Careful with that Cleaver, Cleve

By Mike Casey on February 26, 2014
Careful with that Cleaver, Cleve
Cleveland Williams once pulled out of a fight in England after claiming to hear voices.

Big Cat was one of the most splendidly proportioned and hardest hitting heavyweight contenders of the fifties and sixties…

Wherever Cleveland (Big Cat) Williams went, some form of violence seemed to accompany him. This was perfectly logical to some degree, since Cleveland was one of the most splendidly proportioned and hardest hitting heavyweight contenders of the fifties and sixties. It is impossible to knock another man on his backside, as Williams frequently did, without being violent about it.

However, his private life – if ever it could be called that – was equally full of thunderous incident. For example, there was the domestic incident of the meat cleaver. Williams was always something of an eccentric and quite possibly something more. He once pulled out of a fight in England after claiming to hear voices that came to him through the air. Quite a few serial killers have had the same problem over the years.

But the voices were mild stuff compared to the meat cleaver. In July 1959, Cleveland got into quite an argument with his girlfriend and all his weight and muscle couldn’t quell her fighting spirit. So he started swinging at her with a meat cleaver and put her in the hospital with head and shoulder wounds.

His faithful girl refused to file charges and the meat cleaver went to the local police station in Houston for safe keeping. But curious Cleveland couldn’t let the matter rest. Taking a break from his roadwork, he called in at the station to ask if he could have the cleaver back. Thinking on his feet – with no great lateral movement – he explained that his girlfriend had rushed at him with the cleaver and that he had disarmed her and punished her with her own weapon. Well, one does, doesn’t one?

His girlfriend, Cleve explained to the patient policeman at the desk, was rather fond of the cleaver and wanted it back. The policeman, probably through tiredness and a sense of disbelief, gave Cleve the cleaver.

Peak

Cleveland Williams, it should be remembered, was a top flight heavyweight fighter in his prime, constantly rated among the world’s top ten, although never good enough to scale the world championship peak. Along with Zora Folley and Eddie Machen, Williams complemented a trio of perennial contenders who could never cross the line in the big matches that mattered.

Nevertheless, in a 20-year career that stretched from 1952 to 1972, Cleveland compiled an admirable record of 78 wins in 92 fights (58 knockouts) against 13 defeats and a draw. He posted wins over Amelio Agramonte, John Holman, Dick Richardson, Wayne Bethea, Alex Miteff, Ernie Terrell, Billy Daniels and Roger Rischer and fought a draw with Eddie Machen.

Yet Williams is probably best remembered for his valiant and violent losing efforts, notably his two titanic slugfests with Sonny Liston. What battles they were! Short and explosive and full of top quality feinting and punching. At Miami Beach in April 1959, Sonny stopped Cleveland in three rounds. Eleven months later in Houston, Liston got his man in the second. That was Liston at his very best and he should have got his title shot against Floyd Patterson a good two or three years before he did

Nine years later, in the fall of 1969 when Williams was over the hill and trying to recapture some of his old magic, he seemed to stumble into a time warp and revisit the Liston fights against another hungry contender in former Marine, Mac Foster. In September of that year, Mac stopped Cleve in the fifth round in Fresno. In November the two men locked horns in another thriller and Foster knocked out Williams in the third at Houston.

That third round of the return match was rated the fifth best round of the year by The Ring magazine and described as “…. a thrill-packed session which began with Williams rushing out of his corner and attacking with a crisp left hook at close range. A sharp right hand buckled Foster’s knees. It seemed as if the Big Cat had regained his old power and was showing young Foster how it ought to be done.

“But Mac fought back with a vengeance. They slugged it out with lefts and rights, with Williams seemingly having an edge in the furious exchange. Foster shot a vicious left hook to the Big Cat’s jaw which floored him. After Cleve arose, another hook sent him back to the canvas. A few moments later, Foster landed a tremendous left hook to Williams’ jaw, then crashed a right and it was all over. Williams fell heavily to the floor.”

Courage

Whatever his faults, however he might have behaved outside the ring, Cleveland Williams was undoubtedly a man of courage. He had to battle for his very life in 1964 and overcame formidable odds to win through. On the night of November 29th that year, Cleveland’s car was stopped by a highway patrolman near Houston. Williams was told he was speeding, but what happened next will never truly be known. Apparently Williams remonstrated with the patrolman, whose .357 Magnum went off in the ensuing struggle between the two men.

The powerful bullet traveled across Williams’ intestines and came to rest against his right hip. Over the next seven months he underwent four operations for damage to his colon and had his injured right kidney removed. The bullet had also broken his right hip and caused some paralysis in his muscles.

Cleveland’s magnificent physique of 220 lbs. shriveled as he lost 60 lbs. in weight. Yet Williams survived, even though his surgeon, Don Quast, said: “It is a miracle that he is not in braces.”

Williams gradually regained his weight and strength by working on the ranch of his manager, Hugh Benbow. When the Big Cat made his comeback to the ring on February 8, 1966, he received a 10-minute ovation from his hometown fans. It was described by the Houston Post as the greatest ovation ever paid to one man in Houston athletics.

It was a ‘Rocky’ moment and Williams had to get a shot at the world title. He did, but he probably shouldn’t have done. Three plodding wins over Mel Turnbow, Sonny Moore and Tod Herring were insufficient preparation for the lithe and athletic Muhammad Ali, who was nearing his peak as a thoroughbred world champion. On November 14,1966, at the Houston Astrodome in Texas, Ali was a deadly serious competitor who came to fight and fought with an almost ethereal beauty.

