Cleveland Williams

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Cleveland Williams
World Boxing Hall of Fame Inductee

Name: Cleveland Williams
Alias: Big Cat
Birth Name: Cleveland T. Williams
Hometown: Houston, Texas, USA
Birthplace: Griffin, Georgia, USA
Died: 1999-09-11 (Age:66)
Stance: Orthodox
Height: 188cm
Reach: 203cm
Pro Boxer: Record

Managers: Lou Viscusi (1952-1963), Hugh Benbow & Bud Adams
Trainers: Bill Gore, Perry Payne, Billy DeFoe (1968), Al Silvani

Cleveland Williams Gallery

Career Review

  • Williams, who was born on a farm in Griffin, Georgia, began boxing professionally at age 14. "I got away with it because I weighed 182 pounds then and looked old enough," he said. "I had six pro fights, won four of them by knockouts, and I lost one and drew one. But then the boxing commissioner found out my age, and I was barred until I was 18."
  • At age 18, Williams moved to Tampa, Florida, and resumed his professional boxing career.
  • Williams boxed primarily on small club shows in the American South—known as the "Southern Hicktown League"—and won 27 consecutive bouts, 23 by knockout.
  • Bob Satterfield, who finished 1953 as The Ring magazine's ninth-ranked heavyweight contender, knocked Williams out in three rounds on June 22, 1954, in Miami Beach, Florida. Following the defeat, Williams was drafted into the United States Army and didn't fight again until August 6, 1956, more than two years.
  • Following his discharge from the U.S. Army, Williams won 12 consecutive bouts, including a fourth-round disqualification win against Dick Richardson in England on March 25, 1958. The two were scheduled to have a rematch in Wales on July 2, 1958, but Williams withdrew on the day of the fight, claiming he received "a message from above" that he should not go through with the bout. As a result, Williams was barred from British rings by the British Boxing Board of Control.
  • Williams was knocked out in three rounds by Sonny Liston on April 15, 1959. He had a rematch with Liston on March 21, 1960, and was knocked out in two rounds.
  • Williams stopped Ernie Terrell in seven rounds on April 3, 1962. He had a rematch with Terrell on April 13, 1963, and lost by a 10-round split decision.
  • On November 20, 1964, the World Boxing Association announced that Williams and Ernie Terrell would fight for the organization's vacant heavyweight title, which had been stripped from Muhammad Ali. (The WBA said it stripped Ali of the title because he violated the organization's rule against rematch clauses when he signed to make his first title defense against Sonny Liston, from whom he had won the title.) Williams and Terrell were scheduled to fight for the title in January 1965, but the bout was canceled after Williams was shot by a police officer on November 28, 1964.
  • Williams returned to the ring in February 1966 and won four consecutive fights.
  • The Ring featured Williams on the cover of the November 1966 issue.
  • Williams challenged Muhammad Ali for the World Heavyweight Championship on November 14, 1966. In what many consider to be the best performance of his career, Ali retained the title with a third-round technical knockout. Williams announced his retirement following the loss.
  • Williams launched a comeback in May 1968 and won five consecutive fights before he lost to Bob Cleroux by a 10-round unanimous decision on November 21, 1968. Over the next two years, Williams suffered knockout losses against Al Jones, Mac Foster (twice) and Alvin "Blue" Lewis.
  • Williams boxed two rounds with World Heavyweight Champion Joe Frazier during an exhibition in Houston, Texas, on July 14, 1971. Frazier boxed two rounds each with Williams and James Helwig. The Associated Press reported: "Williams stood around in the first round against Frazier, sizing up the champ. But in the second round Williams connected on several shots to Frazier and on one occasion backed the champ into the ropes." Afterward, Frazier said Williams "still had that power."
  • Williams won the vacant Texas State heavyweight title on May 11, 1972, with a 12-round unanimous decision against Terry Daniels, who had unsuccessfully challenged Joe Frazier for the World Heavyweight Championship in his previous bout. Williams retired for good after winning his next two fights. After retiring from boxing, he worked as a truck driver, lifting and hauling pipes from the Port of Houston to destinations around Texas.
  • Historian Herbert G. Goldman ranked Williams as the 22nd greatest heavyweight of all-time in 1989.
  • Williams was inducted into the World Boxing Hall of Fame in 1997.
  • The Ring ranked Williams as the 31st greatest heavyweight of all-time in 1998.
  • The Ring ranked Williams as the 49th greatest puncher of all-time in 2003.

