Cleveland Williams, who used to be a fighter, finally got paid this week for the beating he took from Muhammad Ali in the Houston Astrodome on Nov. 14. After taxes and debts have been deducted, Williams' share of the live gate—$7,471—was to be placed in his swollen left hand on Tuesday. That may not sound like such a grand sum for a man to earn in a championship fight, but Williams is happy with it. A week ago all he had was $16.73 and a gasoline credit card that his manager, Hugh Benbow, had warned him not to use.
Boxing is a sport that is noted for abusing and breaking its heroes. For a while the Williams case seemed to be turning into another depressing example. After the fight, Williams was confused and depressed. He had been told shortly before he went into the ring that his benefactor and former co-manager, Houston millionaire Bud Adams, had filed a legal action to hold up Williams' share of the live gate. Williams was under the misapprehension that Adams was trying to take away his money, and that baffled him. Then Williams put on a curiously feeble performance, fighting as if his elbows were pinned to his sides. After he had been knocked down four times and the fight had been stopped in the third round, the first voice he became aware of was that of Benbow.
"I could hear him yelling, 'Why don't you fight, you yellow bastard?' " says Williams. "Oh my, he cursed me and called me terrible names. Later we couldn't find Bimbo anywhere. If I had won, you would have seen Bimbo everyplace. But since I lost, he wouldn't come to the press conference. He said he was embarrassed. I asked him for money, and he gave me $40 and a gasoline credit card. The next day he said if I used that credit card I'd be in trouble."
"What Cleve should have done," says his wife Irene, "is right after they stopped the fight he should have walked over and punched Bimbo on the nose. That way, at least the people who saw it would have got their money's worth. They'd have had something to remember."
December 5, 1966
Although it has been reported that Adams' garnishment papers were served on Williams at the weigh-in, and that supposedly accounted for the distracted and sluggish behavior of Williams in the ring, the fighter says he did not see any papers. It was Benbow, he says, who told him of the action.
"I couldn't understand what he was talking about," says Williams. "Then we got up to go to the ring and Bimbo tells me to slow down, not to get into no hurry. My style is to dance and jump around all the way into the ring and to jump around until the fight starts, to get myself going. Bimbo made me walk real slow and then just stand there. I asked why and he said he didn't want me to get tired. Just before the fight started, a friend of mine hollered up from ringside and asked me why I wasn't sweating. I hadn't even warmed up."
"'That is the first time I ever saw Cleve go into a ring like he was a zombie," Irene says. "He acted like he was walking behind a coffin. He didn't look like Cleve Williams to me."
If legal and financial problems were on Williams' mind, he was bothered by an injured left hand, too. The fight, in fact, came close to not happening.
"I was working down there at Bimbo's ranch [in Yoakum, Texas]," says Williams. "I had sprained my left thumb, and the first knuckle on my left hand was so swollen and sore that I could barely stand to hit the bag. But Bimbo made me work six or eight hard rounds every day. He was getting 50¢ a head from people who came to see me. Bimbo would stand at the side of the ring and make speeches, telling everybody I was a Cherokee. I had to laugh at that, but I was hurting. One time he turned to Irene and asked what tribe she was from. Irene said she was 100% Negro. Bimbo says, 'Well, I don't know what tribe she's from, folks, but she's some kind of Indian herself.' He gets a lot of that from all those western novels he reads.
"Anyhow, my hand was bothering me real bad and Bimbo wouldn't let me leave the ranch until it began to swell up. Two weeks before the fight we all went to the doctor [James R. Whitehurst, who used to work for Adams' football team, the Houston Oilers], and he drained the fluid off my knuckle and gave me a shot. He said if I'd waited two more days, I couldn't have used my left hand at all. It still hurt me during the fight."
If he had been at his very fittest, Williams would scarcely have had a chance against the younger, faster champion. The idea of Williams being in a championship bout at all—fighting with one kidney and with a policeman's bullet still in his hipbone—is, on reflection, bizarre. But the Williams story has been a strange one since January 1963, when Benbow and Adams formed A&B Boxing Enterprises Inc. and bought Williams' contract from Lou Viscusi.
Benbow, a nonpareil talker, had convinced Adams that boxing should have a revival and that Cleveland Williams should be world champion. Adams paid for Williams' contract and gave Benbow half of it. He spent about $43,000 to remodel the upper half of a building in Houston as a gym and paid Benbow $1,000 per month and Williams' living expenses.
