Cleveland Williams (tied for 181)
Griffin, Georgia, USA
June 30, 1933 – September 11, 1999
6’3” / 80” reach / 190-236lbs
78-13-1-0(58) from 12/11/1951 to 10/28/1972 (20y10m)
2-8-1-0(1) against the top ten
0-3-0-0(0) against linear champions
0-3-0-0(0) against hall-of-famers
1 fight for the linear championship – 0-1-0-0(0)
Top ten opponents: W–TKO-5 Alex Miteff, W-UD-10 Billy Daniels, D-10 Eddie Machen, L-KO-3 Bob Satterfield, L-TKO-3, L-TKO-2 Sonny Liston, L-SD-10 Ernie Terrell, L-TKO-3 Muhammad Ali, L-TKO-8 Al Jones, L-TKO-5, L-KO-3 Mac Foster
-1.5 total score (2 + -6 + 0.5 + 2)
The Big Cat claimed to have originally turned pro at 14 and had four fights before being found out and banned from fighting for four years. My research has been unable to turn up evidence for those early professional fights. However, Cleveland Williams did turn pro officially at 18 – quite a young age for a natural heavyweight. Even at that age, he was powerfully built, routinely carrying over 200 pounds on a 6’3″ frame. Williams won his first 27 fights, 23 by knockout, but the opposition was woeful. 5 of his first 15 opponents were making their pro debut, and 13 of those first 27 opponents had losing records.
In September 1953, Williams was handed his first defeat, losing a four round decision to journeyman Sylvester Jones. He followed that loss up with four straight knockout wins, the last one being over Sylvester Jones. This led to his first shot at a contender, the explosive, yet fragile “Battlin'” Bob Satterfield. Williams could get little done against his more experienced opponent, and was dropped twice en route to a 3 round KO loss.
After the loss to Satterfield, Williams would be drafted into the Army, and was out of the ring for more than two years. He returned in August 1958, and reeled off five straight knockouts over marginal competition before stepping into the ring with his first tough matchup since Satterfield. John Holman had dropped out of contention a couple years prior, but was still a good fighter. Holman was giving Williams a good fight until a huge left uppercut-right cross combination knocked Holman off his feet and out of consciousness in the 7th round.
Williams kept winning, including a disqualification over Dick Richardson, before running into Sonny Liston in 1959. Liston was considered by many to be the heir apparent in the heavyweight division, and was biding his time until he got his shot at the champ. Liston would not be denied this night, and steamrolled The Big Cat, knocking him down twice in the 3rd, and winning by knockout in that round.
Two more wins led to another shot at Liston, this time in March of 1960. Unfortunately for Williams, Liston was deadlier in the rematch, and knocked Williams out in just two rounds. Williams was only 26 years old, however, and seemed to find another gear after the Liston fights.
Williams took 7 months off, then knocked out three straight opponents. He followed those up with a decision over the incredibly tough Wayne Bethea, a 5th round stoppage over his first legitimate top-ten contender, Alex Miteff, a 7th round KO of future contender Ernie Terrell, a draw against Eddie Machen, and a decision over top-ten contender Billy Daniels, with a smattering of wins over lesser opponents in between. After Liston, Williams would run up an 11-0-1(9), with two wins and a draw against the top ten. This streak would end with a close split decision loss against former victim Ernie Terrell.
The Terrell loss was his 62nd fight, and he was just three months shy of 30. He was still a solid top ten contender, and a force in the heavyweight division. Williams would win five more fights, including wins over Roger Rischer, Sonny Banks, and Billy Daniels.
However, on November 29, 1964, tragedy struck. Williams was pulled over by Dale Witten, a Texas state highway patrolman, on suspicion of drunk driving. Williams himself later stated he was sober, and 2 of his 3 passengers were sober at the time. He was placed in the front passenger seat, and had a meltdown as the police office drove away. He was worried about what the arrest might do to his career, and he attempted suicide by jumping out of the moving vehicle. He opened the door, and after that point, the accounts vary. Witten claimed that the much larger Williams drew back his fist to punch him, so he pulled his gun and fired. Williams claimed Witten drew first, and he punched in retaliation, and tried to grab the gun. Either way, Williams was shot in the abdomen, where the bullet tore through his intestines and lodged in his right hip.
Williams was in surgery for six hours, then had another four operations over the next seven months. He lost a piece of his intestines, as well as his right kidney. They did not remove the bullet from his hip, for fear of causing further nerve damage. He lost 60 pounds during his ordeal, and when he was finally discharged from the hospital, was charged with aggravated assault, driving while intoxicated, and illegal possession of a firearm (from a separate incident). He served two 30 day sentences, and paid 50 dollars.
Cleveland Williams returned to the ring in February 1966, 1 year and 3 months after being shot. He quickly returned to form, scoring four wins in four months. Those wins would provide Williams with a springboard back into contention. Then, the call finally happened.
In November 1966, now 33 years old, and veteran of 71 fights – Williams finally got his shot at greatness. He challenged World Heavyweight Champion Muhammad Ali at the Astrodome in Houston, Texas. The night before the fight, he was visited by Dale Witten, the police officer who shot him two years before. They made amends, and Williams provided Witten with two tickets to the fight.
Unfortunately for Williams, The Greatest tamed the Cat that night. Ali dominated the fight from the opening bell, knocking Williams around the ring, dropping him three times in the second round, and ending matters in a perfunctory 3rd. Williams was never able to get into the fight, and was wiped out with ease. Many consider that fight to be Ali’s greatest performance.
Williams would take another break, and return a year and a half later. He would win five straight over lesser competition, before taking a step up against Canadian contender Bob Cleroux. Williams was finding himself in decline, and would lose a decision. The decline would accelerate, with an easy win over a clubfighter, followed with three straight knockout losses – in 8 to Al Jones, then in 5 and 3 to rising star Mac Foster. Williams would rebound with three wins in late 69 and early 70 against journeymen, but lose badly stepping up against Alvin Blue Lewis.
1971 would bring a win and two decision losses – those to Jack O’Halloran and George Chuvalo. Williams would surprise in a mild upset against Terry Daniels for the Texas Heavyweight Championship. He would win twice more against more limited opponents in 1972, then retire for good after 20 years in the ring.
Life remained hard for Williams, but he persevered. He lost his other kidney in 1988 and required dialysis from then on. He would become diabetic as well, but would live until 1999, when he was hit by a car in Houston. Williams, above all else, endured.
Williams received quite a bit of recognition, making it into the International Boxing Hall of Fame’s predecessor, the World Boxing Hall of Fame (though IBHOF induction still eludes him). In 2003, The Ring Magazine rated Williams the 49th greatest puncher of all-time, as well as the 31st greatest heavyweight in 1998. In 1989, boxing historian Herb Goldman rated Williams as the 22nd greatest heavyweight of all time. I rate Williams significantly lower. Not because he wasn’t a very good – sometimes even great – fighter. But compared to the men above him, he lacked consistency. He had two wins and a draw against top ten opponents, and several more wins over other solid fighters. But he also lost eight times against the top ten – often by knockout.
Cleveland Williams was an extraordinarily determined man, a huge puncher, and very good fighter. He was exciting, explosive, and had excellent longevity during what was arguably the heavyweight division’s deepest era.