Greatest Knockouts: Ali vs. Williams
Muhammad Ali vs. Cleveland Williams
November 14, 1966 - The Astrodome, Houston, TX
The fight was Ali's seventh in defense of the crown, his first on American soil since he had made his famous "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Congs" remark earlier in the year. Caught in the patriotic backlash of angered politicians, Ali had been literally a man without a country, defending his title in Toronto, London, and Frankfurt, but not in the United States. This was to be, in effect, his "homecoming," although not a very popular one.
But Ali, who had once credited part of his success on the fact that he had stolen a page from the promotional guidebook of Gorgeous George ("I saw 15,000 people coming to see this man get beat. His talking did it. And I said, 'This is a g-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-d idea.' "), paid the boos and jeers no mind, certain they would be accompanied by bodies that would pay to see him get beat.
And they did pay to see him -- whether it was to get "whupped" by their local hometown favorite, Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams, or merely to see the first prizefight in what had been ballyhooed as the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Houston Astrodome -- 35,460 strong, setting an indoor record that had stood uneclipsed for 25 years, and paying in a near-record $461,290.When Ali entered the ring, the boos could be heard from all the way up to the $5 seats near the top of the ballpark's plastic crust down to the $100 ringside seats perched somewhere on the AstroTurf infield. And they were cheering, in one voice, for his opponent, challenger Cleveland Williams, who came into the ring weighing 212 pounds, a fraction of that weight a .357 magnum slug still lodged in his body, courtesy of a Texas state trooper who, two years before, had taken umbrage at something the Cat had said and now sat in the audience to root for the man who carried the souvenir of his handiwork.
But if Williams carried a slug into the ring with him that night, he also carried an awesome record as well -- the winner of 65 of 71 fights, 51 by knockout, 15 in the first round. His punching power was reputed to be the equal of any heavyweight in boxing -- past or present -- and there were those who believed that the Cat would triumph, including his voluble manager, Hugh Benbow, who said, "the Cat and me will take care of Clay in three."
But if Williams' punching power -- compared to that of Liston and Bob Satterfield -- was thought to be enough to turn the 5-1 underdog into a winner, on a percentage basis, Ali's was even better. Whereas Williams was batting .717, with his 51 knockouts in 71 fights, Ali was hitting .808, with 21 knockouts in 26 times at bat. Comparisons aside, one thing was sure: this fight would not go to a decision.
Ali-Clay, who came into the fight at 213½ pounds, the second highest weight of his career -- up until that point -- started off the fight in his usual manner, moving away from the ever-pursuing Cat, hands at his side, daring the 33-year-old (going on 40) Williams to "come and get him." Almost a minute passed as the two combatants went through their middle-of-the-ring charade. Finally, Williams threw a left at the ever-retreating Ali, but by the time he got there, the champ was gone, only to return scant seconds later to throw a flurry of punches off of his left jab.
Encouraged by his success, Ali shot a left to the body followed by three lefts to the head. Williams seemed paralyzed and unable to find his elusive tormentor, steadfastly standing like a tree while the champion flitted around him, picking his spots. Finally Williams got off first, cutting the ring off on Ali and landing a stiff left to the head. It was a mistake, as Ali moved out of harm's way, and on his way threw a flurry of six punches, all landing to Williams' guarded but still unprotected head.
Williams, unable to find any gear but straight ahead, came in again, and for his trouble received a volley of eight more shots to the head, all landing. A trickle of blood could be seen on Williams' face as Ali began to play the role of a finger painter, smearing it across the whole of Williams' face with a jab, a straight right, a hook, and a right. The bell rang and a still fresh Ali skipped to his corner while Williams wearily trudged back to his.
The Cat came out of his corner for round two, the words of Benbow still ringing in his ear, "Jab ... jab ... jab." But jab at what? The will-o'-the-wisp who was in front of him just a second ago was long gone by the time he loaded up, and when he repositioned himself he was met by yet another volley of punches. Williams tried to put together a combination, landing a left to the body of the bobbing champion, but missing with his vaunted right to the head. He caught Ali-Clay with a left hook. And then it happened. Preceded by an accentuated five-step in-place tango maneuver he called "the Ali Shuffle," the champion threw a left and then a right reminiscent of the one he had caught the incoming Sonny Liston with at Lewiston. Williams hung in midair momentarily and then fell to the canvas.
Painfully regaining his footing at the count of six -- as referee Harry Kessler tolled off the mandatory eight -- Williams was more like a lamb than a cat going back to the slaughter. A barrage of lefts and rights sent Williams spinning to the canvas again. This time he was up at five, but Kessler kept tolling the mandatory count of eight.
Once more Williams tried to go the only way he had ever learned to go -- forward -- and, for his efforts he caught more punches, this time a left and a right. He stood in midring, looking like a puppet who had had his strings cut only recently, and then fell in as broad a fall as any Hollywood stuntman ever managed, down and apparently out. But as Kessler counted five over the spread-eagled form below him, the bell rang, saving Cleveland for yet another round. And another drubbing.
The third round was, in actuality, merely a continuation of the second. Ali, looking like he could take a man holding a .357 magnum as well as one with a .357 bullet lodged in him, went back on the attack, and found it difficult to miss the man in front of him. Then, as if he were remembering some promise unkept, he went back into his little five-step dance and threw another left-right combination. Williams did a two-and-a-half gainer to the canvas again. And again, incredibly, he climbed back to his feet.
The final scene was a tragic one. Cleveland Williams stood where he had arisen, making no attempt to defend himself -- and unable to raise his hands -- blood poured down from his nose while Ali savaged him with a left, a right, and another left. Referee Harry Kessler jumped in. He had had enough, even if the Big Cat hadn't.
It was over at 1:08 of the third round. And while it hadn't been a great fight, it had been Cassius Clay (a.k.a. Muhammad Ali)'s greatest, the night he had declawed the Cat.
Boxing historian Bert Sugar is host of ESPN Classic's "Ringside" and a contributor to ESPN.com.