Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams was one of three gifted heavyweights from the 50’s and 60’s. Williams, Eddie Machen and Zora Folley were a trio of hard luck boxers who met tragic deaths after a career of frustration. Machen who lost a decision to Ernie Terrell in a 1965 W.B.A. title bout may or may not have committed suicide. Folley who was stopped in seven by Muhammad Ali in 1967 died of injuries suffered in a poolside accident.
Machen and Folley passed on several years ago. Williams lived to be 66 before being struck down by a moving vehicle. All three finally received their title shots long after their prime. One wonders how they would have made out if they got their chance five years earlier against Floyd Patterson. To Floyd’s credit he did win a twelve round decision over Machen in 1964, two years after he lost his crown to Sonny Liston.
Williams began his career in 1951 and won his first 27 fights, 23 by knockout. In 1954, he suffered a knockout loss to Bob Satterfield. Cleveland did not box in 1955 because he was in the Army. When he resumed his career he ran off 12 straight wins leading him to a match with the feared Sonny Liston. The two traded bombs until Sonny put over the sleeper in round two. Eleven months later they met again in another war with Sonny winning in round three.
In Cleveland’s next 22 fights he went 20-1-1 with 13 kayos. He lost a decision to Terrell and he drew with Machen. He scored victories over Terrell, Wayne Bethea, Alex Miteff, Billy Daniels, and Tod Herring. This led to a title bout with Muhammad Ali in November of 1966. In 1965, Williams was badly injured when he was shot by a patrolman during a traffic stop argument. The bullet entered his stomach doing severe damage. That he was even able to fight again, is a testimony to his will and courage. The Williams that entered the ring against Ali was just a shell of his former self. In what many feel was Ali’s best career performance, the champion dominated his aging rival. The bout was mercifully stopped in the third round. Cleveland would never again be a major factor in the division. He lost to Bob Cleroux and and Mac Foster and served as an opponent for upcoming fighters looking for a name on their record.
I had the opportunity to see Williams box a decent heavy weight named Ted Gullick at the old Cleveland Arena. Gullick would meet George Foreman, Earnie Shavers, and Duane Bobick during his career, but he was no match for Williams this night. Using a ram rod jab and a solid body attack, Cleveland outboxed his upstart foe to win a ten rounder. The consummate professional at work. That is how I’ll remember Cleveland Williams.