Even though Williams was no longer the fighter he used to be, Ali’s faultless performance that night is regarded by many as his most technically perfect. Fast, beautifully conditioned, moving and jinking all the time, he punched with tremendous authority and pinpoint accuracy as he glided in and out and pot-shotted the statuesque, stage-struck Big Cat virtually at will. Cleveland could barely lay a glove on Ali and was knocked down four times before the fight was stopped in the third round. The morbidly appealing spectacle was rightly described by many ringside reporters as a massacre. Yet it was also strangely beautiful, as balletic as it was ballistic.

Shellshocked and bleeding, Cleveland’s misery wasn’t yet complete. As he was questioned by reporters in mid-ring, the overhead microphone was lowered a little too fast and clunked him on his already sore noggin.

Outside the ring, Williams’ distraught wife, highly striking in a tight pink dress, sobbed tears and said, “He went down fighting. I don’t care what you say. He went down fighting.”

Now isn’t that sweet? Mrs. Williams was standing by her man in the grand tradition of the old Tammy Wynette song. Did Cleve give her a hug and a kiss and say, “Aw, thanks, honey.”? No such luck. “Shut up,” he told his missus, “shut up.”

We don’t know if Mrs. Williams was the girlfriend who allegedly owned the meat cleaver back in the aforementioned day. Nor do we know if she and her man had a bloody fight when they got home that night.


Mike Casey is a Boxing.com writer and Founder & Editor of ALL TIME BOXING at https://sites.google.com/site/alltimeboxingrankings. He is a freelance journalist and boxing historian and a member of the International Boxing Research Organization (IBRO).

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  1. Mike Casey 03:14am, 03/09/2014

    Thanks, Tex - best wishes!

  2. Tex Hassler 04:46pm, 03/08/2014

    Williams was possibly the hardest puncher of all times and that is not stretching the truth too far. William probably would have beat Floyd Patterson or Ingo just as easily as Liston beat Patterson. I did see Williams fight Mac Foster. Williams was far from his prime when he met Ali. The Williams - Liston fights are two of the greatest heavyweight fights ever in my humble opinion. Both men were in their prime when they met. Great article Mr. Casey.

  3. Mike Casey 05:45am, 03/01/2014

    Thanks, NYIrish - nice story!

  4. NYIrish 05:41am, 03/01/2014

    I saw Cleve in front of a beerjoint on Dowling St. in Houston Texas in 1981. He was wearing dark cowboy boots, jeans, a black pocket teeshirt and a tan cowboy hat. I had the Captain stop the rig, jumped off and asked “Cleve, what round is it?” and threw a jab in the air. His face lit up in a snaggle toothed grin and our right hands joined in a smack of a hand shake. The Houston boxing legend and the young fireman talked a little boxing. His shoulders were a yard wide and long arms tapered down to ham like hands. I think we both were having a good day.

  5. Mike Casey 12:13am, 03/01/2014

    He was never better than he was then, George. His two fights with Williams were tremendous.

  6. George Thomas Clark 03:16pm, 02/28/2014

    Sonny looks so much quicker and better in 1959-60 than he did five years later.

  7. Mike Silver 10:12pm, 02/27/2014

    Ah! “The Big Cat”!  What a monstrously impressive physique! And no steroids! But after 1964 the poor guy was fighting with one kidney and an arthritic hip courtesy of the cop’s .357 slug. Would Cleve have been allowed to fight today?  Ali would have beaten him at any time with his speed and mobility but the fighter he humiliated in 1966 was definitely not the Cleveland Williams of the 1959 and 1960 Liston fights!

  8. Eric 01:53pm, 02/27/2014

    You have to think that Cleveland Williams would’ve had a shot at beating a Floyd Patterson or Ingemar Johansson. Cleveland had an impressive upper body, and this was long before fighters were ever encouraged to lift weights. Like a lot of big bangers, Cleveland’s chin wasn’t equal to his punch.

  9. Ted 02:21pm, 02/26/2014

    Referee West in the Hering fight made a great call even back then.

  10. Mike Casey 09:05am, 02/26/2014

    Yes, Irish, I do miss Jerry! Thanks, Ted.

  11. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo aka Gimpel 09:02am, 02/26/2014

    Mike Casey-Great article about Williams who was Bob Satterfield on steroids….he not only could hit a ton but was world class chinny and bat shit crazy into the bargain….I always wished that Jerry Quarry would have had the chance to shatter that china…..and you could’ve bet the farm and your ass as well that Jerry would’ve done the deed….God rest his soul..

  12. Ted 08:55am, 02/26/2014

    He had more luck with bullets than cars. And with Rapid Robert Satterfield who caught him in the first round. He may have caught Ali at his (Ali’s) peak.

    Great read here. Simply great for those of us who lived through this great era of bombers.

  13. Mike Casey 07:08am, 02/26/2014

    He was indeed, Clarence - in 1999. He died from his injuries in hospital.

  14. Clarence George 06:13am, 02/26/2014

    You think you’re so special, don’t you, Mike?  Not without reason—another in an infuriatingly interminable line of excellent articles.  I particularly enjoyed the part where a tightly pink-dressed Mrs. Big Cat receives a “Shut up” for her pains.  But surely Williams said, “Shaddup”?  Oh, and “as balletic as it was ballistic” is now mine, and I’ll sue anyone who uses it.  I love alliterations.

    Williams didn’t have much luck with cars, did he?  Wasn’t he hit and killed by one?

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