For a long time now, ever since he won the world heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston in one of prizefighting's stranger battles—with both fighters trying to quit and only Liston succeeding—followers of boxing have been hoping to see Muhammad Ali, the former Cassius Clay, truly tested. The test would now seem to be in the offing. This Monday in Houston's huge Astrodome the largest crowd ever to attend a fight indoors will see Ali pitted against Cleveland Williams, the Big Cat from Yoakum, Texas. Williams is rightly considered to be the strongest puncher around. Everyone knows that Ali's speed of foot is sensational, that his reflexes are superb and that his punching is at least respectable, but no one yet knows whether he can take a punch well. Certainly he never has gone about the ring looking to be hit. The hardest blow to the head he ever has suffered was Henry Cooper's left hook in their first fight, and that put Ali down hard. He came back, however, to win by a knockout.
Cooper's lonesome hook is not to be compared in power to any blow that Cleveland Williams throws with either hand. For this reason alone, when Williams challenged Ali there were murmurs of dissent in Muhammad's tent. No one in his right mind ever really wants to fight Williams. ("He doesn't jab you," says Pinkie George, an oldtimer in prizefighting. "He two-by-fours you.") He has, nevertheless, found 71 opponents, and 51 of them, including Ernie Terrell, the World Boxing Association's pretender to the heavyweight throne, have been knocked out. That is a fearsome record, and owners of champions almost always have been reluctant to put their men in the same ring with such punchers.
But then, as the gleeful tale is told around Yoakum, Lou Viscusi—who once owned Williams' contract and has at least some minimal interest in this fight—played a typical Viscusi trump. During negotiations for the fight, he brought out a photograph of Williams taken not long after he had been shot through the belly by a Texas policeman. It showed an emaciated man of 158 pounds, looking rather more like a starved alley cat than the Big Cat.
"Is it true," asked Chris Dundee, chief negotiator for the Clay forces, "that one of his legs is thinner than the other?"
It was true at the time, and Viscusi nodded. ("Viscusi could talk the eyes out of a bullfrog," says Hugh Benbow, who bought Williams' contract from Viscusi and whose version of the title-fight bargaining is being presented here. It has been said of Benbow that he will not tell a little Texas whopper when a big one will do. Well, as he says, "You have to have a pitch." On this principle, Benbow has risen from rural poverty to wealth, both as an independent oil operator and rancher.)
Despite the evidence of the photograph, no one in Muhammad Ali's camp wanted the fight. It was the champion himself who cast the deciding ballot.
"I want to fight him," he said. "If I don't I won't be able to say that I'm the champ. If I lose to him I'll quit the ring."
The strategy of the Williams camp in seeking the fight was based on an incident that occurred on a lonely Texas road one night just two years ago. A state highway patrolman caught Williams speeding and arrested him. Other details are confused in a welter of contradictory declarations. Anyway, the officer ordered Williams into the patrol car and set out in the direction of Houston. Williams went along quite willingly because, as he said at the time, his manager would bail him out in Houston. No sooner had he said it, the Williams story runs, than the officer turned the car toward Tomball, a town where Negroes are not especially favored. Williams opened the door of the slowly moving police car and started out. "Man, I don't want to go to Tomball," he said. The patrolman seized him by the wrist and Williams dragged him out of the car (the story goes). The officer drew his .357 magnum pistol, favored by Texas policemen because it is just about the most feared and effective handgun there is. Williams says he seized the weapon to deflect its aim from his body. The gun went off as it was pointing toward his left hip and slightly downward. The bullet plowed crosswise through his intestines and lodged against the right hip, where it remains even now. Williams collapsed on the ground, and eventually lost consciousness. He awoke with the impression that someone was "kicking and stomping" him. He lost consciousness once more.
He awoke again, in Houston's Ben Taub General Hospital, and there had the good luck to have an old friend, Dr. Don C. Quast, a surgeon, watch over him. Then began a series of four operations lasting seven months that Dr. Quast now looks back on in wonder. The bullet had done massive damage. In such cases body tissue that looks healthy to the surgeon's eye often deteriorates unpredictably after the wound is closed. Then there must be a new operation. In addition to the colon damage, Williams suffered a wounded right kidney and this was removed on June 22, 1965. That was the last of the operations, for it was decided that he had been through quite enough and the bullet might as well remain inside him. It had broken his right hip joint and had caused partial paralysis of some hip muscles. "It is a miracle," Dr. Quast says now, "that he is not in braces."
One of the factors that may have been responsible for saving his life, the doctor said, is that Williams' abdominal wall "is two to three times thicker than that of a normal person" and this had the effect of slowing the bullet.
"He almost died," Dr. Quast said. "His kidneys stopped working, and the products they take care of are very toxic."
In the end, though, the doctor advised Manager Benbow that Williams would be ready to start light training in 90 days. He began limbering up, in fact, in 60 days, displaying recuperative powers that astonished all hands.
"He is in better shape now than ever," Dr. Quast said. "We have been friends for years and he had his victories come too easily. He felt, therefore, that he didn't have to prepare for them. But for this fight, with so much at stake, he realized that he had to get out and work.
"The scar from the operation will never bother him. He is as strong there as in any other part of his body."
"God gave me this gift," Williams said softly one afternoon at Benbow's ranch, closing his massive left fist (he wears a size 13 glove) and regarding it in wonder. "It's got to be that God wanted me to fight and He wants me to fight again. I died three times on that operating table. If He didn't want me to fight He'd have let me stay dead, because fighting's the only thing I know."
