Before the fight the heavyweight champion, Muhammad Ali, also known as Cassius Clay, had talked morosely of retirement, of trouble with his hands and his back, of weariness of soul and body and of a wish to dedicate himself hereafter to the Black Muslim ministry on a full-time basis. He had conceded that his challenger, Cleveland Williams, the Big Cat from Yoakum, Texas, was the "most dangerous opponent" he had ever faced, but he also had gone through the customary routine of poesy and defiance.
"I beat the Bear [Sonny Liston] and the Hare [Floyd Patterson]," he said, "and I'll beat the Pussycat [Williams]." But he also said, "I'm not announcing anything, but after Williams and [Ernie] Terrell I would like to retire with money in the bank."
It was this incessant theme of the possibility, even probability, of early retirement that made this heavyweight fight an occasion for tension. Few champions ever have talked so much, so earnestly, of their wish to retire.
And what happened, of course, was that the wily Muhammad, fighting in the magnificent confines of Houston's Astrodome before a crowd of 35,460—the largest ever to witness a prizefight indoors—was working his word magic once again, building up the fight, creating wild dreams of riches in his challenger's camp, and all the while planning to do as he always has done—to stay out of trouble at all times. He did it magnificently. In the third round Referee Harry Kessler stopped the fight. By that time Williams was clearly helpless. He had been down three times in the second round, had begun to spit blood in the third, was knocked down once more before even the first minute had passed, and then endured a dreadful barrage that had some of the crowd howling for the fight to be stopped, even though Williams is a favorite son of Texas. The end came at one minute and eight seconds of that third round. Not once during the seven minutes of fighting had Williams shown that he still could deliver the big punch that made him a threat to be avoided throughout his career.
Williams really never had much chance. Muhammad Ali, circling and snapping out his nuisance jab, is about as easy to hit as a wraith, and Williams' slow, plodding advance was exactly to Ali's liking. The champion flitted about the ring on what must be the fastest legs a heavyweight ever enjoyed and all the time his left hand was flicking out, peppering Williams' face, poking at his bullet-riddled belly. And, from time to time, Ali avoided a weak effort from Williams' left.
Picking the crowd's favorite in this fight was no problem. Williams was greeted with a roar of applause when he strode down the aisle in his black robe. Ali was received with a roar of boos, intermixed with a very few cheers that could scarcely be heard. The champion prayed, Muslim-style, before the bell, his head bowed and hands joined before him. Williams had done his praying in the dressing room.
There was good reason for Cleve Williams to pray. Two years ago he was shot through the abdomen with a .357 magnum bullet from a policeman's revolver and he survived only after four operations and highly skilled surgery. Tonight was, so to speak, his resurrection as a fighter. Alas, it seems also to have been the end as well.
"He died with his boots on," said Hugh Benbow, Williams' manager, after it was over, "and I'll never let him fight again."
Williams began in the first round with a few futile efforts to reach Ali with hooks and jabs, but they landed against a fading target. The first solid punch of the fight was the champion's right hand to the head, and thereafter he began to display his expertise with full confidence that nothing that Williams could deliver would damage him. He scored almost at will, with jabs, hooks and a four-punch combination. He circled the ring at a pace that Williams simply could not match.
That was the first round, and Williams was lucky to survive it. But it was the second that told the story. The round brought disaster to the Big Cat. A fully confident Ali began to show off a bit, his handsome face alight with the realization that he was the thorough master of the situation. Although he encountered a succession of Williams' jabs, and even a right uppercut, Ali was landing his lefts and rights with power.
Then, so suddenly that the crowd was stunned into a momentary silence, Williams went down from a left-right combination. He rose quickly and took a mandatory count of eight but resumed his fighting stance with a stunned look on his well-pummeled features. A thundering, withering barrage put him down again. But he came up, this time with blood streaming from his nose and mouth. He wasn't up long. Clay closed savagely, punching hard with well-set combinations. For the third time Williams crashed to the canvas. Before he could be counted out the bell rang.
