Cleveland Williams Never Should Have Been Allowed To Face Ali
By Bobby Franklin
In the opening sequence of the movie Requiem For A Heavyweight, a young Cassius Clay is seen throwing a punches during a fight. The view of the action is seen through the eyes of his opponent Mountain Rivera, played by Anthony Quinn, a washed up former contender who is now being used as an opponent and as a way for his unscrupulous manager Maish Rennick, played by Jackie Gleason, to keep squeezing a few more dollars out of him. It is a tragic story about a fighter on the way out being milked by the creeps that infest the world of boxing. The movie is fiction, but the real life world of boxing is not much different from what is depicted in it.
The story of Cleveland Williams and his fight against Muhammad Ali fits the ugly narrative of Requiem For A Heavyweight pretty closely. In fact, what was done to Williams was much worse than what was done to the fictional Rivera. First, some background.
When asked what fight shows Muhammad Ali at his absolute peak, most boxing aficionados will point to the champ’s bout against Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams. That choice makes sense when you look at the fight without knowing the background of the challenger and his physical condition at the time of the fight. It also adds up if you only look at Ali’s performance and don’t examine Williams’ moves during the fight.
The fight took place on November 14, 1966 at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. Ali had won the title on February 25, 1964 with a stunning upset over Sonny Liston. A little over a year later he again defeated Liston, this time by a first round knockout in Lewiston, Maine. Muhammad vowed to be an active champion and he lived up to that promise. Over the next year leading up to the Williams bout, Ali fought five times defending the title both in the United States as well as in Europe. He decisively defeated all the opponents put in front of him. The list includes Floyd Patterson, George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Brian London, and Karl Mildenberger. These opponents may not make it to anyone’s list of all time greats, but they were the leading contenders at the time. Ali was not one to duck an opponent.
During the reign of Floyd Patterson, most of the top contenders were denied a shot at the title. Things were different with Ali as champ. Talented and confident, he was willing to take on all comers. But unfortunately, as 1966 was closing out there really weren’t any outstanding contenders that stood a chance against Muhammad. The young crowd which included Jerry Quarry, Joe Frazier, Oscar Bonavena, and Thad Spencer were still a few years away from being ready to challenge for the title. Ali had been going through the former champs and contenders that were now beginning to age. There had been an effort to make a match against Ernie Terrell who claimed the WBA Heavyweight Championship, but terms for a contract had not been able to be worked out. Ali would go on to face Terrell the following year. He would also give Zora Folley a chance in 1967 in what would be Muhammad’s last fight before being exiled from boxing over his refusal to be inducted into the United States Army.
In the meantime, the name Cleveland Williams was tossed into the mix. A resident of Houston, Williams had a reputation as a very hard puncher. At the time, Ali had been so successful at not getting hit it was thought he might have a weak chin. After all, Henry Cooper had decked him with a left hook. Even though he was not a ranked contender, the fight was sold on the basis of Cleveland’s punching power. While Ali would certainly be the favorite, Williams had a “puncher’s chance,” at least that’s what the promoters convinced the public of.
The fight drew a live audience of 35,460 fans to the Astrodome, setting a record at the time for the largest crowd to witness an indoor fight. Gross receipts were $461,290 plus revenue from television and radio. The hype had worked.
As for the fight. Ali certainly looked impressive as he moved around Williams landing punches at will while never getting hit a serious blow in return. It was all over at 1:08 of the third round after Williams had been dropped on four occasions, three times in the second round and once in the third before the referee stopped the carnage. It was one of the most one-sided fights in heavyweight championship history.
Did Ali look magnificent that night? Without a doubt he did. He had the grace of a ballet dancer, the speed of a middleweight, and reflexes that were phenomenal. He was poised and relaxed. However, this was not a great win for him. While it is breathtaking to watch him in action against Williams, it must also be taken into account the caliber of his opposition. This is also not the fight to use when arguing how great Ali was. For while Ali had been staying very active in the years leading up to the fight, things were a bit different for Williams.
And The Ugly Side Of Boxing
Cleveland Williams was born on June 30, 1933 in Griffin, Georgia. He has stated he began his professional boxing career at the age of fourteen, lying about his age in order to get a license to box. When his real age was discovered he had to put his career on hold. A few years later he moved to Florida where he began boxing again.
According tom BoxRec, his first official pro fight was against Lee Hunt on December 11, 1951. He won by a knockout in the 2nd round. He went on to win 28 in a row with 25 victories by knockout. All his fights were in the South. He proved to have terrific punching power but, with the exception of Omelio Agramonte who was long past his prime, had not beaten any significant opposition.
The win against Agramonte did earn him a chance to fight in New York where he took on Sylvester Jones who was in only his tenth fight. This was a four round preliminary bout and Cleveland was dropped twice on his way to losing a decision. The fight was on the undercard of the Marciano/LaStanza Heavyweight Title fight.
Williams returned to Florida and ran off five more wins including a knock out over Jones. He was now matched against Bob Satterfield in Miami Beach. Williams was a late substitute for Satterfield’s original opponent. Even though he had a 25 pound weight advantage, Williams was knocked cold by Satterfield in the third round and it took several minutes to revive him.
Again, Williams resumed his career and ran up a series of wins. His next big chance would be against top contender Sonny Liston. It was April 15, 1959 and Liston stopped him in the third round. The two would fight again a year later and Liston would win by kayo in the second round.
