots

Williams has just published a memoir, Defying The Enemy Within, and now travels the world as a motivational speaker, sharing his story in the hope of helping others struggling with mental health problems and addictions.


As a Wiradjuri man, he has also reconnected with his Indigenous roots, a process he says fortified his determination to stay well.

"Reconnecting to those ways has helped me in a margin that I can't describe," he said.

"I was a young boy trapped in a man's body. Now I'm reconnecting to culture and finding myself through culture.

"Our old people didn't have suicide or mental health problems … [they] had love, care, respect and humility for everyone and everything that did."

Asked what he believes is the most effective technique for improving mental health and wellbeing, Williams says the key is "connection with self".

"Identifying what it is that keeps you well … connection to family connection to friends, connection to pets, connection to whatever it is that's external to yourself … find that."