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.

Irene Williams was in her husband's dressing room as he prepared for the match. When someone knocked on the door, Irene says, she opened it and let the man in: "I thought he was a fan who wanted to wish Cleve good luck."

The man wasn't. He was a process server.
The stranger handed Williams legal papers -- papers that said Bud Adams would garnish Williams' purse for the night, that because of hospital expenses and money advanced to him, he owed $67,615 to the dissolved A and B Boxing Enterprises.

It's not clear just why Adams chose that moment to announce his claim. A spokesperson for Adams says he has no comment. Maybe Adams didn't realize when the process would be served; maybe he still harbored resentment toward his old partner, Benbow; or maybe he was plain malicious. Adams refuses to comment on the matter, and Benbow -- who might have known -- died in 1993.

Whatever Adams' reasoning, the papers' effect on Big Cat was clear. Benbow would later say the fighter seemed to be in a trance, that after receiving Adams' document, Williams "almost turned white." Williams remembers that Irene cried, "They've taken our money. They've taken our money. You're not going to get paid for this fight."

"I couldn't get myself together," Williams recalls. "I could have done better without getting served. I believe I would have beat him .... It shook my confidence. I was fighting for nothin'."

Irene remembers that Ali somehow heard about Adams' threat of garnishment, and in a show of solidarity, visited Williams. According to Irene, Ali told Big Cat, "If you don't want to go out there, we don't fight." Williams, though, dutifully chose to go on with the show; he didn't want to disappoint all the people involved.

Film of the fight shows that Ali warmed up in one corner, throwing air punches, bouncing on his toes and strutting before the booing crowd. Williams' bearing looked entirely different. He entered the ring with his head down. There are no shots of his punching the air or running in place.

"Potato Pie" Boulden was in the crowd, and he knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. Fighters always warm up before a match; before the first bell rings, a boxer should be covered in sweat. But Big Cat, Boulden remembers, was "dry as a bone."

The film shows Big Cat slipping off his robe, the one with "Cleveland Williams" emblazoned across the back. The bell rang, and the worst seven minutes and eight seconds of his life began.

He remembers taking blows and hitting the canvas. "Get up and fight, you son of a bitch," yelled Benbow. "Get up and fight!"

Ali knocked Williams down three times in the second round and once in the third. Blood gushed from Big Cat's nose and mouth, but he still stood, wobbly on his feet. At 1:08 in the third round, the referee stopped the fight, declaring Ali the winner by a technical knockout.

The crowd, which only seconds before had booed Ali, now swarmed him.
With Irene, Big Cat retreated to his dressing room. On the way, she turned to him. "Now," she said, "you have to begin life as an ordinary person."

Taking the bullet and then losing his purse was a one-two punch that left Williams reeling.

In the days that followed, Benbow announced that he was retiring Big Cat. Without a job, Williams focused on the money he believed should have been his: his cut from the bout with Ali. According to media reports at the time, Ali received about $200,000 for the fight; Williams, $92,256. But Williams says he actually got next to nothing: only about $7,500. He says that even with hospital expenses subtracted, he was owed $40,000.

Williams tried to see Adams, but Adams refused to take his calls. "He treated me like dirt," says Williams. He presses his thumb into a table: "He mashed me like an ant."

Williams took Adams to court -- never mind that the former boxer could hardly compete with the oilman's legal firepower. For the next 15 years, Adams would be represented by Vinson & Elkins, one of the city's top firms; but in that time, Williams would see his case pass through three different lawyers. The last, Donald E. Kirkpatrick, would eventually be disbarred in 1992, after inducing a mentally incompetent man to sign over his power of attorney.

For a while after the Ali fight, Big Cat stayed in Houston, sparring often at a downtown gym with George Foreman, then a young up-and-coming heavyweight. But with hopes of making yet a third comeback, Big Cat moved to Detroit to work with Jake LaMotta's trainer. He fought a dozen more times, with a mixed record, and made barely enough money to survive. So when he tore an Achilles tendon in 1971, he quit the ring. "I just didn't have any more confidence," he says.

As his career fell apart, so did his marriage. He and Irene split in '73. "I wasn't making enough money to support my family," he says sadly. "We separated, and I made her go. I made her leave. I couldn't work. I couldn't fight." Reuben, their only child, was four years old. Irene moved him to New York, where he did most of his growing up.

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