Altercation with Texas Highway Patrolman

On the night of November 29, 1964, a car driven by Williams was stopped by a highway patrolman, Dale Witten, on State Highway 149 near Houston, Texas. Witten said Williams was speeding and nearly forced his patrol car off the road. In the car with Williams was a friend, Ned Warner, and two women.

Williams was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated and Warner for drunkenness. (Williams always maintained that while he had been drinking, he was not drunk and was driving normally.) The two women—both sober—were not arrested. Williams was placed in the front passenger seat of the patrol car, and Warner was put in the back.

Williams said he thought the arrest would ruin his boxing career. "I begged the officer, 'Please don't take me to jail,'" he said. "The officer was driving pretty fast, and I said, 'Please let me jump out of the car and kill myself. I don't want to go to jail.' I thought, 'This is going to ruin everything, and Mr. Benbow [Williams's manager, Hugh Benbow] is going to be mad at me.'"

Witten said Williams suddenly began to open the door while the car was moving, and when he stopped the car, "Williams drew back his fist, and it looked nine feet wide." Witten, who weighed 155 pounds, reached for his .357 Magnum. While he fumbled for the gun, Williams hit him repeatedly.

"He pulled his gun from his left side and when I saw it, I thought he was going to shoot me, and I reached for it," Williams said. "I grabbed his arm, and we rolled out the door and onto the gravel beside the road. I don't remember hitting that officer, and I don't believe I did. He was a little man, and if I had hit him, I would have knocked him out."

The gun fired during the struggle and hit Williams in the stomach. The bullet moved across Williams's intestines and lodged against his right hip. "I went numb all over," Williams said. "That's all I remember."

While an ambulance took Williams to a hospital, Witten went to the state patrol's district headquarters, where his supervisor took pictures of him before he was was taken to the hospital to have his wounds treated. The photos indicated three wounds—one just below the hairline on the left side of his head, another above the left eyebrow and the third on his left cheek.

Williams underwent nearly six hours of surgery that involved removal of a small section of intestine. "I died three times on that operating table," Williams said.

"I've never seen a man with such a constitution," Dr. D.L. Bricker said after the surgery. "He lost enough blood to kill a half-dozen men."

"Doctors told me they had never seen such muscles on a human being," said Hugh Benbow. "Anyone else, they said, would have been killed by the shot."

Perry Payne, Williams's trainer, was with the boxer when he regained consciousness. He said Williams asked, "Is the old man [Benbow] mad at me?"

Williams underwent four operations over the next seven months for colon damage and an injured right kidney, which was removed in June 1965. Doctors did not take out the bullet, which had broken his right hip joint and caused partial paralysis of some hip muscles.

Williams lost almost 60 pounds off his 220-pound frame, but he regained strength by tossing 80-pound hay bales on a cattle ranch in Yoakum, Texas, owned by Hugh Benbow.

"It is a miracle that he is not in braces," his surgeon, Dr. Don Quast, said two years later.

After being released from the hospital, Williams was charged with driving while intoxicated and aggravated assault on a peace officer.

In May 1965, Williams was arrested after his wife called the police and said he threatened her and was waiting outside of her place of work with a pistol. Williams was charged with carrying a pistol.

On August 13, 1965, Williams pleaded no contest to the three charges against him—driving while intoxicated, aggravated assault on a peace officer and carrying a pistol. He was assessed concurrent 30-day sentences in jail and fined $50.

On February 8, 1966, Williams returned to the ring and knocked out Ben Black in the first round at Sam Houston Coliseum in Houston, Texas. He received a 10-minute ovation from his hometown fans that began when he walked down the aisle and didn't conclude until he appealed for quiet with a finger to his lips.

The Houston Post said it was "the greatest single ovation ever paid one man in Houston athletics."

On November 13, 1966—the day before Williams fought Muhammad Ali for the World Heavyweight Championship—Witten paid a visit to the challenger's hotel room, where Williams presented the officer with two ringside seats for the fight.

"Cleve, I wish you the best of luck," Witten said. "I hope you win."

"Thank you," Williams said, "and God bless you."


Cleveland Williams died on September 11, 1999. He was 66 years old.

Williams succumbed to injuries he had sustained on September 3 when he was struck by a car as he was crossing a street in Houston, Texas.

He was returning home from a dialysis session when he was fatally wounded. No charges were filed against the driver.

Williams, who lost his second kidney in 1988, went through four hours of dialysis three times a week. He also suffered from diabetes.

"It's a tragedy we had to lose him," said Irene Williams, his widow. "It's hard to take. The shooting couldn't take him. Diabetes. None of that took him out."

"He was a good man," said Reuben Williams, the only child of the retired boxer. "Loved people, loved children and loved to fish. And loved the sport of boxing."

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