"From January 1963 through January 1966 I spent about $200,000 on this boxing project," says Adams. "I advanced Cleve $50,000 for living and medical expenses, a house, several cars that he wrecked, things like that."
Then in November 1964 Williams was shot in the stomach by a Texas policeman in a now-famous incident. Williams died three times on the operating table. A doctor phoned Adams, who moved Williams from a charity hospital to Methodist Hospital and sent for specialists, although Adams had been told Williams probably could never fight again and the investment was a loss. "Cleve wouldn't be alive today if it wasn't for Bud Adams," says Irene. "Every night I thank heaven for that man."
In the hospital Williams had lost some 50 pounds. 'The doctors told me if Williams ever fought again, he could be killed. All it would take was damage to that one kidney," Adams says. "Benbow wanted Cleve to get back in shape, but I didn't want to participate in that because I didn't want Cleve to die. But Cleve wanted to fight, and I turned the deal over to Benbow. All I kept was one-third of the manager's share of any future championship purse. Cleve and Benbow had the rest."
Williams went to Benbow's ranch, where the fighter lived in a tent and worked as a field hand for his meals. Eventually, after Williams complained, he says Benbow began paying him $1 per hour. Other fighters were arriving in answer to a magazine advertisement, but Williams claims they did not stay.
"Soon as they found out they had to bale hay and dig postholes for $40 a week, they walked off," says Williams. "I escaped the ranch three times, but Uncle Lou [Viscusi] talked me into going back and working for my one big shot at the championship. Bimbo tried to break up me and Irene. He said he couldn't see why I preferred her to him. He said she was making trouble, always wanting to know where my money was."
"After we got a house in Yoakum, Bimbo used to come see us at 4 o'clock in the morning, anytime he pleased," Irene says. "You could hear his car coming for a mile, he drives so fast. He'd just walk right in and say, 'Irene, what you up to?' He'd tell us how he'd been shot six times and was really mean. He'd make Cleve go riding with him in the middle of the night. Once he came over while our new friends were giving us a welcoming party, and he yelled, 'Cleve, I want you to keep away from all these lousy no-goods.' I finally cured him of coming to see us. I went to his house at 5:30 one morning and yelled, 'Mr. Bimbo, what you up to?' He never came back again except at a decent hour."
Williams, meanwhile, was winning four fights and moving toward his championship match. The purses for those fights amounted to $24,000. "I didn't get much money," Williams claims, although he admits Benbow did give him "a little something" now and then. "The rest of the money, he said I owed it to him," says Williams. "He said he was going to take care of me, but all he ever did was run off at the mouth."
"I've got two good things to say about Bimbo," Irene says. "He outtalked Cassius Clay and he promoted a good gate. Other than that, he hurt Cleve more than Clay did, and Clay busted his lip."
Adams, who was still manager of record on the contract filed with the Texas Boxing Commission, reentered the scene when the championship fight was announced. An Adams executive, John Collins, went to Benbow's lawyer to check the original contract. "But what interested me," said Collins, "was that besides the original there was a new agreement in there that I'd never seen before. Suddenly I got scared that Williams might not get what was supposed to come to him from this fight."
Collins discussed the situation with Adams, who filed to tie up the Williams-Benbow-Adams share of the live gate until the principals could agree on exactly where the money was going. They did that last week.
"My share of the live gate is only $2,316, and Benbow gets $4,632, plus $37,500 in expenses," says Adams. "It would have been pretty silly for me to cause this much trouble for that small a sum, except that I wanted to be certain in my own mind that Cleve was getting all he had coming."
Adams, however, had a dual purpose. He had $37,000 coming to him—$20,000 he says Williams owes for living expenses and $17,000 in medical bills. Williams, whose half of the live gate came to $44,449, will pay Adams $20,000 now and $6,500 owed to Benbow. Taxes will take $8,818, and the fight promoter $1,660. He will get more than his $7,471—and will pay Adams more—when the ancillary money is counted. With the money he got this week, Williams is making a down payment on a house. "He will never fight again," says Irene. "He may dig ditches, or maybe get a job sweeping out a building, but we are going to have a nice home and Cleve isn't going into that ring anymore."
Williams adds: "Mr. Adams and my wife are the cause we have what we have right now. I swear that on a stack of Bibles. Thank God Mr. Adams didn't turn me loose."