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.

Alone, Cleveland returned to Houston in 1974 and took up life as a truck driver, lifting and hauling pipes from the Port of Houston to destinations around Texas. Occasionally someone remembered his name, and when that happened, he braced himself for the question that dogged him: "Hey, Big Cat, why didn't you punch Ali again?"

He sank into obscurity, his lawsuit the only remnant of his life as a contender. In 1984, even that ended. The summary judgment was in Adams' favor; Williams got nothing.

In 1988, he lost his second kidney. His doctors did all they could, but even a transplant failed. Once again, Cleveland Williams was fighting for his life.

But this time, the fight would be long and slow.

At 4:45 Friday morning, Williams leaves his government-subsidized apartment on Cullen Boulevard and boards a Metro bus. He crosses town in the dark, heading for Methodist Hospital Annex in the Medical Center. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, he makes this trip for four hours of dialysis. Medicare pays the bills.

Williams is one of 20 patients who line both sides of a long, narrow room. They lie in chairs in various stages of reclining. The scene resembles a barbershop -- except that here, everyone is staying alive by virtue of five-foot-tall gray machines that do the job of missing kidneys.

By 8 a.m. Williams is curled up in one chair, his shoestring body crumpled under a black quilt. Two scarlet tubes tether his left arm to a machine. As he sleeps, he looks more like a baby than a former prizefighter.

Sometimes dialysis leaves him tired, so perhaps today won't be the best time to talk. But then, there aren't many good times to talk anymore. His medicine for high blood pressure sometimes causes his speech to slur. Sometimes he has lapses in memory. He loses little, recent facts, things like how many grandchildren he has.

But when he wakes up, Williams is alert and cheerful. He's talking about boxing -- one of the big, old things that he never forgets. He has a spark in his eye.

Did Ali punch hard?
"Nah," Williams deadpans. "He just hit unexpectedly ... and he was a little speedy."

He grows animated, explaining his strategy in the ring. He strikes a pose, raising his right hand to cover his face while he hunches his shoulders up from the reclining chair.

"The key is to suck him into a position," he says, "and then, BAM, you hit him." With his left arm, he starts to throw an air punch. In the process, he bends the tubes that carry blood to and from his body. The dialysis machine flashes the words "alarm, alarm, alarm." An aide rushes to his side.

When calm is restored, one of Williams' doctors checks the situation. "He's been very sick in the past, but he takes good care of himself," says the doctor. "He's a fighter in every sense of the word."

At 8 p.m. on Monday night, the Humble Civic Center auditorium is packed: 600 fans hungry for a knockout. Tonight, local promoter Roy Foreman is staging his third "Rumble in Humble," an exhibition fight. A number of six-rounders will lead up to the main event.

Foreman berates his brother and other boxers for forgetting the former contenders: "I don't think George, Tyson -- I don't think they give enough back to the sport." But all that Roy can offer Big Cat is a free ticket to the matches and a moment in the spotlight.

Foreman still remembers his old hero with awe. "Cleveland was quick and strong and agile. If he hadn't taken that .357 bullet, he would have taken Ali."

Tonight, Foreman seats Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams ringside with his son Reuben, now 27, beside him. It's their first boxing match together. The two form a handsome tableau. Big Cat sports a tan golfing cap, black jacket, white polo shirt and tan slacks. His son, a younger, lankier version of Cleveland, is dressed all in khaki, and wears a little gold earring.

Reuben and Irene returned to Houston in 1986, after Reuben graduated from high school. Reuben, now himself a father, owns a barbershop in Clear Lake -- a fact that Cleveland never forgets. He is immensely proud of his son, with whom he's only now re-establishing ties.

Some days, Irene says, Cleveland calls her and bemoans that he wasn't around to see Reuben grow up. "He says how sorry he is about it all," she says. "I tell him, the past is the past."

Maybe so, but boxing is still much the same. The first fight pits Larry O'Shields, in black satin trunks, against Juan Roguine, in green. O'Shields throws hard jabs, one after the other. Roguine swings, but O'Shields is quicker. A jab lands on Roguine's cheek, near his eye. Blood drips from his eye down the side of his face.

A man in the crowd shouts out to stop the fight, that Roguine can't see. No one pays attention.

"If he would step in with a left hook, the fight would be over," Williams says to Reuben. "He's jabbing like I used to jab."

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