The standard rule that declares it a KO if a fighter is knocked down three times within a round was waived for this championship fight. That is the only reason the match was permitted to continue into the third round, for there was not much point to it anymore. But the bell rang again and Williams and Ali rose from their stools to face each other once more.
For fleeting moments Williams had the crowd roaring encouragement. He came out of his corner on the attack, his hair awry, his fists flailing, only to find that he had no hope of reaching Ali. The champion met his onslaught with a right to the head, followed by a left and still another right. Ali repeated this combination with almost insolent ease, and then floored Williams with a hard left hook. The Cat arose with blood streaming from his mouth. Manfully and uselessly, he plodded once more into a forest of fists, one of which twisted him around so that his back was toward Ali. The champion bashed him with a left, a right, a left and then a right to his head, and, as Williams floundered about the ring, Referee Kessler stepped in and stopped it.
It was a sad night indeed for Williams' many followers in the Astrodome. They had seen him when he was as gallant as they knew him to be, but Monday night they saw him as a man who was no match at all for the brilliance of fist and foot that Champion Ali displayed. A Negro woman in a tight pink dress sobbed her way to the exits. "He went down fighting," she said. "I don't care what you say. He went down fighting." Her husband, carrying a pennant that proclaimed his allegiance to BIG CAT, flicked it disconsolately against her cheek. "Shut up," he said. "Shut up."
Williams recovered rather more quickly than some of his fans. He laughed, giggled and joked, not always relevantly, as he moved slowly toward his dressing room with a girl on each arm—his wife, Irene, and the wife of his trainer, Perry Payne.
"When he hit me with that right in the first round," he said, "I just didn't remember a thing." But then he thought about it some more and concluded: "Ah, he just shooken me up a little. He caught me before I could get started. I surprised myself. I dropped my left hand when I shouldn't have."
To Champion Ali, his weight was "the key" to the fight. At the noon weigh-in he stepped onto the scales at a surprising 212¾ pounds to Williams' 210½. Ali had weighed 202 pounds against Henry Cooper in London and 203 against Karl Mildenberger in Frankfurt, Germany.
"I wanted to be speedy," he claimed. "And also to be able to hit hard. And I did. But I could not keep it up. I was tired by the end of the fight.
"An ordinary fighter," he added as a characteristic afterthought, "would have been exhausted."
What was exhausted, really, was the number of fighters Ali can hope to meet with some prospect that any of them can make a match of it. His next opponent would appear to be Ernie Terrell, a musician who has been declared to be heavyweight champion of the world by the World Boxing Association. Terrell managed to get his jazz combo an engagement in Houston for the fight and he was in the audience with a hungry look. After the fight he made his way to Ali's dressing room and, at the request of a photographer, stepped close to the champion. Without warning, Ali jabbed him—not too playfully. An angry Terrell was grabbed in time to prevent an unprofitable ruckus. It did not appear to be the usual horseplay associated with the champion.
The attendance, in an arena that can hold 66,000 for prizefights, was somewhat less than had been anticipated, but by no means meager. It surpassed by far the 23,306 who saw Henry Armstrong knocked out by Fritzie Zivic at Madison Square Garden in 1941 when they fought for the world welterweight championship. Until this week that had been the alltime indoor attendance record.
The bout in Houston may have earned another distinction—that of being watched by more fans than any prizefight before. It was seen, either directly or on delayed tape, in 46 foreign countries and it was shown on closed-circuit television at 125 locations in the U.S.
What millions learned was that Champion Muhammad Ali really does carry a substantial punch, and what they did not learn was whether Cleveland Williams, who at 33 is soon to be forgotten, ever had a true chance. He was bewildered so immediately by Ali's attack—resembling a band of Indians circling a wagon train and shooting flaming arrows into it—that he never did settle down long enough to throw the big one.
He will never have the opportunity again.