On the Ropes

In 1966, Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams fought Muhammad Ali for the world heavyweight championship. In 1996, he fights just to get by.

Around midnight that night, Williams and a friend were driving south toward Houston on State Highway 149. A state highway patrol car pulled them over to the side of the road, and patrolman Dale Witten -- a white man who stood five feet, nine inches and weighed 155 pounds -- arrested the pair: Williams for suspicion of driving while intoxicated; his friend, Ned Warner, for drunkenness.

Warner got in the patrol car's back seat; Williams, in the front. Officer Witten later told a Houston Chronicle reporter that Williams suddenly began to open the door while the car was moving. The cop said that when he stopped the car, "Williams drew back his fist, and it looked nine feet wide." Witten reached for his .357 Magnum. While he fumbled for the gun, he said, Williams hit him repeatedly.

Williams' version is slightly different. After the cop drew his gun, Williams says, he feared for his life, and tried only to shove the weapon into the seat of the car.

At any rate, Williams grabbed for the Magnum. And during the seconds-long struggle, the gun went off.

The bullet ripped into Williams at point-blank range. He remembers the words of a patrolman at the scene: "I don't want to take the nigger to the hospital and get his blood all over the car." And then he passed out.

Somehow, he was rushed to Ben Taub General Hospital. For nearly six hours he clung to life on the operating table. Doctors told the newspapers that he was in critical condition, and that he'd lost enough blood to kill half a dozen men. The bullet had traveled through his colon and bowel, torn through his right kidney, and damaged nerves in his leg. They left the bullet near his left hip; he lost the kidney.

He remained in the hospital for several months, and Bud Adams picked up the bills. Williams says that while he was in the hospital, Adams never asked to be repaid. The fighter assumed that Adams had some sort of hospitalization insurance for his athletes.

"I trusted him," Williams later testified in an affidavit. "I knew he was Bud Adams. I knew he owned the Houston Oilers, and I knew he dealt with professional athletes and was a very important man in this city and in this state and in the United States .... I remember Mr. Adams telling me, 'You don't need to read anything, Cleveland. You can trust me and I'll look out for this. You worry about fighting, and I'll worry about the business.' And this is what I tried to do."

In another affidavit, local featherweight fighter JoJo Passante recalled that Williams was hardly a savvy businessman. "He was almost childlike and very docile in his relationships with other people," Passante said. "During the time Cleveland was coming up through the late forties and fifties, it did not do a black man much good to argue with a white man in Texas. You did what you were told."

By the time of Williams' discharge, he'd withered to 155 pounds, and his moment as a contender seemed to have passed. He had no money and no prospects. He was sleeping in cars in the Fourth Ward when his future wife, Irene, and her family took him in and nursed him back to health.

In early 1965, Benbow and Adams dissolved their partnership after racking up heavy losses. Benbow hired Williams to work on his ranch, and the battered fighter began to rebuild his body. He lifted hay, plowed fields and went to bed early. Then he added pushups and calisthenics to the regimen. Finally, Big Cat began to fight again.

Two years after the shooting, Williams was back in top shape. Al "Potato Pie" Boulden, a former lightweight and now a trainer, remembers Williams' physique with awe: "His body was chiseled like it was cut from stone." Under Benbow's management, he fought four journeyman fighters and won all four matches.

Big Cat was back. But not for long.

The Vietnam War dominated the news pages in 1966, and Muhammad Ali was one of the stories. Ali balked at signing up for the draft and waged a protracted battle with the Selective Service System. His mantra became well-known across America: "I don't have nothing against no Vietcong."

His protests generated headlines and hate from all corners of the country. In Chicago, Mayor Richard Daly refused to let him fight. Even Joe Louis, the Brown Bomber, denounced him.

Ali was no more popular in Houston, but promoters Arum and Benbow recognized his drawing power -- and amplified it by pitting him against an Army veteran and hometown hero, and one with a touching comeback story to boot. On the night of November 14, 1966, Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams was slated for his biggest match ever: the fight for the heavyweight championship of the world.

That night, excitement ran high at the Astrodome. Ali was favored, but boxing insiders said Williams stood a better-than-average chance at victory; he was the hottest challenger to the champ yet. Outside, picketers marched with signs calling Ali a draft dodger. Inside, the seats filled with screaming fans, including celebrities such as singer Robert Goulet, trumpet player Al Hirt and Williams' hero, fighter Joe Louis.

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