The shooting shocked Houston, where Williams' mannerly ways are favored. On his return to the ring last February, against Ben Black, he was given a 10-minute ovation that began when he walked down the aisle and did not end until he appealed to the crowd by raising a finger to his lips. It was, wrote John Hollis of The Houston Post, "the greatest single ovation ever paid one man in Houston athletics." Then he knocked out Black in the first round.
Williams started boxing professionally in Georgia when he was 14.
"I got away with it," he explained, "because I weighed 182 pounds then and looked old enough. 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."
Reading The Ring magazine, he decided that Lou Viscusi was "a very smart manager"—which is a shrewd estimate of the situation—and made his way to Tampa, where Viscusi was then operating. He telephoned Viscusi's home, but the manager was out and Mrs. Viscusi answered. "I'm Mr. Viscusi's new fighter," he introduced himself, and Mrs. Viscusi found him a room. The manager turned him over to Trainer Bill Gore, and Williams' career-of-record began. That was in December 1951 and by the end of 1952 he had won all his 21 bouts, 20 of them by knockouts.
Where did he develop this extraordinary punching ability?
"I went to work in a pulpwood mill when I was 13," he said. "We used to have some fights, and I developed a hook of my own. I called it my pulpwood punch. It's in between a hook and an uppercut. Now I've got my boat punch. That's a short right."
The boat punch is so named because Benbow owns a 17-foot boat with a 100-hp motor, and Williams covets it.
"I paid $4,200 for it," the manager told him. "Knock out Clay and it's yours." When Benbow obtained Williams' contract he decided to sharpen his charge's punching and footwork. That is hard to do for a fighter who is now 33 and has been boxing for 19 years. Whether the effect has been successful remains to be seen, but Benbow most certainly knows a thing or two about boxing. As a young man he hoboed his way to New York to take a prelaw course at Columbia University (he later shifted to the School of Business) and helped pay his way by coaching the College of the City of New York boxing team. He attracted the attention of the great Benny Leonard, who schooled him in the basics of the art.
"All Williams had when I took him over," says Benbow, "was a left hook, and he got by on that. He had no jab and no right. So I had him jab at the heavy bag for hours at a time."
As befits a man who has made and lost fortunes, Benbow regards himself as a manipulator of events. He is especially proud of the way the Ali camp was maneuvered into taking the fight.
"You should have seen Clay when he came to Houston to sign for the fight on television," Benbow said. "He looked at Williams and he turned ash white. He was depressed. He held his head down for two hours. He knew he'd been tricked. He looked like he'd just been told he was going in the Army.
"And not only that, but I won hands down in the talking contest. I can out-talk Clay anytime."
He probably can. Benbow is a flashy figure in a field which seldom is drab. Currently under indictment for walking off with oil-well maps that did not belong to him, he is also being sued by Shell Oil Co., for the same reason, for $400,000. His style of dress ranges from cowboy boots and khaki pants to sharp blue suit and alligator shoes. Whenever he drives, a .38 revolver is on the seat beside him and if he should forget it his Mexican daughter-in-law chases him out to the car calling, "Haven't you forgotten something?"
"I've been shot six times," Benbow explains, displaying a couple of scars on his left arm.
He has set up a huge boxing gymnasium on a section of his ranch and is building a dormitory and cafeteria to house and feed two score heavyweights, or maybe 50, he wants to train. They will work in a shop where he plans to turn out "the finest television and radio cabinets in the world."
"It'll be a cooperative deal," he said. "They'll work in the cabinet shop, and after hours I'll teach them to box. They'll make a good living, learn a trade, eat the finest foods money can buy and have the best boxing instruction they can get anywhere. I've advertised for these boys in The Ring and I've had applications from all over the world. There's a fella from Tonga in the South Seas, others from the Ivory Coast, Great Britain, Germany, Alaska, Japan and China.
"I've had 50,000 applications from those ads." Which must make The Ring, circulation 123,000, the greatest advertising medium ever devised, or Benbow the greatest copywriter.
Both Benbow and Williams will share a remarkable income from the fight. They are to get 20% of the live gate gross in the Astrodome, which can seat 66,000 for boxing. A full house would bring in $1.25 million, but Promoter Earl Gilliam's most optimistic prediction, at a $50 price for ringside seats, is a crowd of 50,000. In addition, Williams and Ben-bow's share of radio rights movie rights, national closed-circuit television and international television broadcast by Tel-star will be 14%. It should add up to a respectable sum.
"Naturally," Benbow said, "taxes will take most of it, and I've pointed this out to Williams so he won't just relax. If he wants to be rich he has to own the title. He understands that."
The Williams-Benbow fight plan has been tried before against the elusive Ali. It is called "cutting the ring" and means that an effort will be made to force the champion away from the center of the ring and against the ropes or into a corner. As a matter of fact, this is the only tactic Williams knows. He always advances on an opponent, almost never retreats. One of his sparring partners has been the very evasive Ben Black, who does a remarkable, if clownish, imitation of Ali's style, and Williams has not been too effective against him. But it is unfair to judge a fighter on his performance in training, as Ingemar Johansson once explained to Floyd Patterson with a straight right hand.
"If he runs," says Williams, "it's going to be a long one. If he fights, then I'm going to knock him out."
He may be right. In 15 rounds Williams must surely find one clear shot at Ali's jaw. The prefight odds ranged as high as 5 to 1 in the champion's favor. On Williams' record that must be considered an overlay, especially in view of the fact that Ali never has shown a talent or taste for the game of infighting. Williams, who is correctly the underdog, would nevertheless seem to be likelier to succeed than any of Ali's previous opponents.