On the Ropes
The bare white walls of his apartment reveal no clues to his fame. There are no photos of his bouts with Muhummad Ali, Sonny Liston and Ernie Terrell. The polyester curtain sags from the rod. His silver walking cane rests on a muddy brown flowered sofa. Plastic prescription bottles cluster on the dining room table; underneath it, there's only one chair.
Everything in the apartment says that Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams is poor and sick and alone. Nothing says he was once a contender.
When pressed, Williams offers a pocket-size, tattered leather photo album with one photo from his boxing days: the cover of Ring magazine, the issue dated November 1966 -- just before he fought Muhammad Ali for the heavyweight championship of the world. The magazine cover shows that Williams' face, at least, hasn't changed much. He still has a narrow chin, high cheekbones and a wide forehead. But now, at 63, his black hair is laced with gray, and his body is an old man's.
He moves in slow, measured steps, leaning on his silver cane. His gray shirt is neatly pressed; his matching chinos have a hole in the knee. At a photographer's request, he settles into a cheap metal chair and holds up the satin robe he wore that November night nearly 30 years ago.
That fight still stands as the greatest boxing match Houston ever hosted. Some 35,460 fans jammed the Astrodome, the largest indoor crowd a match had ever drawn. The live gate money -- $461,290 -- also set a record. The fight helped launch Bob Arum into the stratosphere of the world's premiere fight promoters. Ali picked up thousands and continued his march to even greater fame. And Oilers owner Bud Adams, who also owned half of Williams' contract, would claim he deserved $67,000 from the proceeds.
The fight did well by everyone. Everyone, that is, except the Big Cat.
His story is the story of old prizefighters everywhere. They start young and poor and ambitious, dreaming of the big time, the big money. But on their way to the top, they neglect the fine print and the bottom line. And no organizations exist to help them absorb life's blows: no unions, no benevolent societies, no old prizefighters' homes. The washed-up contenders end up with no pension, no savings, no disability coverage -- with nothing left from their glory days except a satin robe and a few fans who remember.
Cleveland Williams didn't go into boxing for the glory, or because he enjoyed hitting people, or to make the world a better place. He says bluntly, "I was fighting for the money."
Like most men who box professionally, he grew up poor. He was born in rural Griffin, Georgia, in 1933. His mother and grandmother raised him; both were maids. He dropped out of school in seventh grade. At 18, he moved to Tampa to find work and help support his ailing mother. There, he began to fight for a living.
"I made about $25 for four rounds, and I started liking it," he remembers. His reputation grew steadily; by 1952, he had won 20 fights without a loss. He dreamed of buying his own home and maybe a new car.
A year later he traded in his gloves for an Army uniform. After finishing his three-year stint, he moved to Houston and returned to the ring. By the end of 1958, he had racked up a stunning 43-2 win-loss record.
In the ring, Williams was a force to be reckoned with. He stood six feet, two inches and weighed 215 pounds; he could land a thunderous punch with either his right or left hand. He owed his nickname, Big Cat, to his feline grace and speed.
On the streets of Houston, he was a hero. Roy Foreman, George Foreman's brother and a local fight promoter, remembers how he idolized Williams while growing up in the Fifth Ward. "His muscles were unreal," Foreman says, "and he drove a real nice Cadillac."
In 1962, Williams' manager sold his contract to two Houstonians: Hugh S. Benbow and K.S. "Bud" Adams. Adams and Benbow owned the A and B Gym on Travis Street and an up-and-coming stable of fighters.
Williams dealt mostly with Benbow, a gravelly voiced, aggressive fight promoter. The fighter hardly ever saw Adams, but Benbow told him that his invisible partner, owner of the Houston Oilers, was a rich and powerful man. Williams figured that his luck was on the upswing.
He continued to chalk up victories. By the fall of 1964, Big Cat had fought 67 professional fights, winning 50 by knockouts. He'd lost only four times; two of those losses were to Sonny Liston, then on his way to the heavyweight championship.
For a couple of weeks that November, he was a contender for the heavyweight championship of the world. After a contract dispute, the World Boxing Association stripped Muhammad Ali of his title; the WBA then tapped Williams to fight Ernie Terrell for the empty spot at the top. The big event was scheduled for January, to be held in Houston -- Big Cat's home turf.
But after the night of November 28, Big Cat wouldn't be fighting for that title. He'd be fighting for his life.
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.
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.
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."
The sound of leather gloves pounding skin echoes ringside. Sweat flies. Roguine's face looks like raw meat. His left eye is swollen to a slit.
Williams explains that the blood and the eye aren't serious. He recounts how once, after his eyes were punched shut, he propped his eyelids open with matchsticks. The problem, says Big Cat, is that Roguine isn't in condition.
Reuben says he never wanted to be a fighter. Fighters, he says, take a lot of punishment.
The match finally ends. O'Shields wins, and Roguine leaves the ring head down, his face swollen and bruised.
The bouts continue, each fight with a winner, a loser, its own rhythm and story.
Sometime after 10 p.m., a skinny blond announcer in a tuxedo steps into the ring. He yells to the crowd, instructing it to give a big hand to Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams, the man who fought Muhammad Ali.
The crowd cheers and claps. Big Cat rises to his full height and extends his long arms high in the air. He spins slowly around the room, waving, facing every side of the crowd as if this were the Astrodome.
For a few seconds, Cleveland Williams looks like a contender.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.
- Rice University President: Nobody Here Wants Campus-Carry
- There's No New Contract Yet, But UH's Tom Herman Says He's Sticking Around
- Ken Paxton Really Doesn't Want You to See Him in Court Today