Williams did not give up and had his best years in 1961 and 1962. During this time he scored wins over such fighters as Alex Miteff, Wayne Bethea, Alonzo Johnson, and Ernie Terrell. He also held Eddie Machen to a draw. There was now some talk of him getting a shot at the title. In a rematch with Terrell he lost a decision and in the meantime a young upstart named Cassius Clay had wrested the title from Sonny Liston. While Clay was winning the title in 1964, something major was also happening in the life of Cleveland Williams, something major and tragic.
On the night of November 29, 1964 Williams was stopped by a Texas State Police officer for suspicion of driving while intoxicated. What ensued is somewhat disputed, but the two got into a struggle and during the altercation the officer’s 357 Magnum was fired sending a bullet through Williams’s body ripping through his intestines and right kidney, lodging against his right hip. He was taken to a hospital where he died three times on the operating table. He lost a kidney and the bullet remained in his body. He shrank down to 155 pounds and had several more operations over the next 7 months. During his time in the hospital, Williams’s co-manager, Bud Williams, told him not to worry about the cost of his care as it was all being covered. Williams was not told by Adams that a tally was being kept and that Cleveland would be held liable for the expenses.
Cleveland Williams proved to be an amazing patient. In spite of all the damage he sustained from the shooting, he was determined to fight again. This was not a wise decision for a man who had been through what he had, but even though he now had only one kidney and a bullet still lodged in him, his managers encouraged him to continue boxing. They knew they could still make money with him. He began regaining his strength by working on his manger’s ranch. The manager, Hugh Benbow had bought out Bud William’s share of Cleveland’s contract and now was fully in charge. Williams regained much of his muscle mass and once again looked formidable, but the nerve damage had caused permanent harm to his reflexes. Just imagine, having your insides shot to pieces from a 357 Magnum and then stepping back into the ring just a little over a year later. That is just what Cleveland did.
On February 8, 1966 Williams faced Ben Black, a fighter with only four bouts on his record. He scored a first round kayo. He then went on to fight Mel Turnbow, Sonny Moore, and Tod Herring. He won all three but Turnbow dropped him during their match.
Based on these four wins and some amazing promoting by Hugh Benbow, Williams was now signed to fight Muhammad Ali for the title. Benbow must have had some real pull with the press as it was written that Ali’s camp was afraid of having him take on The Big Cat. It was claimed the only way Benbow could get them to agree was to convince them Williams was still suffering from his injuries from the shooting. To believe Ali only took the bout because he felt he was facing a semi invalid is ridiculous. However, it is true that Williams was in no condition to fight.
I looked back at the ratings during Cleveland Williams years boxing. Ring Magazine only rated him in the top ten during four years: 1961, 1962, 1963, and 1964. He was never ranked higher than number four, and was unranked at the time of his fight with Ali. His reputation was based on his punching power and the fact that Sonny Liston had called him one of the hardest punchers he had ever faced. His biggest fights were his losses to Liston, the victory, later reversed, over Ernie Terrell, and a draw with Eddie Machen.
On the night of the Ali fight, Williams was served with papers from lawyers representing his former manager Bud Adams. The suit being filed claimed Adams was owed $67,615.00 by Williams for the money that was spent while Cleveland was in the hospital. This meant that his purse for the fight would be attached and he would end up with pocket change after the bout. On top of having partial paralysis in his right hip, only one kidney, and a bullet pressing against his hip, Williams now knew he would make no money for the fight. He had to step into the ring that night against one of the greatest fighters of all time dealing with that burden. It was like a scene out of The Harder They Fall.
When you watch the fight, instead of focusing on Ali pay attention to Cleveland Williams. At the opening bell you can see how stiff his legs are. He actually stumbles a bit as he moves out from his corner. His legs have very little muscle mass. When he misses with a left hook he stumbles. He might look powerful, but the man still should have been in a rehab working on his reflexes and coordination. For Ali, this was more like working out on a heavy bag than fighting a man.
What Williams did was remarkable in coming back from death. He worked hard and restored his muscles, but he had been torn apart physically and emotionally. He never, never, should have been in a boxing ring.
Calling this Muhammad Ali’s greatest fight is a travesty. Ali had many great fights, but judging his greatness off of this one is plain silly. I asked boxing historian Mike Silver, the author of The Arc of Boxing about this and he said: “To say that Ali’s knockout of a damaged Cleveland Williams was his greatest performance is like saying the greatest performance of Larry Holmes’ career was his fight against a damaged Muhammad Ali. Both Ali and Williams were “shot” fighters (Williams literally) and were incapable of offering serious resistance.” He is correct. To Ali’s credit he never bragged about this victory.
Williams quit boxing after this fight, but broke and without a way to earn a living he made a comeback two years later. He fought from 1968 to 1972 when he retired for good. He ended up losing his remaining kidney and had to have dialysis treatments twice a week for the rest of his life. Boxing promoters and managers milked him for all they could get out of him and then left him to fend for himself. It is an ugly story, but one not uncommon in boxing.
Cleveland Williams died at the age of 66 broke and sick. He was killed when hit by a car while returning home from a dialysis treatment, marking a tragic ending to a tragic life.
Next time you are watching the Ali/Williams fight and in awe of how “great” Ali looks in it, just take some time to think about what condition Cleveland Williams was in that night. Also consider the type of people who inhabit the world of professional boxing. These are people who would throw an invalid into the ring with a great fighter and then take him for all he’s worth. Instead of watching that fight and getting all excited about Ali’s performance, you should feel sick when you know what really happened that night.